“We docked in England after crossing the channel. The children waited to be processed by some pleasant English ladies sitting around a table. We were given our documents, and I was told I could go. I walked out of that room and I remember thinking: ‘What does that mean, to go? Go where? What am I supposed to do with no grown-ups to tell me?’ I remember walking down the gangplank totally alone to the wharf below and there was nobody I knew, so I sat down and cried.”
This is how Lore Segal, 90, remembers her arrival in Harwich, Essex, in 1938 aged 10, where she docked after travelling on the first Kindertransport from Nazi-controlled Vienna. She clearly remembers that when she arrived she felt utterly alone.
And yet, remembering is not always reality. “In the course of making a documentary Into the Arms of Strangers in 2000,” Lore explains, “a picture turned up of a crowd of children going down the gangplank, including a child with the number 152 around her neck. And that’s me.”
Now a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of five novels, including her 1964 debut Other People’s Houses which explores her Kindertransport experience, Lore lives in New York City. The difference between remembered experience and what actually happened is a pivotal question in her writing.
“It’s why I wrote a novel about my experience,” she explains. “If I were a historian or a journalist, I would depend on the truth of what actually happened. As a novelist I depend on what I remember and what happened to me.”
“But who is to say what is real?” asks Lore. “Is the reality what is documented in the photograph, or is the reality what I remember, what I experienced?”
Rising anti-Semitism and violence
As soon as Hitler and his Nazi party came into power in Germany in 1933, life for many Jewish people in the country became unbearable. The passing of anti-Semitic laws meant that Jewish people were increasingly discriminated against: they were forced out of their jobs, businesses and homes, as well as barred from certain public spaces and later stripped of citizenship. Large numbers of people soon left if they had the means, or otherwise placed their names on emigration lists to countries including the USA and Britain. Between 1933 and 1938, around 150,000 German Jews emigrated.
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When Austria was annexed by Germany in March 1938, Lore’s family in Vienna sought to join the many who fled persecution. “It seemed to me that the grown-ups spoke about nothing except how to get out of Austria,” explains Lore, “for which you needed an exit permit, a visa to another country; you needed a job at the other end. As a child I understood that all of these things were hard to get hold of and it seemed an impossibility.”
Even at 10 years old, Lore says, she was aware of the situation. “I don’t mean to say that I was aware of the politics. But I certainly understood that suddenly – in a world that had seemed friendly enough, and where the neighbours were people that you would say hello and wave to – that these people were now our enemies. I understood that we were being expelled from our apartment. We went to stay with our grandparents in their house in Fischamend, which was expropriated before the month was out, and we had to come back to Vienna and find friends or relatives to live with.”
By mid-1938 the emigration processes had slowed so much, due to the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees, that US president Franklin D Roosevelt called a conference to deal with the “refugee problem”. Between 6-15 July 1938, world leaders met in the French town of Évian. However, despite representatives from 32 countries attending, little was decided and no governments made any firm commitment to accept refugees.
It wasn’t until the brutality and devastation of Kristallnacht – the ‘Night of the Broken Glass’– that the British government was spurred to offer aid. On the night of 9/10 November 1938, Nazi state forces attacked Jewish-owned businesses and homes, ostensibly in retaliation forthe assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jewish man in Paris. Over the course of two days, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned down and at least 91people were killed. Around 30,000 men were sent to concentration camps. This government-sanctioned pogrom marked the darkest turn yet in the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Jewish people.
The events became a key catalyst for the evacuations and the British government entered into talks with a number of groups working on behalf of refugees. By late November, British Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare announced that temporary travel documents would be issued to children ranging from infants to teenagers under the age of 17, with a condition they were not accompanied by adult family members. On 25 November, the BBC Home Service broadcast an appeal for volunteer foster homes.
The first transport left Berlin on 2 December 1938 and soon there were transports on a weekly basis from across Nazi-controlled Europe, with groups of children arriving to Britain by boat and train. The operations were coordinated by charities such as the British Red Cross and through individuals such as Sir Nicholas Winton – dubbed ‘the British Schindler’ – and Wilfrid Israel. They ran until September 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland.
Refugee life in Britain
Following Kristallnacht, Lore’s parents decided that their daughter’s safety depended on getting her out of Austria and onto the Kindertransport.
“The night before my parents took me to the train station in Vienna,” Lore explains, “my father stood me between his knees and said, ‘Now when you get to England you have to talk to the English people and get a visa for Mutti and me’. I nodded my head up and down and said, ‘Oh yes that’s what I’m going to do.’”
The 10-year-old had taken her father’s parting instruction to heart and took it upon herself to secure a visa for her family.
“As soon as I got to the camp, Dovercourt Camp where we were kept while they looked for foster homes for us, I wrote letters to my uncle and cousins who were already in England,” she says, remembering times when she felt guilt for not applying herself to the task. “If I was playing or laughing, I would think to myself that this should be a moment where I ought to talk to somebody and try to get my parents out.”
Remarkably, Lore’s letters made it to Bloomsbury House, the clearing house for refugee matters. “I’m 90 now, and looking back 80 years I wonder what happened to those letters. It’s always been my persuasion that it was these letters that caused someone to secure my parents a work permit and a visa, because certainly they appeared on my 11th birthday in Liverpool, where I was staying with my first foster parents, the Cohens.”
After their arrival, Lore’s parents went to their employment as a cook and butler in the same house in Sevenoaks, and eventually Lore was moved to live with a family in Tunbridge to be nearer to them.
Lore’s experience was sadly not the norm: the majority of children on the Kindertransport never saw their parents again. By the end of the war many were orphans, with millions across Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe killed in the horrors of the Holocaust.
The experiences of the children on the Kindertransport were varied. When they arrived, they were often tired and disoriented, and hardly any of them spoke English. While many remember positive experiences of the volunteer homes and families with which they were placed, some were taken in with the expectation that they would be an extra pair of hands for chores and work, while others experienced maltreatment at the hands of their foster carers.
For Lore, it was an experience that gave her unique insight for her future work. “It’s odd to speak about this refugee experience as if it had any silver lining, but from a writer’s point of view, it seems to me that it was immensely interesting.
“My first family were the Cohens in Liverpool, an older, middle-class Orthodox Jewish couple with six grown daughters,” Lore says. “In Kent, I lived with a family called the Gilhams; he was a stoker on the railroad, a union man, and they were socialists. I think it’s extraordinary what these many different families did, and I had the experience of moving through the class system in England.”
When war came, the situation changed again for many refugees; the British government took the decision to intern German-speaking male aliens over the age of 16 including 1,000 teenagers who had arrived as part of the Kindertransport, to prevent any collaboration with the Nazis. Lore’s father and uncle were also interned.
“They were interned on the Isle of Man,” she explains, “though during this time my father had the first of his small strokes so they let him out. He came to join my mother and me in Guildford and worked as a gardener for a while. My father, who was already a sick man, had been chief accountant in a Vienna bank until he was fired after Hitler came to power. Now, he took care of the chickens and the garden.”
Lore’s father had put the family’s names forward for the American emigration quota in August 1938. Thirteen years later, their number came up – by which time, her father, grandfather and aunt had died. After three years living in the Dominican Republic, Lore, her mother, uncle and grandmother (who was on the Hungarian quota) arrived in New York in 1951.
It wasn’t until many years later when Lore was living in New York and studying creative writing that she realised her “Hitler stories” gave her a unique point of view as a writer – though she had already began to appreciate the differences of her childhood experience while living with the Cohens. “It came to me that the questions [the Cohen family] were asking me showed that they didn’t understand what it was like to live under Hitler, to be Jews in Vienna where you felt constant terror that somebody would walk in and take your family and you would never see them again.”
Living in 1950s New York, “I was under the impression that everybody already knew these stories,” says Lore, “that there was nothing I knew that other people didn’t know. So what was I going to write about? I hadn’t been in love, I hadn’t died, and I thought that everybody knew all these stories. I took classes in creative writing and one day I went to a party with my fellow students. Somebody asked me how I had come to America. So I began to tell the stories and I had the delicious experience of talking and everybody was listening. So I began to write. And six years later, I had a book.”
Lore Segal was speaking to Elinor Evans. Her novel Other People’s Houses has been reissued for the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, with a new preface. She is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and the New Republic.
This article was first published on History Extra in July 2018