A guest post by the Ellesmere Sculpture Initiative
Introduction: Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is a truly remarkable woman, an entrepreneur, billionaire, feminist, philanthropist and campaigner. She was also a 5 year-old child refugee who, with her 9 year-old sister Renate, escaped from Nazi Europe in 1939 on one of the kindertransport trains which rescued 10,000 unaccompanied children.
The text below is an excerpt from a moving account of her experience as a child refugee that she was due to give at the ‘Children Displaced by Conflict’ Seminar in Ellesmere, Shropshire, on April 1st 2020, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Ellesmere is close to Oswestry where she received her secondary education, so this was to be a significant return for Dame Stephanie evoking childhood memories.
The Seminar, which was unfortunately cancelled because of Coronavirus, was part of a project celebrating the work of another remarkable woman, Eglantyne Jebb who was born in Ellesmere and who set up Save the Children Fund in 1919. Ellesmere Sculpture Initiative organised the Seminar as part of their ‘Children Displaced by Conflict’ project and are presenting this excerpt from Dame Stephanie’s talk as a contribution to Refugee Week, 15th to 21st June, 2020.
Dame Stephanie’s talk:
We had started off in a respectable family in Dortmund. Our parents lived in a “nice house” in a fashionable part of the city and my older sister Renate went to school with the children of other prosperous, bourgeois families.
We never know what life holds for us. If all had gone according to plan, I would have remained in that comfortable world indefinitely, married a nice professional man and raised a similarly nice family myself. It is unlikely that I would ever have had a meaningful job. But the storm clouds had been gathering since shortly before my birth, and my time amongst the leisured Westphalians turned out to be so short, that today I can scarcely remember it.
Our father was Jewish; our mother a Gentile. Neither practised any religion. Renate and I were offensively called “crossbreeds”, sometimes sub-human.
Again and again, we were forced to move – from city to city– and eventually from country to country – in search of work and security. We eventually settled in our mother’s home city of Vienna.
But the Nazi plague soon infected Austria as well; my sister remembered seeing Hitler marching into the city in March 1938.By my fifth birthday, a few weeks before Kristallnacht (when the Jewish synagogues were attacked), the writing was on the wall for anyone who dared to read it: Jewish families who stayed in Central Europe faced catastrophe. So when my parents heard about the Kindertransport rescue mission for children, they made the desperate decision that we should be sent to safety.
The Kindertransport is the largest-ever recorded migration of children and its trains had been running for about six months by then. But it was not a simple matter. Forms had to be filled in, documents stamped, permits queued for at deliberately inconvenient times, guarantees provided. We spent several weeks in a children’s home while my mother devoted herself full-time to grappling with the obstacles of Nazi (and British) bureaucracy.
Although the plan had been for 50,000 children to be rescued by the Kindertransport, no limit to the permitted number was ever publicly announced. Britain capped the number at 10,000. As time ran out, Nicholas Winton (knighted only in 2002) who rescued over 600 children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia took to issuing forged Home Office entry permits.
The Refugee Children’s Movement had found Renate and me foster parents in England who were prepared to guarantee (with getting on for £5,000 in today’s currency) that the two of us would not be a burden on the state. Thank you, thank you, Guy and Ruby Smith. We called them Uncle and Auntie.
I honour their memories as I do all the Uncles and Aunties who helped us children through those terrible times.
The fact that people I did not know saved us, by doing what giving people do, made a deep impression.
Why were so many of us fostered in Christian families? I guess Britain was preparing for invasion so Jewish families kept a low profile. All other considerations were secondary to saving lives; but thousands of children from practising Jewish families (which we were not) must have been lost to the faith in those months.
Renate and I left Vienna eight weeks before the outbreak of war. We were doubly lucky. Unlike most of the parents who sent their children away on the Kindertransport, ours survived; though sadly, I never bonded with them again. We were unable to find each other in the hoped-for images we had built up during our period of separation.
It is hard, after all these years, to be certain how many of the remembered details of the journey are real and how much I have added to my mental picture from other sources. Was the July weather outside really grey? Or have I just seen too many black-and-white photographs of the Kindertransport? I have read that some of the trains were sealed. But surely one boy in our carriage kept getting off to be sick during the train’s many unscheduled stops. Or was that just a dream?
Each train had about 1,000 children aged five to 16 (a few small 17-year olds also snuck in) with just two adults. There were also some girls, aged 16 plus, caring for babies. Of course, I did not know at the time that they had volunteered to travel under a concession dependent on their return to what they must have known was almost certain death. I have always saluted the heroism of those young people, (I recently learnt of one of them, Lili Reichenfeld), who honoured the guarantee given by a non-Jewish friend; Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and oblivion followed.
We slept on strips of corrugated cardboard on the floor as well as on the long wooden benches that lined the sides of the carriages. I believe that, at some point in the train journey, children also slept on the long overhead luggage racks – although the scene in my mind’s eye is quite different from the carriage interiors I have since seen in archive photographs. I presume that I slept too, although I cannot remember doing so.
I think my mother had given us food for the journey; but, again, I may be wrong. I do remember the occasional frightening interruptions from uniformed guards. And recall, vividly. the cold, oily smell of the sea – an entirely new experience – when we eventually reached the Hook of Holland; and vaguely remember the nauseous night crossing to Harwich.
But what about my sense that, when we finally arrived by train at Liverpool Street station, the platform was silent? It seems somehow implausible, and perhaps I have merely projected the numbness of my emotions onto the past. Nonetheless, that is how my mind has preserved it: we spilled out on to the platform, speechless and wide-eyed, as if somewhere between reality and imagination.
We had numbered labels hanging around our necks as if we were lost property. In a sense, we were. Renate also had an expensive Leica slung round her person – to be later sold of course because one was permitted to bring out a camera, but not any money. We waited to be claimed, sitting on straw-filled mattresses in a cavernous hall, long since demolished.
There are two Kindertransport memorial statues at London’s Liverpool Street station, the smaller by Flor Kent and the other by Frank Meisler, who was himself one of those saved. The 2006 plaque dedicated by the Association of Jewish Refugees, reads: “In gratitude to the people of Britain for saving the lives of 10,000 unaccompanied mainly Jewish children who fled from Nazi persecution in 1938 and 1939” and quotes the sacred Talmud: “Whoever rescues a single soul is credited as though they had saved the whole world”.
In 2011 a Kindertransport memorial bench and plaque was unveiled in Harwich, located to face the shipping lane in the North Sea. That was from where most of us first saw this green and pleasant land.
We had been taught some useful phrases “slow combustion stove” and “windscreen wiper” but not how to ask to go to the bathroom. Of course, pain allows you to grow but many exiles suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression, or both. My own exile brought problems of identity which took six years of analysis at the renowned Tavistock clinic to overcome. Some exiles’ psychological scars were so deep as to be transmitted to their children.
My terror was certainly deep rooted. When I saw one of many films about Auschwitz, I fainted. Whether it was the thought that I might so easily have been among those victims, or some other form of “survivor guilt”, or just simple empathetic horror at the suffering of all those human beings, I don’t know. It was just more than I could bear. I still get panic attacks and nightmares after seeing pictures or footage of the concentration camps, and have to be careful about when and how I allow myself to dwell upon such subjects. Survivor guilt seems counterintuitive – surely, I should be happy to be alive when a million children died. Yet 25 years later, I was still too scared to have our son circumcised for health reasons “because it would mark him as a Jew”.
My sister and I tried hard to fit in.
So many things were different. The plumbing. How cold the winter was without central heating. No duvets but eiderdowns – and they were not, dear children, to be hung out of the window to air. The Brits put milk in their tea; eat fish paste sandwiches and other strange foods; use saucepans rather than cooking pots; write their 7s differently. Even knit differently. (Renate kept to the German way. I knit like a true born Englishwoman!)
Appearance was another disparity. Not racial but clothes, (which Hitler had allowed us to bring out). Mine came in four sizes! For me and for me to grow into; and for Renate and for her to grow into. Even though we were not always living together, there were still four very Germanic winter coats of green tweed with grey fur collars which I had to grow my way through!
Then there was the problem of language. It seems (from Kindertransport reunions) that those who had arrived aged less than 10 forgot their mother tongue and spoke with a variety of regional accents. Older children retained their German and many also their Germanic accents. Or intonation. Or word order. Or continued to confuse “thank you” and “no thank you”.
I was among those who deliberately forgot my first language having actively refused to understand even the simplest question posed in German to my would-be British self.
My sister retained her German – though later when I complimented her, she pointed out her fluency was with the vocabulary of a nine-year-old.
Britain was one of the few countries to give us refuge in 1939. What have we contributed in return?
My sister Renate never settled as well as I did and remained an exile in spirit. As an adult she declined several Home Office invitations to apply for British citizenship until its final letter suggested that if she did not wish to become British then (by implication) she “should go back to where she came from”. And that she certainly did not wish to do. She emigrated to Australia on a £10 assisted passage, and applied for Australian citizenship after only six months.
I’ve often thought about this. She didn’t choose to come to Britain, the exile was done to us children. As an adult, she had ceased to be a victim and could make things happen rather than having things happen to her. She chose Australia and contributed significantly to Australian childcare practices, sublimating the trauma of her own childhood by helping children (including many of the Vietnamese boat children) into adoptive and foster families. Married to an Australian, she adopted a baby girl and fostered two brothers – just as we two sisters had been fostered a generation before.
As for me, I became a British citizen as soon as I was 18 and followed the family tradition of public service; then went into business to circumvent the gender issues of the time. Thus, my childhood trauma was transformed into entrepreneurship. Wealth was never a motivator though I never, ever, want to be poor again. I’m sensitive to issues in a way that people who have always had enough money – enough not to be hungry anyway – find hard to imagine. The emptier your stomach, the more love you have in your heart. So I finished up as a philanthropist.
It would have been good to be able to say that our exile led to a vibrant new dynasty in Britain. But we did not refresh the gene pool. My sister migrated to Australia; and my only child died without issue.
Three things have driven my life – each the result of that Kindertransport journey into exile:
I learnt to deal with change, indeed eventually to welcome it – which is useful in the digital world;
secondly, I determined early in my life to make it worthy of being saved; and finally, my love for Britain (one of the very few places that would let us children in) is with a passion perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.
As the Third Reich slips from human memory, my testament remembers that a genocide can only happen if local populations stand by, afraid to speak out or, worse, are indifferent.
Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is the author of ‘Let it Go, My Extraordinary Story-From Refugee- to Entrepreneur- to Philanthropist’, co-written with Richard Askwith, (Penguin Books).