Lest we forget

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27), Kaye Holland spoke to Holocaust survivor, Hermann Hirschberger, about the reality of life in Nazi Germany, the persecution of the Jewish community and the desperation to escape to a new life in England

Born in 1926 in the Black Forest Town of Karlsruhe, Mr Hirschberger was one of 3000 Jews who made up part of the town’s total population of quarter of a million people. The inhabitants of Karlsruhe suffering, like much of Germany, from mass unemployment (a legacy of the loathed Treaty Of Versailles and the world economic crisis) “lacked a degree of political maturity”, something that only intensified when Hitler seized power in January 1933.

Mr Hirschberger was seven during that fateful month and in his second year at school (unlike the British education system, in Germany children don’t start school until six years of age.) One of only two Jewish boys in a class of 30, Mr Hirschberger soon found himself “exposed to insults” – a consequence of Hitler’s propaganda proclaiming Jews were draining the country’s wealth. Unable to endure any more mental or physical abuse, Mr Hirschberger finally summoned the courage to complain to his headmaster about being labelled a “stinking Jew”. His headmaster replied: “Well isn’t that what you are?” That day marked a monumental awakening for Mr Hirschberger, that things would never be the same again.

Racial hostility intensified and following the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, the Jewish community in Germany (around half a million) found themselves facing further segregation. Mr Hirschberger, his older brother and his fellow Jewish classmate, Manfred, were thrown out school while his Father (a bank manager) and mother (a secretary), being “devout Jews”, were made redundant. In no time at all,  signs such as ‘Jews not wanted’ sprung up all over the shop: at clubs, restaurants, swimming pools – even hairdressers. Slowly but surely all dignity and humanity towards Jewish people, was cancelled out. The final straw came on the night of 9-10 November 1939 (now referred to as ‘Kristallnacht’): synagogues were set on fire and Jewish shops were looted.

Kristallnacht also signified the last time that the young Mr Hirschberger ever saw his father. Hermann still vividly recalls his Mother donning a heavy overcoat and going out to search for her husband, only to discover that he had been arrested. While his mother was out, Mr Hirschberger and his brother (aged 12 and 14 respectively) had to endure a raid on their apartment by Gestapo agents armed with revolvers. After Kristallnacht “alarm bells rang in every Jewish home home” sparking a recognition by the Jewish community “that there was no point in staying.” Life in Nazi Germany was no longer a safe or viable option and many families fled the country to seek safety in Australia and America. For their part, the Hirschbergers attempted to secure residence in Belgium, but their efforts were to no avail – something that, with hindsight, turned out to be a blessing in disguise as by May 1940 Belgium had surrendered entirely to German occupation.

Towards the end of 1939 there were 300,000 Jews (of which 50,000 were children) still in Nazi Germany – desperate to flee persecution but finding it impossible to gain entry to other countries, if they had no living relatives established there. Fortunately the British government of the time was beginning to wake up and realise the plight of Jewish children, typified by Mr Hirschberger. On 21 November, a debate took place in the House of Commons resulting in the decision to allow 10,000 Jewish children to enter Britain unaccompanied upon payment of a “£50 bond of warranty”.

The first Kindertransport left Berlin in December 1939, bound for the shores of Great Britain. At first, Jewish families took in the Kinder but later, as the movement gathered momentum, non-Jewish families took them in as well. By the outbreak of war, 9,500 children between the ages of 8-16 had been brought to the UK. In order to enter the UK, Mr Hirschberger took a train from Karlsruhe to Hamburg from where he sailed by ship to Southampton. As he lay on his tiny bunk, Mr Hirschberger admits to having felt “really lost” – the excitement at the first sight of sea soon giving way to intense homesickness. Finally, after three days at sea, the kindertransport arrived safely in Southampton to be greeted with the sight of flashing lights as The Daily Telegraph snapped its story for the next day’s edition.

After first being taken to a market in Soho, Mr Hirschberger found himself transported to a disused hotel on the seafront of Margate, Cliftonville that had been renovated into a hostel to accommodate around 60 boys. Six weeks down the line, he began to pick up the “new, strange and alien language” that was English. At Margate, food, security and clothes were readily available yet there was no provision for the inevitable “emotional trauma” of the experience. This “psychological hurt” is something that has stayed with the kindertransport children, for life. Yet Mr Hirschberger is quick to stress that it wasn’t all doom and gloom and he has many fond memories of Margate, such as being voted vice captain of his school house ‘Kipling.’

Yet there was no escaping the horror of the holocaust and Mr Hirschberger and his brother were shortly separated. His brother, being 15, went to work in London whilst 13-year-old Mr Hirschberger was sent to Staffordshire, to live with a coal mining family. Eighteen months later, having reached “working age” himself, Mr Hirschberger was summoned before a tribunal who wanted to see if he was a spy for Germany! Here he had to answer questions such as “Do you like Hitler?”and “How much money do you have on you?” To the latter, Mr Hirshberger replied “one pound seventeen and sixpence” – believing this to be the amount he possessed in his pocket at that time. As he walked back to work via Waterloo Bridge, he suddenly “realised that I had two pounds seventeen and six pence in my pocket and I expected to feel a hand on my shoulder at any second!” – such was the terror and fear that characterised the lives of the kinder.

Mr Hirschberger enrolled in evening classes (“a half way house between GCSEs and A Levels”) with a view to becoming a chartered engineer, when he learned that his parents had been gassed to death at Auschwitz: the largest cemetery and deathbed in the history of the world, where everything was geared to killing and “the smell of burning flesh penetrated the air”.

Yet the tone of our talk was one of optimism with Mr Hirschberger quick to praise the Chamberlain government, which was widely criticised for favouring a policy of appeasement towards Hitter - instead of taking a firm line from the offset. It was the Chamberlain government that implemented the kindertransport initiative, saving the lives of some 9500 Jewish children, so “whatever we say about Chamberlain, we must salute the committee, the government of the day, for their act of decency and humanity”.

Approximately 6,000 kinder, including Mr Hirschberger, opted to remain in Britain after the war. Those that stayed “pulled themselves up by their shoe laces” and fought to become important members of the community, by going into business or training as doctors, musicians, scientists and a whole host of other professions. Their contribution was recognised in 1988 by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, at a reunion for kinder and their spouse: “I am glad your lives were saved and I thank you for the contribution you have made to our society.”

Of course, it wasn’t just Jewish people who suffered in the Holocaust. Four million people of Catholic, Polish, Slav and ethnic origins were collectively united by the same enemy: Hitler. However the greatest brunt of Hitler’s prejudices were reserved for Jewish people –six million of whom were exterminated throughout the course of the Second World War.

Mr Hirschberger reveals he lost confidence in his faith in the post war years and at 18 became “almost agnostic”. Upon marriage and Fatherhood in the 1960s, he rejoined the synagogue to give his “children the choice”. His son and daughter know their father had a “special deal” but have grown up as normal children in an English environment, and “never really asked questions”.

Throughout his life Mr Hirschberger has been involved in commemorating the kindertransport and has organised many reunions for the kindertransport children – to celebrate their life and remember those that did not survive.  To this end, he thinks that “everyone should see the film Schindler’s List. Director, Steven Spielberg, became a conscious Jew after the film had wrapped, donating the movie’s profits to Jewish causes. My only question is why did it take so long to be made? And why did it take so long for real Schindlers like Sir Nicholas Wynton, to achieve the recognition they so richly deserved?”

Mr Hirschberger admits to living in the past but also observing the present; opening peoples eyes to the horror of the holocaust so that humanity will never again repeat this tragedy. He gives 20-30 talks a year to all age groups both in the UK and Germany for, as he points out: “the experience of hearing about the Holocaust first hand from a survivor can never compare to reading about it in a textbook.” He understands that people are wary of asylum seekers, yet feels they should “sometimes be welcomed and I will always have sentiment and support for people being persecuted. The asylum seekers of 1939 have made an invaluable contribution to society bringing an additional drop of blood to the country – although we had to work and were not supported financially by the government, like today.”

On a final note, I ask Mr Hirschberger how he feels about second generation Germans today? He says that “they are not to blame for their parents’ crimes, but I can’t entirely forgive and forget. There is such a thing as communal guilt – of a whole nation being at fault. The whole nation was indoctrinated; the whole nation was anti semitic. When you have schoolchildren physically abusing Jews – that is indoctrination. There is a saying “When you meet a German he knew nothing about what was going on, and when you meet a Frenchman they all served in the French Resistance'."

In 10 years time, the sad reality is that the events of the Holocaust will no longer exist in living memory. Initiatives such as Holocaust Memorial Day can only help to preserve the memory of those that died and stories of those who survived.