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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 May, 2005, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Jews recall escape from Nazis

By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Berlin

The cinema hall is silent. The audience of German school children are speechless. On the podium, two elderly figures are waiting for the discussion to warm up.

Bertha Leverton, 82, and Herrmann Hirscheberger, 78, have come to Berlin from Britain to show a film about how they and thousands of other Jewish children were saved from the Nazis in the 1930s.

This was their fate, and the children are not only shocked by the film but are also unsure of what to ask these two eyewitnesses sitting before them.

The first question is cautious: "How long was the journey to England?".

It provokes a long answer from Herrmann filled with horrendous details like beatings from the Hitler Youth, parting from his parents for ever, and their subsequent murder at Auschwitz.

'Guilt complex'

More questions follow, and gradually the pupils are drawn in to vivid accounts of how nearly 10,000 Jewish children were evacuated to Britain from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia shortly before the outbreak of war.

Almost all of the other children from the transports lost their parents in the gas chambers
Bertha Leverton
"It's very important that the kids should know about this," says Bertha afterwards. "I must tell you something, the response we got today was much stronger than what we get in England."

She has been coming back to Germany for several years now, meeting schoolchildren and telling the story.

She was 15 when, along with her brother Teo, she was transported from her native Munich to Britain. There, she was taken in by a family in Coventry.

Later, she managed to get her other sister, Inge, to join her. Then, miraculously, her parents arrived from Germany.

"I have a guilt complex about that," she says. "I know that almost all of the other children from the transports lost their parents in the gas chambers."


The scheme to evacuate Jewish children was supported by the British government.

They were known as "Kindertransport", and Herrmann recalled standing on a railway platform in Britain with a sign around his neck reading: "I am a victim of Nazi oppression."

For me, it will never be a normal country. The pain they caused to us was too much
Herrmann Hirscheberger
It was 1939, and this was the last escape route.

"I had a dichotomy of feelings," says Herrmann, who was 12 at the time. "On the one hand, I felt a sense of adventure, of travelling to a foreign land. But on the other hand I felt fear.

"There was an atmosphere of belligerence in the air. The fear I felt, and the anxiety about my parents, was worse than the actual beatings I'd received or the names I'd been called at school."

Herrmann remembers how he and a classmate complained to the headmaster of their school in Karlsruhe that the other pupils had called them "Jewish pigs".

"We were so naive. He said to us: 'Well, what are you then?' and threw us out."

Herrmann's father, a banker, accompanied him and his younger brother on the train from Karlsruhe to Hamburg, where they caught the ship to Britain.

The two boys were never to see their parents again.

So how does he feel now, coming back to Germany?

"For me, it will never be a normal country," he says.

"The pain they caused to us was too much. But I know that it is a changed country. By profession I'm an engineer, and I used to work here. I have friends here. Reconciliation is possible. But not forgiveness."

Bertha agrees. "I love coming over and meeting the children, and their teachers and parents. But I don't want to speak to anyone my age or older.

"There's always the terrible question mark: 'What did you do in the war?' And 'What did you do to help us?' It won't go away. I've got lots of friends in Germany. But they're all my daughter's age."


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