Page last updated at 06:54 GMT, Sunday, 23 November 2008

'We lived on hope and promises'

By Murray Cox
BBC News

Archive picture of children in the Kindertransport programme
In less than one year about 10,000 children were evacuated to Britain

"We left under the assumption we would see our parents again in a few months."

Rolf Penzias, now 86, is one of about 10,000 child refugees - mostly Jewish - who were sent without their parents out of Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to foster families and hostels in Britain.

The operation to evacuate the children on the eve of WWII became known as Kindertransport, and the 70th anniversary of parliament passing the legislation behind it is being marked on Sunday in London.

Mr Penzias said: "I was born in Munich and I was 16 when I left with my brother who was 14.

"When we crossed the border into Holland the Dutch people came to meet us. The Dutch women had big hats, and they threw sweets, and drinks and food onto the train.

"What they did was incredible. I can still remember it so clearly. When we got into Harwich in England we were taken to a holiday camp at Dovercourt Bay. It was in the winter and there was no heating in the huts."

Mr Penzias, who first arrived in Britain in January 1939, is one of the lucky ones in as much that his parents survived the war because they were sent to a German camp in the south of Italy.

He was also fortunate because he was able to write to them through the Red Cross during the war, and afterwards he spent three years working to get them into the UK for them to reunited.

Tired and alone, 8-year-old Josepha Salmon, the first of 5,000 Jewish and non-Aryan refugees, known as the "Kindertransport", arrives at Harwich from Germany, destined for Dovercourt Bay camp

When they finally arrived they were able to find work as a couple in domestic service, staying with the same family for 20 years.

Work was important to Mr Pensiaz, who said: "I had started an apprenticeship when I was in Munich as a motor mechanic.

"I wanted to work, so I was able to find a way to finish my apprenticeship and become a mechanical engineer."

After spending nine months in hospital in the Liverpool area with a rare bone infection, Mr Penzias went to London in 1941 and began working.

His brother later emigrated to Australia, but he had no desire to leave, having married and made a home in the capital.

Mr Penzias plays down the hardship he and his brother endured, dismissing the months spent alone in hospital by saying "you just take it all in your stride".

In the years since, he has been back to Germany many times and he does take the memory of Kindertransport very seriously.

"We had a reunion after 50 years, 60 years and 65 years. Because most of the children are in their 80s or nearing their 80s we will be getting less and less," he said.

The mood of the reunion, which is being attended by the Prince of Wales, will be "very solemn" said Mr Penzias, who has been reacquainted with old school friends as a result of the meetings.

Harry Bibring also came to Britain on the Kindertransport programme, arriving into London's Liverpool Street station with his older sister in December 1938.

"When we got there I said to my sister that someone very important must have died because there were so many undertakers on the platform," he said.

"My sister asked why I thought that, and it was because there were so many men with pointed hats on.

"Of course, my sister pointed out they were policemen... I didn't speak any English at the time and I knew so little about where I was going."

Mr Bibring's father's clothing store in Vienna, Austria, was destroyed during Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass, when Jewish property was destroyed and Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

His father was arrested and detained for 10 days, while Mr Bibring himself was transferred to a school that permitted Jews to attend.

We lived on hope and promises and when they failed to materialise we found something else to believe in
Harry Bibring

After his father's release from prison, the family intended to flee to Shanghai, but his dad was robbed on his way to pay for the tickets.

That was when the decision was taken that Mr Bibring and his sister, Gertie, should flee to Britain.

"The plan was that my parents would come to the UK in a couple of months, but every time we got a letter there was some new complication, some reason it was going to take longer," he said.

"But we lived on hope and promises and when they failed to materialise we found something else to believe in.

"We really didn't believe the war was going to last as long as it did."

Mr Bibring's father died on the way to a Nazi camp, and "he was one of the lucky ones because he had a proper grave". His father's body was sent back to his mother and was buried in Vienna.

His mother died in a concentration camp.

Like Mr Penzias, Mr Bibring decided to settle in the UK and eventually went on to become an engineer in London as well.

He married and had a son, and since retiring in 1991 he has become involved with education about the Holocaust.

Mr Bibring visits many schools to talk to children about his experiences, although he also plays them down, simply saying: "Everyone has their own story. There were 10,000 of us and it all happened so quickly."

Print Sponsor

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