Kindertransport Memory Quilt Square

Quilt 3, Square 3

Artist: Karel Gross

When Austria got occupied, there were a lot of refugees, including many Jewish refugees.  During that period we provided a home for a very, very distant relation, who lived in Vienna.  He was an architect, but dabbled in all sorts of other things.  And when the Nazis invaded Austria, he got grabbed and taken to Dachau concentration camp. They ill treated him and then released him and he saw that he had to leave Vienna. And the way he did it is by simply aiming for Brno where he settled with us.

It was a makeshift arrangement, because, as far as I remember, he occupied a room that was normally a waiting room for patients.  So he had to get up early in order to vacate the room. He spent the time with us waiting for a visa to come to England, and he made it his task as soon as he arrived in England to make contact with other relations of ours: Marinka Gurewich and her husband.  He kept pestering people saying that there is no future for young people in Europe, it’s impossible to stay there. Marinka, who herself had left Germany with her husband a couple of years earlier, understood the situation. She approached a Miss Lilian Bowes–Lyon, who agreed that she would stand as guarantor for us.

It must have been known for some time that an effort was being made for both my brother and I to leave the country, but it was never too certain when it would happen.  In March 1939, the Germans invaded.  I remember the frantic search for things and shopping expeditions to kit us out for this journey.  My mother bought sheets, because she thought we’d need our own bed linen. She also engaged a dressmaker to sew trousers for us, all sorts of things, to make it possible for us to have full equipment so that we wouldn’t immediately be a burden to whoever took charge of us.

The other memory I have is of having to visit the police and the Gestapo headquarters to get our exit permits or passport or whatever.  And that was a very forbidding experience.  All I remember is this enormously impressive staircase leading up to the offices with uniformed people standing in every doorway and on every corner, raising their right arms to greet each other.  But my father took it bravely, and with us, he presented himself in these offices and got the documents that one needed to have for our exit journey. Another childhood memory of mine is the various relations and friends who said “it must be a terrible mother that allows her children to leave home and simply disown them.”  And suddenly it was our turn.  Just a month after the occupation of Czechoslovakia, our papers got through.

We packed up and went with our mother to stay for two days in Prague. We then assembled on the railway station with children with labels tied to their necks, of all ages, up to 17.  There were about thirty or forty of us with an English lady who took charge, a volunteer who had already escorted a number of transports.  And so we simply said good-bye and we loaded into this train and we were off.

To me it seemed like an outing.  It was almost no different than packing up and going for a holiday.  It was an adventure, really.  It wasn’t till we arrived in England that I suddenly realized that I was cut off from our parents, and that there was no way that we would see our parents again.  It hit me very, very soon after I left, although I didn’t speak about it. One had constant new experiences, grappling with a new language and grappling with new people and new faces.  And dealing with adults.  That’s an unusual situation because normally if you are at home you deal with school friends, or you deal with your parents.  But you don’t have to negotiate or arrange or comply or oppose wishes of adults.  This is a technique that I gradually learned.  It was a new experience. But the fact that we had so many new experiences, I think, somehow blunted the shock of leaving home.  There was so much to do, and so much to cope with that one didn’t have all that much time to think about what was happening.

The only incident that we had was on the border between Germany and Holland.  For some reason, we had to stop. So we took a walk on the platform. Myself and my brother must have looked very suspicious because we got singled out and thoroughly searched.  We were stripped and searched in minute detail.  They seemed pretty certain they would find that we were smuggling some valuables or whatever, which was, of course, not allowed. You were only allowed to take with you whatever was declared on a list.  No cash or valuables were allowed to be taken.  At that particular moment, I began to worry whether my parents weren’t trying to be clever and stitch something into our clothing.  But, as it is, they didn’t find anything.  And we never found anything subsequently, so apparently my parents didn’t take any chances.

We were taken on a ferry to Harwich.  And from there we were taken as a group by train to London.  My brother, who was older, was took over the role of spokesman, describing all the things that were going on at home , and how the parents were, etc.  And I just nodded.  I just agreed with everything he said.  It was pointed out to us that within a day or so we would be going to our new home.  They found us a home in a village where we would learn English. We in turn would help on the farm, working half a day on the farm and learning English twice a week.  So we were loaded onto a coach, which was a new experience, and taken to Warborough, where we were met by an architect called Pincent.  He spoke French, Italian and German.  He spent most of his working life in Greece and Italy, building for rich clients there.  And when he retired, he came to this little village and rented a room from the farmer.

In September 1939, someone discovered that there existed a Zionist training farm where we wouldn’t be completely isolated from all other children.  So we packed everything and bid everybody farewell and moved to Great Engeham Farm, which was just south of London.  And this was quite a different kettle of fish because we were suddenly quartered in railway carriages —carriages without wheels that were propped up on sleepers in the middle of a field.  As soon as it rained the railway carriages were full of mud.  Everybody brought mud in.  We were supposed to do farm work.  It was some sort of a neglected farm and we were the unpaid helpers.

Because the living conditions were pretty horrible the Zionist movement, which was running that farm moved us, to a mansion in Devon, in southern England. We arrived late in the evening to an enormous house.   As soon as we were all inside, they switched the light on.  This was quite amazing to us, because in the railway carriages all we had was paraffin lamps and camping lamps. And suddenly there was electric light.  But apart from the electric, little else worked.  There was no heating and it was dreadfully cold everywhere.  There was hardly any hot water and we had to wash in cold water.

Eventually one group of five left for Palestine. The rest of us suddenly discovered that the British Government insisted that there would be no more immigration to Palestine.  One day, some coaches arrived and some 20 or 25 people were loaded into these coaches and taken to London.  I had a suitcase, which I filled.  Everything else would have to be left behind.  They dumped us in a place that belonged to the Youth Hostel Association.  It was only night accommodation, we were not supposed to be there during the day. I said I just wanted to learn something.  So they contacted Loughborough College, and got me in as a trainee, an unpaid apprentice in a teacher’s training department. that trained handicraft teachers, specializing in woodwork and metalwork.  I spent about a year and a half there, and learned quite a lot. My brother joined me later.  He found a place in the garage where he was made an apprentice, and earned some money.

I will close by saying that later I joined the Czechoslovak Army and my brother the Royal Air Force.

Karel Gross


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