by Irene Katzenstein Schmied
On a Friday afternoon in early April 1939, I stood with my mother on a platform at Victoria Station. Several ladies seemed to be hovering around us. Perhaps one of them would be Mrs. Muirhead. My mother – just arrived in England and working as a domestic – could not have me with her, nor did my previous hosts want to keep me. I needed somewhere to stay.
Almost three months had passed since I had arrived in England on a Kindertransport. Child that I was, I only remembered childish things about the trip over, such as the delicious cocoa at the Jewish Domestic Science School in Hamburg where we stopped for lunch before boarding the ship, the HMS Manhattan. That evening I listened, spellbound, to the stories of farewells told by my glamorous and far more grown up cabin mates: Would they ever see their parents, boyfriends again? At least I knew that my mother would soon join me in England.
The next evening’s debarkation in Southampton led to a trip on a double-decker bus to the sound of the rain and the drumming of tree branches on the roof. Breakfast at our overnight accommodation – a school, or possibly a hostel – brought the first taste of porridge (from then on “comfort food”) steaming under a blanket of brown sugar. A train ride to London followed. Tante Hilde (a friend of my parents) met me and whisked me off in a taxi to Turners Wood in Hampstead. Annelie, once my best friend in Berlin, came out to greet me.
A Saturday some three weeks later brought my mother’s arrival. The sound of her voice, the comfort of her presence, momentarily lifted the heavy mantel of homesickness that fell on me the day after arrival. Things were about to change, I hoped. Instead, on Monday morning she left for her job as a domestic outside London. A numbness crept over me. I turned to my diary for comfort.
My misery and night wanderings around the house perplexed Tante Hilde and Onkel Kurt, who – in their own way – had tried to be kind. Besides, they needed the space for their own relatives soon to arrive from Berlin. My mother turned to Bloomsbury House. A temporary, possibly permanent, home was found for me in the country.
So now there I was on the platform, hugging my doll, Peterchen, waiting for a new chapter in my life to begin. A figure detached itself from the crowd and hesitatingly moved towards us, introducing herself as Pauline Muirhead. Her grey eyes sparkled with intelligence and there was an educated clip to her voice. Her loose tweedy clothes and the rosy shine of her cheeks gave her a countrified, unpretentious look that aroused immediate confidence in my mother. I also felt at ease and this made the parting from my mother less painful and the trip into the country more exciting.
Soon the train was chugging through a landscape that over the years would become familiar and dear to me. Even now when diesel engines rush through the more industrialized landscape, I still see it as it was then – some 68 years ago: the rolling fields, separated by hedges and dotted with cows and sheep, the curve of the South Downs, the villages with their cottages and church spires.
That evening Mrs. Muirhead and I climbed up the long hill to Dyke-End, my new home. A sprite-like, wizened old gentleman, snow white curls descending to either side of his face, emerged from the fire-lit, book-lined living room. It was the octogenarian Dr. John Henry Muirhead. An eminent moral philosopher of his time, he had helped to found the University of Birmingham. He greeted me with the words “Willkommen, kleine Irene.”
The next morning I woke up to a new world. Through the open window came scents from the garden – all two acres of it. Even the cherry trees in our far smaller suburban Berlin garden – fast vanishing from my memory – were no match. Here rows of blooming Japanese cherry trees led up to the summer house where the Professor worked on his memoirs. Daffodils and irises bloomed everywhere. The garden ended in a grassy unkempt area, where rabbits frolicked unchecked and where the view opened up onto the countryside.
The day after my arrival was marked by a tea party. Ladies of the local refugee committee dropped in. Soon there would be a tea party for all the local refugee children. Then came a visit to Bexhill and the boarding school I would be attending in the summer term. In between, there were picnics and trips to Tunbridge Wells, the nearest town. My diary could barely keep up with descriptions of my new surroundings. My homesickness, evaporated. I even forgot that my mother was to come down on her day off. I stopped thinking about my father, who was still in Berlin.
My father came over to England in June 1939 on a temporary visitor’s visa and a permanent visa for Chile, and he left shortly before the outbreak of war. I have lately come to realize that we were all three meant to go together and that he may have been hurt that we did not. Perhaps it was my mother who persuaded him to leave without us. Perhaps it was the Muirheads, who wanted to keep me, or perhaps he himself decided that it would be best for me to grow up at Dyke-End and get a good English schooling, and for my mother to stay in England to see to it that I did not become entfremdet, estranged. I was thus able to finish school in England, and to fall in love with history and English literature.
I sometimes wonder whether I would have become a different person on a different track if we had gone to Santiago as a family in 1939. My mother and I did not join my father until late 1946. By then I was almost eighteen, quite grown up and primed for a way of life that eventually brought me to New York and to writing.