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Saved by the kindness of strangers: reflections on the Kindertransport

  • Kindertransport2
There are always heroes amid the horrors of war. They are often from ordinary backgrounds, but prove extraordinary in their unwavering sense of humanity.
by MIRAH LANGER | Oct 11, 2018

Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger were such a couple, according to Monique Vajifdar, the daughter of Kindertransport survivor, Hedwig Leonore Vajifdar (nee Feig). Although the Schlesingers already had five children of their own, they took in twelve more children as part of the Kindertransport.

“My mother [known as Leonore] was incredibly lucky to be hosted by this amazing family. They were generous, proactive, and loving,” said Vajifdar as she detailed how her Berlin-born mother was saved by the Kindertransport.

About 10 000 children were saved by the scheme, in which Jewish child refugees were brought from Germany on the brink of war to Britain and put in foster homes.

Vajifdar spoke at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre recently about the Schlesingers and the Kindertransport, the 80th anniversary of which will take place on 2 December.

“What I think is extraordinary about the Schlesinger family is that they worked out what they could do at an insane time in history, and they went out and did it. They were an example to all of us of keeping their heads when others all around us were losing theirs.”

Years before the Schlesinger family took in Leonore, she was already contending with the transformation of her birthplace, Berlin, into a seething site of anti-Semitism.

Born in 1927 to a well-off German Jewish family, Leonore’s life of governesses and holidays to the Swiss Alps was turned upside down by the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Underneath the seemingly “comfortable existence” of her family, her home, like that of many other German Jews, was filled with “anguished discussions” as their once seemingly solid place in society crumbled.

Although her family – with deep historical roots in Germany – were determined not to be forced to leave their homeland, the eruption of Kristallnacht, from 9 to 10 November 1938, changed everything.

When a family member was tasked by a Jewish organisation with selecting twelve children to go on the Kindertransport, Leonore’s parents asked if she could be one of them.

“My mother was sent out of Germany in March 1939 as a child refugee in the Kindertransport with all her worldly goods packed into an old-fashioned travelling trunk.” Her only childhood possession was a paint box.

“She was 11 years old. She has always felt that her childhood was stolen.”

Monique said that for many years, it was impossible to get her mother to open up about her experiences. “For most of my life, my mother denied remembering much of her childhood; she blanked it out as it was too painful.”

Yet, following the reunion of both the 60th anniversary of the Kindertransport, as well as Highgate hostel where the children were looked after, her mother finally wrote down some of her memories.

Vajifdar read extracts of her mother’s painful and poignant reflections.

“The Schlesingers rented a house for us… We arrived there on 16 March 1939, and stayed until we were evacuated out of London just before the beginning of the war.”

Leonore recalled having to learn English quickly to cope at the local primary school. She remembered how the boys and girls were separated into two dormitories, but “worked out a system of communication using something like a string to talk to each other”.

She also paid tribute to the Schlesingers’ extraordinary efforts. “Not only were the Schlesingers surrogate parents and grandparents, their children feel like siblings to us.”

“The Schlesingers never made the refugee children feel that they were in any way unequal to their children. They never made me feel in any way indebted to them. I can never adequately thank them for all they did for me.”

After her time with the Schlesingers, Leonore was evacuated to the countryside amidst fears that London would be bombed.

A week before the outbreak of World War II, Leonore’s parents arrived in Britain, having managed to escape from Germany. “The war took a lot away from me, but it gave me back my parents.”

Although the family then lived within very constrained means, “For the first time, we all lived together in close proximity. Not surprisingly, we became very close.”

Although England was a haven from the war, it was not wholly hospitable. At one point, Leonore’s father was interred as an immigrant alien on the Isle of Man alongside Nazis.

As a child, Leonore herself was repeatedly accused of being a German spy by other children. “Although this was ignorant playground prejudice, it wasn’t easy for her to deal with,” notes Monique.

Throughout, Leonore never forgot the role the Schlesingers played. She recalled how when the war ended, the family took her out to dinner, complete with red wine, to celebrate. Winifred also never forgot a single one of Leonore’s birthdays.

Today, five of the original dozen who were taken in by the Schlesingers remain. A total of 120 people now form a group of those who survived due to this couple’s action – and they remain in contact with the Schlesinger children.

Monique’s family’s past experiences have deeply shaped her own. As she describes it, much of her life has been about “collecting and hoarding small fragments of memories”.

“Today, I speak for people who can’t or won’t.”

One of the profound lessons her family taught her was to take true delight in life. Having “lost almost everything that had made up [their] identity, they relished life”.

“It was a particular gift my mother’s family had: [To enjoy]… even the twists and turns of the English weather. To seek out the first bluebells every year; to notice the spring leaves as they unfurled; to follow a butterfly in the garden; to relish friendship and family.”

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