u3a - Kindertransport Memories - Jane Mackenzie

Jane MacKenzie

Member of Shrewsbury u3a, her story about grandfather Alan Overton

 Overtons List Image

Alan Overton (right) and the boys from the hostel

My grandfather, Alan Overton, helped hundreds of terrified Jewish children escape from Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War, because their plight touched his heart and moved him to take action to save their lives.

He was an articulate and passionate man, politically active, and because of his beliefs, was particularly interested in the British government's policies towards Palestine. He attended every debate in the House of Commons from 1918 until 1948, when the State of Israel was declared.

During the 1930s, he became very aware of the rise of antisemitism in Germany and gave public lectures to raise awareness amongst the British public, about the dangers of Nazism.

As a result of the oppression of Jewish people in Germany, in 1938, a committee was set up in London, at Bloomsbury House, called the “Movement for the Care of Children from Germany”. They organised the first group of children who arrived at Liverpool Street station from Germany, and pictures of these children appeared in national newspapers the next day.

My grandfather saw these pictures and realised that the little girl in the picture looked just like his young daughters, (one of whom was my mother, Betty, who was fourteen at the time). He was moved to tears of compassion, and in that instant, he decided that he must do something to help.

He was a charismatic man, a natural leader who was a mesmerising public speaker. He immediately got in touch with Bloomsbury house, who made him realise that homes had to be found quickly. He formed a plan to deliver public lectures up and down the country to persuade as many people as possible to give a home to a refugee child.

He was a married father of four in his late thirties, running a ladies outfitters in Rugby, and a committed Christian. However, he felt compelled to set these responsibilities aside and focus his time and energy on saving as many children as possible.

He became well known for his efforts, and letters began to arrive addressed simply to “Overton, Rugby, England” from desperate parents, living in occupied Europe, who were trying to send their children to safety.

I’ve seen these heartrending letters, desperately pleading with my grandfather to save their little children, often with photos of their sons and daughters, paper clipped to the letters.

In the months leading up to the outbreak of war in September 1939, he successfully used his skills to persuade over 250 people to pay the £50 bond (equivalent to over £3000 today) required to finance their eventual re-emigration. The townspeople and Mayor of Rugby got behind his campaign, and he became well known for his work in saving Jewish lives.

Almost every week, he would drive down to Liverpool Street Station, to collect his children, often accompanied by my mother or her 10 year old brother, Bruce.

Their home became a transit house, with children arriving, often traumatised, shocked and exhausted. My mum, Betty, remembers waking in the dead of night to the sound of the crunch of the car tyres on the gravel driveway, as her father arrived with another car full of frightened children, some as young a two years old.

Betty’s own mother, would come in and urge her own children to give up their warm beds and move onto the settee, to allow the newly arrived refugee children to have a good night’s sleep in their still warm beds.

In the following days, these children would be taken to the homes of those who had agreed to look after them.

It became apparent that young girls were much easier to place than boys, and for this reason, several teenage boys found themselves with no home to go to. My grandfather realised that there was a danger that they might become interned in camps, so he decided to set up and run a hostel close to their home in Bilton, Rugby, where they could live and thrive.

This was called Little Thorn, and there were usually 12 - 15 teenage boys living there. Grandpa had a great sense of fun, and often played practical jokes, he enjoyed being with the boys and organised film shows, table tennis competitions, swimming trips, hiking, and much more.

My grandfather became their father figure, and when I interviewed one of the boys, Hanush Snarbl, over fifty years later, he became overcome with emotion and moved to tears, telling me that my grandfather became a friend and father to them all, and that they had loved him.

He was determined that the boys should learn about their own culture and history, and my uncle Bruce remembers many happy and lively Sunday afternoons spent learning about the Old Testament and debating.

Grandpa thought it was important that the boys should have a Jewish lady to act as their house mother, and organised and paid to have a lady called Mrs Sperger and her two sons, brought over from Germany to fulfil this role.

The two sons duly arrived, but sadly their mother had been rounded up before they were able to leave Germany, and put in a camp awaiting deportation to a concentration camp.

My grandfather’s determination and force of character was such that he did not give up on her. He arranged to make a telephone call directly to the camp, with her sons on the line and acting as translators.

During this call, he asked the German administrator to put Mrs Sperger on the train and send her to England, since he had already paid for her travel and was providing her with a permanent job. The administrator could not find any record of her in his office files, but my grandfather politely asked him to search the file in front, and behind, just in case. Miraculously, her notes had been misfiled, and her record was found. She was released, put on a train, and arrived in Rugby days later.

Her sons were ecstatic, and she went on to serve as the hostel “mother" throughout the war.

After the war, these boys went to live all over the world, making successful lives for themselves. However, they were so grateful that this act of kindness had given them a chance of life and a future, that they used to return to Rugby every year for a reunion with my grandfather and his family.

Jane Mackenzie

November 18th 2021


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