Member of East Suffolk u3a, her story about grandmother Dorothy (Dolly) Thornycroft
Peter Laufer & The Thornycroft Family
Dolly’s refugee work started with the Basque refugee children fleeing Franco in 1937. The whole of her family were involved, either on the local refugee committee itself or helping with fundraising, entertaining, teaching, or everything else involved with the care of some 80 Basque children who were in three hostels in the area (Worthing).
A year after the child refugees from Franco arrived, the child refugees from Hitler started to come too, both Jewish and political, some with parents and some not. Dolly helped found a new committee in Worthing to help all of these, also taking Kindertransport children into our family home.
The first was Peter Laufer, aged five years. On 8th November 1938 Peter’s father had been arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. He was released but had to leave the country. The Laufer's could not join the endless nightly queue for USA visas in freezing, fascist Vienna with a little boy in tow, so they tried to get Peter onto the Kindertransport and hoped to follow. In November 1938 Dolly’s husband, my grandfather Oliver Thornycroft, provided the necessary financial guarantee for him to come, and also guaranteed Peter’s parents.
Peter arrived in December and Oliver fetched him from London by car. Dolly recounts “He was a pathetic little shrimp of a boy, very tired and bewildered - too tired to be frightened at being in strange surroundings with strange people”. Her own German being poor, she enlisted the help of a friend that first night, and between them, they got him to bed. He resisted being undressed and finally went to sleep almost fully clad.
Dolly continues “He did not like going to sleep alone in the room although I had his cot in my room, and I think this was because for some months he had never been left alone in case the Gestapo arrived and took his parents, leaving him behind”. Peter did not think he was even safe to go into the garden. Humouring him for a few days solved all these problems quite quickly, and he soon was quite happy to go about with Dolly in the car, in and out of shops, where he was made rather a fuss of. As it was near Christmas, the question of presents came up, and he said wistfully “The Christchild does not come to me as I am a Jew”. Dolly comments “Even at that age he felt excluded and accepted it”. She was an agnostic but was able to assure him that in England you got given presents regardless of your religion - and in fact, he got a lot of presents, of course. But he was confused by his experiences: “One day I found him marching up and down outside the house, making indistinct shouting sounds, although the rhythm was there – to me it sounded like Sieg heil. Was this because he subconsciously had wanted to do what other children had done in Vienna…or because it was a sound he had learnt to be afraid of and now felt safe? I do not know.”
“We all became very fond of him, and I think he of us, but nothing can match the joy when his mother and father arrived safely and he could lord it over them once again. It was a most devoted family”. They all lived with Dolly’s family for several months. Mr Laufer was invited to address the refugee committee in Worthing. Happily, the Laufers made it to the USA and settled in Chicago. They stayed in touch with Dolly for decades: Peter married and became a child psychiatrist.
The second boy Dolly helped was Paul Kohn, 13, also from Vienna. I possess several desperate letters from him and from his father Samuel, begging for help for him to escape. Samuel writes to my grandfather on 30 June 1939: “We received (notification that) our son Paul...was put down for a transport which leaves on July 18th. We cannot describe in words the joy for our boy... You and your wife have done a deed which God will repay. My Paul and also we will never forget what you have done for him. We do not know yet where we are to go after the departure of the child. A very depressing situation...Should we be lucky enough to get there also we hope to tell you all the things which are so difficult to put on paper.”
Letter from Paul Kohn to Dolly & Oliver Thornycroft
Dolly and Oliver got Paul out and provided the necessary guarantees for him though I am not sure if he actually lived with them. Dolly writes of his having, unfortunately, had a bad placement and moving to a boys’ hostel in Brighton, and then, after serving in the Army, studying accountancy. He then got married, moved to South Africa, and, I believe, changed his name. His father spent years in Dachau, badly injured, but then escaped to France with Paul’s mother Rose, only to fall foul of a disastrous mess of red tape which prevented them using their US visas, and they were interned by the French. They were then lost when the Germans overran Vichy France.
Dolly sketched a few of the success stories of many other children she had managed to place with kindly host families around Worthing, making huge efforts to arrange religious support for the Jewish ones, which was difficult as there were so few Jewish people in the Worthing area. But she remarks “It is a haunting sorrow to me that there were others we were corresponding about and trying to get hospitality for, up to the last minute, and for whom we made so many efforts, after war started, to get them out through other countries, but ultimately failed and we can only assume what their fate was”.
Mrs Thornycroft's Rescue of Basque Children:
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