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u3a - Kindertransport Memories - Lawrence for Harry

Lawrence Collins

Member of Thorpe Bay u3a, writing about Harry Grenville

Interview with Harry Grenville, Kindertransport Refugee.

Dorchester, 10th February 2018

On a dreary January day, 2018, Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is being held in Dorchester. A spritely nonagenarian, Harry Grenville, is keeping his two hundred plus audience spellbound as he delivers his address called ‘The Power of Words’. Harry speaks flawlessly, with minimal reference to his prepared text. His audience sits entranced. This year’s HMD has been made more interactive in line with the theme, and blank postcards have been distributed to the audience through the Holocaust Memorial Trust, inviting short responses to Harry’s talk. Harry’s wife died in 2010, and he has become increasingly involved with HMD since then. Many cards are returned with a response at the end of the talk.

Through my sister in law, Barbara, who runs HMD locally, I was fortunate to meet Harry a few weeks later at his comfortable flat in the centre of Dorchester. Harry takes pains to explain that he has not always been ‘Harry Grenville’ but was born Heinz Greilsamer in 1926 in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart in southern Germany. His name change occurred after he joined the British Army in 1944 because, he was told, if he was subsequently captured by the Germans, Heinz Greilsamer would have immediately been shot as a traitor rather than treated as a PoW. He chose the surname Grenville because the Grenville family were large landowners in Cornwall, where he first lived when he came to England.

Harry Grenville

Harry in his home in Dorchester, 2018

Harry’s family lived in a middle-sized town called Ludwigsburg in the south of Germany. Harry started school in 1932 when he was six years old, and remembers being bored at first because he could already read and his first teacher was ‘less than inspiring’. Home life was comfortable and stable, and Harry lived with his parents, Jacob and Klara, his younger sister Hannah and his maternal grandparents, Josef and Sara Ottenheimer. Sara looked after the family home, and Harry recalls her cooking as ‘superb’. The family ran a wholesale business dealing in all types of paper and paper bags.

Between the years 1933 – 1938, the situation for German Jews became progressively worse as the Nazi campaign to disenfranchise them both educationally and commercially gained momentum.

Events however took a dramatic spiral downwards in 1938 when, on the night of November 10th, the Nazis organised a nationwide pogrom on the pretext that a young Jew had shot a minor German official in the German Embassy in Paris (over three days, before dying, he was promoted to First Secretary in order to portray the shooting as a major diplomatic incident). During this night, known as Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish businesses were burnt down, including the one in Ludwigsburg. Many Jews were rounded up including Harry’s cousin, Johnnie, who went to Dachau Concentration Camp for six weeks before being released. The Gestapo came for Harry’s grandfather, but his grandmother persuaded them to leave him alone on the grounds that he would not even survive being taken out of the house. The day after Kristallnacht, no Jews ventured on the streets because of fear of further reprisals. His father, away on a business trip, wisely decided to stay away for a few days. Had he returned, he would undoubtedly have been arrested and sent to Dachau.

Harry recalls one personal incident which reflected the family’s vulnerability at this time. His grandfather urgently needed some medication from a Jewish doctor who was also a relative and who lived in Stuttgart. Harry was given the task of going there by train, as inconspicuously as possible, and collecting the medication. All appeared to be going well, however, on the train journey home, a group of German workers from the Bosch factory got into his carriage. Seeing Harry, they all found the sight of a little Jewish boy highly amusing as they boasted about burning down his little synagogue the day before. Other than suffering indignation and wanting to shrink in size on his seat, Harry recalls safely arriving back home again. Harry’s father arrived home a few days later, but the family business no longer belonged to them, having been expropriated and given to the son of a non-Jewish friend of Harry’s grandfather.

It was now very clear that there was no future for Jews in Germany. The small amount of compensation for the loss of their business was not enough to live on, so Harry’s mother applied for and got a job with an organisation that oversaw the winding down of Jewish communities and plans for mass emigration. As a result of this, she came to hear about the Kindertransport legislation, which had hurriedly been passed by the British House of Commons in November, 1938. Following a hurried family conference, Harry and Hannah were registered for this, and Harry recalls the plan was for the family to be reunited in America, since his parents applied for a visa to emigrate there. From a number of applications of over 20,000, his parents were told by the consulate in Stuttgart that the likely process date would be August 1942. The devastating attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 effectively put a stop to all further emigration to America, which now entered the war against Germany. Harry’s parents were eventually interned in the camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, an 18th century garrison town dating back to Austro-Hungarian times, intended for 10,000 troops, into which 25,000 Jews were crammed. Harry corresponded directly with his parents until the war began, and indirectly via relatives after this period, largely resorting to coded messages. Indirect contact ceased in 1942 after his parents entered Theresienstadt and the International Red Cross took over, which allowed, once a month, a twenty five word message to go each way, in and out of the camp.  

Hannah and Harry travelled on separate Kindertransports, with Hannah leaving six weeks before Harry. Harry’s father took him to Frankfurt to put him on the Kindertransport train, via the Hook of Holland and then Harwich. Firmly in the belief that his separation from his parents was only a temporary one, Harry recalls enjoying the journey, especially the scenery of the river Rhine and countryside, wine valleys and ruined castles, flashing by. He recalls an incident where the Moselle flows into the Rhine, where the train stopped. There were eight of them in the compartment and, as the train was coming into the station, Harry stood up and grabbed what he thought was a rail to steady himself, but discovered to his horror that it was the emergency stop! Although the guard came round and rectified the problem, the woman in charge of that section of train was given an on the spot fine of 25 marks, much to her annoyance and Harry’s chagrin. The train then continued to Cologne. After crossing the Dutch border, Harry recalls lots of Dutch women on the platform when the train stopped, who fed the children rolls with butter and cakes, a kindness to which others have testified. Late at night, they arrived at the Hook of Holland where they boarded the ship ferry to Harwich. The date was 6th July 1939 and Harry remembers going up on deck around 7.00 a.m. to be greeted by ‘an English morning’ – rain and cold!

When the train arrived at Liverpool Street Station, the family from Cornwall, who were fostering Hannah and Harry, were unable to be there to meet him. Hannah had been with the family by now for just a week, having been delayed on the ship because of a suspected case of scarlet fever, following which all the children were quarantined in a London isolation hospital. She had been given a hard time by the other children who mocked her south German accent remorselessly, compared to many of their own Viennese ones, so she was delighted to finally leave them.

The Jago family in Camelford, Cornwall who fostered them were, in Harry’s words, ‘marvellous’. The head of the family was the manager of the local Barclays Bank, and Harry is still in touch today with his two foster brothers, Tom, who is now 93, and Geoff, now 91. They lived on the two floors above the bank.

Another lady had been responsible for posting a photo of Hannah and Harry (by the town hall in Camelford) as brother and sister needing foster parents, and it was this fortuitous gesture which led to their placing with the family in the town, after Tom and Geoff had excitedly agreed to sharing their home with ‘a new brother and sister’. Harry is very grateful to have been accepted, along with Hannah, into such a kind and caring family, which was not always the case among other Kindertransport children.

Harry called his foster parents simply ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and no attempt was ever made to try and convert Harry or Hannah to another religion. They both attended a local grammar school, where their fees of four guineas a term were paid by local people (Harry does not know who paid his fee but suspects that it may have been the headmaster). After two years at the school, Harry sat for his School Certificate. Then, knowing that he wanted a career in science, he was arranged a post at the Lister Institute in London as a laboratory technician. In 1942, Harry stayed at a hostel in North Kensington, working during the day and then studying at Chelsea Polytechnic in the evening for an Intermediate BSc in botany, zoology, physics and chemistry which, in those days, took the place of Higher School Certificates. Later, however, some Jewish friends funded a full-time study which he completed in the summer of 1944.

Harry managed to maintain a social life during this period by joining a group of Jewish students who met every couple of weeks to discuss philosophical issues. He also joined a youth group at the Upper Berkeley Street Synagogue, now the West London Synagogue becoming increasingly aware of the peril facing European Jewry, and, by extension, the precarious situation facing his parents. His last communication with them was in the form of a 25-word Red Cross postcard, in which his father told him that they were to depart on a transport ‘to the East’ the following day. The implications were obvious.

In late 1944, with no further work available in the lab, Harry volunteered for the army. Owing to his south coast connection, Harry was signposted to the regiment of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI). Basic training took place in Glasgow, where new recruits were posted, and Harry recalls this as ‘an absolutely terrible place, having been condemned for use by troops in 1916 yet still there in 1944’. The basic training was arduous. Harry had joined up at the same time as Felix Frankfurter, another Kindertransport contemporary who had come from Berlin, and who was already known to Harry from the Upper Berkeley Street Synagogue. It was shortly after this when the two of them were summoned to the Company Commander and advised that it would be prudent for them to change their names. Felix was ready to change his name and ‘Franks’ was, of course, the obvious choice. Harry’s choice was not quite as obvious as ‘Greilsamer’ did not easily lend itself to an acceptably related alternative. When Harry discussed this with Geoff, back home, Geoff happened to look up at his father’s bookcase to discover an autobiography of a local landowner and seafarer called Sir Richard Grenville, and there – lo and behold – was the local connection.

By 1945 Harry was undertaking company training in North Norfolk. Although the war in Europe had finished by May 1945, Harry does not have recollections about VE Day, being quite distant from the heady celebrations which were occurring elsewhere in the country. He was being trained for imminent jungle warfare in the Far East but when the Atomic Bombs were dropped in Japan, this became quite irrelevant.  

At this time a notice appeared on the Company Notice Board requesting volunteers to act as interpreters. Harry then passed the interview and within a few months was back in London again for a few months of intensive studying for a German interpreter’s course. Subjects included specialist interpreting, which took in legal, agricultural or transport matters. By Christmas 1945 Harry had finished the interpreter’s course and went on a very slow train trip from England to the town of Bunde in Westphalia, Germany, to put his newfound interpreting skills to good use.

In London he had searched the lists of survivors from the concentration camps and found no trace of his parents; the opportunity to return to Germany offered the chance to try to find them. He was allocated to a search team that comprised two staff cars, one commanding officer, one interpreter, two mechanics and a clerk, plus three volumes of typed notes about Nazi War Criminals now suspected of being within the Russian zone of occupation. However, soon after arrival, he was summoned into the Chief Interpreter’s Office and told he had to report back to the UK for Officer Training, a frustrating example of one department’s needs conflicting with those of another’s. Despite Harry’s preference to remain as a corporal and stay to assist the search teams, it was not possible to override a direct War Office Order, so he reluctantly returned back to the UK for Officer Training. Graduating as a ‘newly minted Second Lieutenant’ – only to discover that there were now no vacancies for officers in search teams in Germany, whereas, had he stayed as a corporal, it might have been possible to accommodate him! The War Office had found room for an Officer Interpreter at a base camp for prisoners of war in Devon. 

The year now was 1946 and work in the PoW camps was mainly administrative and office work which organised the sending out of prisoners to working camps, where they were housed in hostels. Not long afterwards Harry was transferred to a Working Camp at Cattistock only seven miles from Dorchester, where prisoners were employed in civilian jobs like agriculture which was highly labour intensive since most of the native indigenous workforce was still waiting to be demobbed from the Forces. Harry’s job was to visit each of the camps, by motorbike, and oversee provisions of food, fuel and small amounts of post from Germany. 

From Harry’s work camp around a hundred and fifty Germans were billeted to work on surrounding farms and Harry was effectively in charge of their welfare. By 1946 it was decided that barbed wire was no longer necessary so at Cattistock all the barbed wire came down. However, to denote a semblance of a prison camp, a single strand of barbed wire was maintained just four inches above ground level, which one simply stepped over. A gap was left for trucks to enter and exit the camp. Three regulations persisted: no prisoner of war was to use public transport, enter licensed premises (pubs) or have any relationships with female persons. These regulations slowly began to disappear. 

The relations between the Germans and the local population was often very convivial. For example, one German hostel in a place called Martinstown housed eighty to ninety people. Here the Germans had a dance band which was extremely popular with the locals. Eventually, a great many Germans decided to stay in England, undergoing a process termed ‘civilianisation’. This process was very unwieldy and took Harry a day with each German, who had to prove that they had a job, that they had somewhere to live, and could report to the police on a daily basis. Much form filling was involved including a War Office form which allowed Germans to be released as if they were being repatriated.

I asked Harry if his daily contact with Germans created any conflict for himself, in view of the fact that they were nationals of a country from which he had fled and in which his family had been persecuted. He was quite sanguine, viewing the vast majority of the German PoWs as non-political and uninvolved with the racist philosophy which had hallmarked Germany before and during the war. All the German PoWs were categorised as A, B, C, according to how involved they had been with Nazi organisations. Category A included older Germans with left-wing politics, who were considered very low risk and who were offered preferential repatriation. A man called Mr Bloxham came from the Foreign Office once a month to conduct interviews with the PoWs and he was very clever and devious in extracting information from any liars, by making them believe that he had a full record of their military service details, so that they were often reluctant to withhold information. One had to be careful with the Waffen SS: if you joined pre 1942, you really had to be an extremely keen Nazi as well as having had to prove that you had thirty two non-Jewish ancestors going back four generations. After that date, as manpower became a greater issue, this requirement was relaxed. Category B prisoners were sent home strictly in order of capture, whilst Category C prisoners, those most imbued with Nazism, were pulled out as quickly as possible and sent to a special camp in Caithness. Harry met two (soon to become) Category C prisoners who were actually from Yugoslavia, and who insisted that the war was not yet over and all was merely English propaganda. Harry discovered them near Bovington, where a German gang were working on roadworks, spending three weekends visiting in order to grade them. Harry used his training from Mr Bloxham whilst interviewing them, having by now been told that he was more than ‘up to the task’ to carry out his own interviews.

Harry met his wife, Helen, whilst he was at Cattistock. Harry and Helen were married in a church at Chilfrome on 30th December 1950. Helen’s father was the church warden. Helen was a devout Christian although anti-evangelical, and was herself a schoolteacher, teaching children of five to six years old. Harry and Helen had three children: John (born 1953), Andrew (born 1954) and Jane (born 1958).

Harry left this work in 1948, and then went to Kings College London University to study Botany, Zoology and Chemistry. By this time Harry knew that he wanted to become a teacher, and subsequently studied for a Teacher Training qualification.

After qualifying as a teacher, Harry taught Sciences at various schools until 1986. He taught principally Biology, with a small amount of Chemistry, and also taught General Studies. In addition he supervised groups of boys training for their Duke of Edinburgh Awards whilst also taking a Divinity Group comprising six to eight boys which debated religious and philosophical issues of the day.

Towards the end of our interview, Harry wanted to talk further about developments in Ludwigsburg over the last couple of decades. Having been burnt down on Kristallnacht, the future of the synagogue site had become a keenly debated topic amongst the townspeople . Many suggestions had been made, for example, a children’s playground, and a block of flats, a six-lane road for the local bus station were just a few ideas which came and went. In 1958, in Harry’s words, ‘a pathetic effort was made to commemorate the site’. Nine trees were planted with a gravel surface which easily became waterlogged in bad weather, the nine trees being chosen to represent the original nine Torah Scrolls of the synagogue. Commemorative stones were also chosen, but the inscriptions carefully avoided mentioning any human victims from that time. ‘On this site stood the Ludwigsburg Synagogue, deliberately destroyed’ stated one plaque, but omitted to mention by whom the destruction had been perpetrated! Another plaque mentioned ‘The National Socialist Tyranny’. A number of people in the town were, like Harry, totally ‘underwhelmed’ by this response. In 2009 three Stolpersteine, in memory of Harry’s parents and his grandmother, were placed outside the last flat the family had occupied. Harry returned along with his three children in 2009 for the Stolpersteine ceremony (Helen was not well enough to attend). The ceremony was carried out with much thought and dignity, with the mayor present, and a ceremony preceded it in the Town Hall. Around two hundred people gathered in the street.

HG stolpersteine

Stolpersteine shows Harry's parents' and grandmother's names.

A total of nine stones were laid that day, although, in some cases, no surviving family members were there to witness the occasion. Harry and his children met relatives of a little girl who had suffered from cerebral palsy and had been killed at the age of nine, an aunt of Harry’s who suffered from mental health problems experienced the same fate. Harry also went back to his former family home. Although the flats in which he had lived with his family was now part of a psychiatric hospital, he was warmly invited to come in and look around.

Meanwhile, the same Ludwigsburg people who had been unimpressed with the original ‘nine trees’ memorial now agreed a much more suitable alternative: models of suitcases, each representing a resident who had lost their lives during Nazi occupation, were distributed on the site: this was done extremely well, and a further ceremony to record this took place in 2014, attended by Harry, his son Andrew.

HG Town Memorial2

Ludwigsburg Town Memorial - Harry's parents' names are shown

Harry felt OK about his two returns to Ludwigsburg because the young people of the town – a third generation after the Nazis – 'are anxious to make good what their ancestors have done'. He harbours no animosity to the German people, despite everything.

And finally, what had happened to Harry’s parents, Jacob and Klara, and his grandmother, Sara? In the 1980s a list of gas chambers at Auschwitz emerged with their names on it. But in 2012, a much more dramatic piece of evidence appeared. Completely out of the blue, the chairman of the synagogue site refurbishment committee received an email from a Polish photographer. Attached was a picture of a heap of battered suitcases from a showcase in the museum at Auschwitz. In the bottom left-hand corner was a case clearly marked ‘Jacob Greilsamer’. Harry regards this as forensic proof that his parents and grandmother were murdered at Auschwitz. He wonders how the photographer, known only as Marek, came to associate the name with the town of Ludwigsburg. An email sent to him to thank him for taking the photo remained unacknowledged.

In loving memory of Harry Grenville (Heinz Greilsamer) 1926-2019 


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