u3a - Kindertransport Memories - Lawrence for Judy

Lawrence Collins

Member of Thorpe Bay u3a, writing about Judy Benton

Interview with Judy Benton, Kindertransport refugee

North-West London, 23rd February 2013

My friend Otto Deutsch, himself a Kindertransportee, kindly put me in touch with his good friend Judy Benton - another 90 year old - who had come to Britain in 1938 on the Kindertransport. During 1938 - 1939, through the dedicated efforts of a few, around 10,000 children were plucked from the increasing darkness and hopelessness which was pervading Jewish life in Germany and brought across to England. Many, many accounts of these children's stories have been told. Judy's story must rank as one of the most incredible.

On a bright November Sunday morning, I took the M25 to see Judy at her flat in North West London. I was reassured to meet another very welcoming lady only too happy to recount to me details of her life, which, at one time, proved to have been extremely precarious. As I looked around her comfortable flat, my eyes were drawn to a photograph of a smartly dressed man shaking hands with George W. Bush. The man in question was her son, and he was now the manager of a prestigious hotel in Pennsylvania, where presidential visits were not uncommon. The thought struck me, as Judy recounted her story, at how tiny had once been the likelihood of such a photo ever once coming into existence (and not just due to the unlikelihood of George W.Bush ever becoming President George W Bush!).

Judy was born in Meissen, Germany in 1921. Only 6 Jewish families lived in the town. Her father owned a small chemical manufacturing business making items like candles, shoe polish, perfumes and soap. She was good at school and enjoyed learning. In 1931 Hitler's fascist regime came to dominance, exploiting Germany's high unemployment and poor economic situation. Judy recalls: "The national stereotype of the German blue-eyed, blonde-haired, pure people - the Aryan - began to contrast with the stereotype of the Jewish people with dark hair, beards and crooked noses".

Crude caricature posters increasingly began to reflect the above stereotype. Jews were identified as moral criminals who were only rich at the expense of hardworking Germans.

This ideology is what lead Jews to be sidelined - socially and economically. Judy's first experience of this was at school. "Teacher was a Nazi, and school friends were no longer allowed to talk to me. My desk was put against a wall and a yellow Magen David was painted on it. The words "Dirty Jewish Girl" were scrawled on it. Any schoolwork was returned unmarked with no comments". Other pupils were allowed - even encouraged -  to do what they wanted to her, often spitting in her face.

Shops carried notices "Dog and Jews not Allowed". In 1938 her father's factory was confiscated. The family no longer had any income.

Home in those days was on the 7th floor of an apartment block in the main street. One day Judy came home from school to find the door wide open and no sign of either her parents or sister. A neighbour across the corridor told her - with a touch of relish - what had happened ......"they took your parents...and will come back soon to take you". Judy remembers having to think quickly:

"I hurriedly looked for my birth certificate and passport, packed a small case, closed the front door and went to Meissen station. I took a train to Dresden and went straight to the synagogue we used on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. I told them what had happened and they said they knew of a Kindertransport train which was leaving from Leipzig".

 She was provided with some fare money and food to help her get to the train. She recalls: "At Leipzig Station, I saw a scene of many people with much chaos and confusion, with many mothers and young children. I was the oldest person there. How could I possibly get on the train?! As if by a miracle the answer was provided. I started to be approached by some of the mothers who asked me if I could look after their children. They thought that I was a carer because I was older".

There was still some time left before the train departed, so Judy walked to the shops of Leipzig where she found a shop selling costume dresses. Included amongst these was a nurses uniform - with a white apron, white cap with a red cross. A timely purchase of this in all likelihood saved her life. Dressed as a nurse she raced back to the station and jumped on the train. Nobody asked to look at any documentation or paperwork, but then the children had no papers with them either - such was the speed and chaos of this mammoth undertaking. The train pulled out amidst scenes of great anguish.

I asked Judy to tell me her memories of that journey - of the young children and why she threw away her Magen David: 'I do know they cried a lot and cried themselves to sleep. I was busy with my own thoughts and very bewildered. I was not a bit afraid really as I knew I was going to be free. Yes, I threw my few bits of jewellery away, because I thought this would be a good reason to take me off the train.'

As Judy had correctly anticipated, the train stopped at the Dutch border, where she hid in the toilet and threw away her Magen David. The boarding of the Kindertransport trains by German soldiers has frequently been described by the children who came over. The reason for boarding was inevitably to loot and confiscate any personal possessions which the children were taking with them to start their new and uncertain lives in a strange land.

At the next stop - Utrecht - smiling Dutch ladies came aboard with food and drink. This was a most unusual experience and a great contrast for many of the children, who had been used to so much animosity, cruelty and uncertainty for so many years in Germany. A British ship was waiting at the Hook of Holland which sailed for Harwich, from where a train transferred them to Liverpool Street station.

Upon arrival, the children were met on the platform by mothers, fathers or guarantors - another seething mass of humanity -  which mimicked the departure scenes at Leipzig. Children went off to their new homes - sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, in some cases reunited with relatives, in others meeting their guarantors for the first time. Gradually, the amorphous mass of people started to thin out - and, finally, disappeared. Judy, not having a guarantor, was alone again, in a new country, with no family or friends, and not knowing a solitary soul - a sad but inevitable consequence of her successful and ingenious bid for freedom and survival.

The lady who was overseeing operations had no option but to take her to Woburn House, where a letter was written giving her an introduction to an East End hostel. She was given sixpence for the bus fare and the number of the double-decker bus to catch (like the other children she had never seen such a vehicle before). On alighting from the bus she asked directions for the hostel from a passing policeman - and was amazed to be answered in Yiddish. Later, a woman street trader selling vegetables also spoke to her in Yiddish - a source of comfort to her.

There were 6 - 7 children in the hostel, from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. Eventually, she along with others from the hostel were sent to agricultural college, near Lingfield, Surrey. This is where she met Julius Biegelsen who was to become her husband. 

The British government had been assured that many of the 10,000 Kindertransport children would be simply stopping off in England en route to Palestine and other countries where families were waiting to welcome them. Short term plans now had to become longer-term strategies. Increasing national security concerns meant that many kindertransport children now had to face the prospect of being interned as "friendly aliens" despite the fact that both they and the British shared the same anti-German sentiments. Although not herself interned, Judy faced resentment from the staff at the college. She maintained contact with her parents through the Red Cross and discovered, eventually, that they together with her sister had been killed in Auschwitz in 1943. This she found out from a camp survivor who she went to Cheder with in Meissen, and who had witnessed their final journey - together with that of his own parents.

In the same year, 1943, Judy gave birth to her daughter and a son was born in 1947. She is now blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Over the last decade, Judy has returned to Meissen three times. On her most recent visit only last year on 9th November to mark the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht. She gave an address to two hundred people which included many local dignitaries. She was presented with a Meissen Seder plate from the famous Meissen porcelain manufacturer. It contained all the traditional Hebrew lettering and symbols, and she proudly showed me the famous Meissen swords engraved on the back.

 mordaunt cohen and judy benton 010

Judy at her home in London, 2013

In a moving ceremony, a special stone (called Stolpersteine) was put into the pavement outside her old house, to commemorate this as her family home.

I asked Judy how it felt returning to a town and country with so many dark memories, and after so many years. Was it hard for her to go back? I wondered if she still hated the Germans? Her reply was very magnanimous.

"Don't forget this generation has not grown up under a Nazi regime. On the contrary, I met some youngsters who went to Israel and worked in the kibbutzim. The Priest there was very nice. He speaks Hebrew and when he invited my daughter and me to a luncheon at their home, we saw a chanukiah in his glass case. Wherever we went and whoever we got in contact with, well, it was so different! There is a different wind blowing. It is unreal. They told me I am building bridges between both countries. I should really hate them, but the people I met were not even alive when Hitler was in power. I told them; when they asked me if I hated them, I told them hatred would only be a festering thing and that in the end, it would make me ill. I said all I can ask you do not ever let it happen again! I shall never forget. I love that town. It is so beautiful, over 1000 years old. Maybe I am mad, as I really had lost everything. My whole teenage years and childhood were full of anxiety. I lost my family....but maybe I am not normal. I think to myself... If you hold on too tight to the past, you can't embrace the present."

In loving memory of Judy Benton 1921 - 2021

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