u3a - Kindertransport Memories - Fred Stern

Fred Stern

Member of Chorleywood u3a

by Fred Stem
My internment

Originally written for Association of Jewish Refugees Journal. You can read more of Fred's story on their website here: AJR Refugee Voices - Fred Stern

The recent literary output on internment prompts me to write my personal account as an internee to ensure that this chapter of British history is chronicled and preserved for posterity, rather than erased as an uncomfortable reminder of gross misjudgement. It records the fate of thousands of refugees who owe their lives to this country and
of those who worked ceaselessly to rescue us from the clutches of the Nazis.
This article is no more than a thumbnail sketch of an episode. It represents my own experience rather than stating an opinion. When Winston Churchill proclaimed 'Collar the lot!' he was expressing the fears of the people and panicked into an act of great folly by losing, at a stroke, the most valuable and trustworthy people in this country.

His action achieved no purpose. On the contrary, it diminished the war effort and increased the war's duration not only by reducing the workforce but also by stifling the contribution of the most well-meaning friends that Britain ever had.

On Sunday 12 May 1940, police came to the youth hostel in Bournemouth where I was living by the grace of the Jewish committee, which was not very anxious to rescue Jews from Germany and Austria. My mother, who had the great foresight to find domestic work in England, pleaded with the committee for my inclusion in the Kindertransport. The police not only interrogated the boys but also inspected our belongings. Among my
dear possessions was a Morse tape set I had used in my scouting days in Vienna. This battery-operated device, connected by wire, was viewed with suspicion as I might have used it to communicate with invading German ships off the coast of Bournemouth! It was confiscated, as was
a map of Switzerland on which was marked in red the route travelled by coach on a holiday with the Scouts.

I hurriedly packed my schoolbag, forgetting my pyjamas and toothbrush: we were only going to be taken away for a short period! I was not allowed to phone my parents (I managed to bring my father over in time before the war started - the rest of the family perished). We arrived in Southampton and camped in a school gym. We were joined by many other boys, given a rough blanket and laid on the bare floor, my schoolbag serving as a pillow. I managed to secure a toothbrush and used one of two shirts as a nightdress! After a week, we were sent to Huyton, where we stayed in a holiday camp. I was allocated a tent, shared by four boys. We slept on straw mattresses, which we filled. They were used by day as bridge tables. After a time we were moved into houses which, after the tent accommodation, resembled five-star hotels!

Those of us who were enterprising found ways and means to improve our living standards by 'organising' forays to secure extra food, blankets, shoes, clothes, tools and other amenities. After all, we were in a holiday camp! I rubbed shoulders with Kaiser Wilhelm's grandson looking for firewood.

The jolly atmosphere was abruptly ended when we suffered what we called the 'black hole of Calcutta' in Liverpool. From there we went to the Isle of Man, where we were to live in houses along the Douglas promenade. A barbed-wire fence limited our movement but we were allowed to swim, while soldiers stood in the water with their rifles above their heads. Every day we were subjected to a roll call. Each house had a 'father' who was
responsible for us. Two very old brothers in the house who were also interned in the first war had never become naturalised.

One day in July we were offered the choice of being sent to Australia or Canada. I opted for the latter because it was not as far from England and from friends who lived in New York. We were told we were to be interned as 'enemy aliens' for the duration of the war, which we expected to be over in a year. It is worth recording the events that decided my fate. Along with the other boys in the hostel, I was requested to go to the police station with all my documentation. There I was questioned as to why and how I had come to England. Irrespectively, we were all assessed as a risk to the security of the country as we might have been members of the Hitler youth and spied on our parents! We were awarded a Category B, which presaged internment.

On that occasion, I had my Austrian passport, bearing a large red 'J' and 'Israel' added to my name, impounded by the police. Even had they noticed these accolades in my passport, it would not have altered their preconceived decision. My father was classed as a C since he was not considered as high a risk, but he was later also interned as the war progressed, arriving in Douglas just after I left.

Male and some female refugees in this country were interned, particularly those living in certain coastal areas. The whole affair was
disorganisation on a grand scale. We boarded the Sobieski and sailed for Canada in a convoy, but soon lost the power of an engine and had to slow down. We were left alone except for a destroyer which guarded us against a U-boat. From the start, we found that half the ship was partitioned off and occupied by German PoWs. Evidently, the authorities recognised that we were a different sort of alien. Eating at long trestle tables, we soon noticed the soup slopping about in the plate and the horizon moving up and down in sympathy. This proved too much for most of us and we scrambled up to the deck. Old soldiers were guarding us along the rails as if we were likely to escape! They were just as seasick as we
were. One of them asked me to hold his bayoneted rifle while he kept the seagulls happy. In the bowels of the ship, we slept in hammocks. I can't recall how we kept clean, but we survived. I don't remember being scared, trusting the protection afforded us. Somehow, with much daily sickness and in rude health, we crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland after ten days at sea and sailed up St Lawrence to Quebec. Welcome to Canada!

Arriving by rail in Trois Rivieres. We were marched through the city, inhabited by what seemed nineteenth-century French colonials cramming
their balconies, from which they hurled abuse at us. It was a horrendous experience. At Camp J, we were welcomed by German PoWs singing the Horst Wessel Song. It was most gruelling to hear the words 'Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt' (When Jewish blood sprays from the knife) 5,000 miles from the scene of those crimes. We managed to get separated.

We were allowed two censored letters a week, 'Prisoner of War' being embossed on the envelopes. Later I learned that my parents were informed by the Home Office that I had drowned on the Arandora Star. Luckily on the previous day, they received a telegram from their friends, whom I had informed on arrival in Canada, that I was safe. The Home Office was sorry! But they were never sorry they had interned me at the age of 16. Nor did they offer any compensation. Times have changed! Our first meal consisted of bread and pink Canadian cheese, which, we were told, was prepared by the Germans. We put a stop to that right away and our boys cooked meals to perfection. There was no shortage of ingredients. I acted as a waiter, as I did throughout my internment. I discovered that the kitchen staff had to mix bromide into our cereals to stop us from diverting our thoughts! Porridge has never since entered my home.

As this was a transit camp, we moved on to Camp B, a clearing in the forest. We occupied ourselves with a variety of jobs and asked to be able to help the war effort. I found it rewarding to make camouflage nets from the green cords for covering tanks. I also made trestle tables for the forces. In my spare time, I made a pair of clogs with leather straps and created a wooden mushroom to repair my socks. There was time to study too. We had among us good teachers, from whom I learned Spanish and Gregg Shorthand, and I taught myself trigonometry and
calculus. I joined a matriculation course with Toronto University. In English Literature, we studied Julius Caesar but did not neglect Goethe and Schiller for our German either. I also gave dissertations on Vohaire and Kemal Ataturk. We held organised political discussions as well as debating other subjects.

Throughout that time our 'elder statesmen' negotiated with the authorities regarding our refugee status but to no avail. We decided to go on a hunger strike - for four days, having sent out our stock of food. Canadian newspapers found out about our action. We won. But the next day happened to be Yom Kippur We fought hard to be recognised as Jewish refugees.

We moved on again, to Camp A, where we had to build our own houses. Each house held 72 inmates, with showers and washbasins between the halves. I even joined a team digging the drains to the toilets. These had no doors and occasionally someone sailed a burning paper boat along the drain! Originally, we just had latrines in the open, which meant sitting on bars, careful not to bend backwards! Some volunteered to empty the buckets.

We slept on bunk beds - I always chose the top bunk, jumping in from the end to the consternation of the fellow below. I made a bridge table, placed between the bunks. For our comfort, we were issued a horse blanket - no sheets, my school satchel still acting as my pillow. I eventually
bought myself pyjamas and other items with the 25 cents a day I earned felling trees. The most exhilarating, but strenuous, work in the winter. The gates in the barbed wire surrounding the camp were opened and about a dozen inmates, carrying axes, were escorted into the woods. Trees up to 1 ft. thick were felled - a big notch cut at the bottom, followed by a small one opposite until the tree fell in the desired direction over the first notch.

Maple trees were not to be touched. We also shaved off the barks and carried the trees to a river to float them down. They were to serve as pit props. In the forest, we had to wear a thick grey shirt with a red patch, one ft. in diameter, on our backs - so that we wouldn't get too far away! Rubber boots and two pairs of socks didn't prevent frostbite and chilblains at -20°C.

Life in internment was not all work and study. All the professions were represented. There was a great deal of talent for entertainment from comedy to concerts, to plays and even operas. Goethe's Faust in German made a huge impression on me; it seemed totally authentic. Besides, we made an ice rink, played football and kept up our morale at all times. But we never dug an escape tunnel. Just before matriculation examinations, I acquired my release, my parents have worked hard to obtain it.

A number of us were taken to the Isle aux Noix in the river in Montreal, where we spent several days in the company of Italian PoWs, who fed
us spaghetti. Returning to England in April 1942 on the Capetown Castle I found my way to Berkhamsted, where my parents were living.

Unannounced, I rang the bell. My mother screamed 'Der Bub ist da!' (The boy's here!) and called my father. Her hair was white: my internment had taken its toll on her.

Was any harm done to me? You can make your own judgement. I lost two years but learned a lot about life. Being of impressionable age, much of me was shaped by the experience. I do not underestimate the positive contribution it made to my mind, enabling me to deal with many a situation. Yet, I would not wish to go through it all again.

It was certainly not a holiday.

Fred at Liverpool Street Station

Fred at the Kinderstransport Statue at Liverpool Street Station, 

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