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My Life- The Story of a German Jew-Part One

by derbycsv

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Bernard Grunberg
Location of story: 
From Germany to England
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 September 2005

This story has been submitted by Alison Tebbutt, Derby CSV Action Desk on behalf of Bernard Grunberg. The author has given his permission and understands the site's terms and conditions

I was born in a small town near the Dutch border in North-West Germany. There was a small Jewish community there, about twelve or fourteen families. All the Jewish children went to the Christian school because the Jewish community wasn’t big enough to justify a Jewish school. They did have a one room school at the back of the local synagogue. We got religious teaching there twice a week on a Wednesday afternoon because there was no school then, and on Sunday mornings. So our religious lives were kept alive for a time.

I was at this elementary school for four years, and then went to the school of higher education in 1933. I had quite a decent beginning there, but towards the autumn of 1933 the Nazi Propaganda took hold of the young boys there, and I being the only Jewish boy at the school at this time suffered terrific aggression and bullying. It went to the extent of physical and mental assault. This happened every day during the pause in the playground between lessons and also on the way home. The teachers were very tolerant. They never made any remarks and had to be careful what they said because teaching was their livelihood. So, they never interfered with what was going on in the playground, although I’m sure they must have seen it. Whenever there were any particular Nazi Propaganda lessons being given then a teacher would come up to me and tell me to go home. Those were the only times I went home without being molested. Those days didn’t come often enough for me.

I don’t know if I blame the pupils to a great extent because it was the Nazi Propaganda, the anti-Jewish propaganda that went on that made these boys convinced that whatever they were being told was true, and was right. So, you were a complete outcast so to speak.

I was there until 1937 when my Dad decided it wasn’t worth studying anymore. I think my parents could tell that I was suffering, though I never mentioned it. I was taken away once I had done my schooling.

My father was a cattle dealer. I learnt to milk the cows we kept and looked after them, milking them twice a day. I took the surplus milk to the creamery. This helped me to overcome the loss of playmates and school friends. So, this didn’t bother me any longer. I didn’t have any time, and I certainly don’t have any time for them now.

I had a relatively happy childhood. Generally, the population of the town was very tolerant towards the Jewish Community. We never had any trouble until around 1938. This was unusual in comparison to what went on in other German towns, even at that time.

Then I went to Berlin to a technical retraining school. It meant there was academics there, school leavers etc. These people were to be tested for a trade, to find out which trade would be suitable for them. The end result was to be an eventual immigration to Israel. Useful trades included joinery, metal work and gardening. You were also supposed to do a three month course in each section. They would then decide your trade. I was sent there in April 1938. I enjoyed my time there very much.

Then the assault on the place by the Nazis came. A group of them marched onto the premises and literally herded everyone into one part of the premises and kept us there. They set the place on fire. We were not allowed to go anywhere or do anything until they thought it had been completely burnt out. All the valuable machinery and everything else was totally destroyed. It was never used again either, because no-one saw the point in spending money on a place which may only be open for a very short time.

The Germans started hounding and ill treating Jews. This went on to cover more or less the whole of Europe. On the 8th November 1938 all Synagogues in Germany were set on fire and destroyed. All Jewish shops were looted, windows were smashed and the goods thrown out onto the street. People saw this, but no-one bothered to stop it. This was organised by the state.

Then the Jewish community in Germany approached those in Great Britain and asked for Jewish Refugees to be allowed to come in. This was turned down on account that they didn’t want to do it because of employment concerns. After further approach they agreed on an unspecified number of children between the ages of two to seventeen to enter. They were under strict instruction to not undertake any paid or unpaid work and never to fall on the state for help. They also had to immigrate as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the people in Europe and Germany started organising transports. This started on the 1st December, 1938. I was lucky enough to be on the second transport bound for England. I well remember that my father had been arrested on the 8th or 9th November, like practically all male Jews, and had been taken to Concentration Camps. They were told it was for their on protection. Now knowing today what a concentration camp was, can you imagine taking somebody there for their own protection? What protection? They had none.

I had come back from Berlin the day before I was due to go out on this transport. It was when I got home that I found out that my Dad was in this Concentration Camp. My mother must have given the consent for me to go. I think this must have been a terrible ordeal for her, not knowing if my father would ever come out, or if he did what would his reaction be to this? Anyway, late that evening there was a knock on the door and it was my father. He had been released-probably because he was a soldier in the First World War (he probably regretted it ever since.) He was released, but he had to sign a paper to say that if he hadn’t emigrated within six months he would be re-arrested. I’m under no illusion what that would have meant.

I don’t know how, but the train came very near to where I was born on its way to England. My Dad managed to get on that train and go with me till we reached the Dutch-German border. As the train stopped of course my father had to get off. What we talked about on this trip I have not the faintest idea. The thing that I do remember is as the train stopped on the German side, the Nazi guards went trough the train and opened up all the suitcases. They took everything out. Perhaps all they wanted was to destroy it, I don’t know. I find this a terrible thing to do because these things were probably the only things these children had to remind them of their homes and their parents……..

The train moved onto Holland and the first stop was crowded full of people. We were showered with hot and cold drinks of all kinds, snacks biscuits bits of cake, you name it they got it. I think everyone who was old enough on that train realised that something like that would never have happened in Germany. Everyone who was old enough would have appreciated that, but don’t forget there were children there as young as two years old. They would have had no idea what was going on, I didn’t really, and I was fifteen. Anyway, the rest of the journey I can’t really remember. The next thing I remember was being taken to a holiday camp at Lowestoft. It had unheated wooden huts. It was near the sea. In fact it if it was anywhere nearer the sea it would have been underwater. We were there for about eight to ten days. The first night they gave us a hot water bottle. I undressed the same as I would at home and then found that the hot water bottle had turned to ice during the night. I was so uncomfortable. After that, all I ever took off were my shoes and overcoat.

We moved to over camp near Harwich. Here we had brick built huts, though again we had no heating. Still, it was much more comfortable and life was bearable. Then a big surprise came. A small group, including myself, were taken to the Salvation Army home for soldiers and sailors. They took twenty of us. The treatment there was something I will never forget. It was fantastic. They made a special effort. I can’t remember how long I was there.

The war soon began and the British Government allowed me to take on work, but only agricultural work. I had knowledge of cattle so they sent me to the agricultural training school. It turned out to be a Borstal institution. This had a very bad effect on me and I always maintained that if I hadn’t left there within twelve months I would have had to be carried out.

I had a complete set of Joiner tools sent from home. Someone at the camp got to know about it and asked me to go outside the camp and go to a big house. I met a gent there who wanted me to do some joiner work. I didn’t hesitate for a second because it meant being away from the camp environment. He turned out to be an Official working for Morris Motor Works and he told me if war did break out he would find me a job there.

I had done a few shelves, before building a greenhouse. I had no idea where to start, but I succeeded even though I didn’t even know what an inch meant. It ended up being much stronger than it needed to be. It never collapsed, that is a certainty.

Meanwhile, war broke out and it meant going back to the Institution. I kept thinking how can I get out of here? Eventually I had the idea to volunteer for the cowshed, so I was sent there. The instructor checked my first cow and then I didn’t see him again. A few weeks later and I was on my first job.

I was as happy as anyone could be because I was earning a living, which was spectacular. Also I was free within reason. Lodgings were reasonable and I had five shillings a week to myself. The only thing was not knowing what had happened at home and also I had homesickness. This made me hide myself on my own and cry my eyes out. I really felt the effect of being away from home and my parents. I was sixteen. Can anybody imagine what that must have felt like, for a sixteen year old boy? I had no-one to ask advice. Everything was your own decision whether it was right or wrong. There was nobody there to discuss it with, there wasn’t anybody there. Yes, I had workmates, but I couldn’t ask them.

Part two of this story can be found at

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