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Laugh or Cry - Children's Transport from Hamburg

by culture_durham

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Sylvia Hurst (nee Fleischer)
Location of story: 
Hamburg to Holland to London
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 July 2005

Hamburg Main Railway Station

Childrens Transport to England on Platform 4

I was lucky, I had been included in a Children’s Transport from Hamburg. Parents were not allowed on the platform, they had been told they must go home as soon as the children are assembled outside the station. Please to co-operate.

Miss Edith Rosenthal, the Matron of the Orphanage, had seen us off. She had arranged my place on the transport. Most of our children were boarders at the orphanage, including myself, enabling us to attend Jewish schools in Hamburg. They had been excluded from the schools of their hometown or because of some unpleasantness of sorts. I had attended the Jewish Fashion College in Hamburg.

We had arrived too early at the Railway Station.

Miss Rosenthal said, “Children, I am sorry, I have to go. Have a good journey. Do write when you get there. God bless you, God bless you all. Here is your Helper.” She handed us over to an elderly lady, giving her the list with our names.

The lady was all dressed in grey, a sort of travelling costume, with a pink straw hat. She studied the list, then counted us.

She approached me, “Will you look after these two.” She handed me Suzi, aged 4 , and Morris, aged 5. “I shall take the other ones. Stay on the pavement. Do be quiet”. She clapped her hands. I thought, I bet she is a school teacher. Once again she consulted her wrist watch. She clapped her hands again, “It is time, come along.”

We were marched through the Station Hall. I noticed a large, white sign: CHILDRENS TRANSPORT TO ENGLAND PLATFORM 4.

Down the steps we went, and up again, Suzi clutching my hand and Morris hanging on to the belt of my coat. I had to carry my suitcase, it was so heavy. I had always admired this suitcase, made of crocodile skin. It belonged to mother. It was the wrong choice to take. They had put a long table on the platform. It had several large cardboard boxes on it, showing the Alphabet in large letters. Our helper handed over the list, one lady searched through the list whilst the other one rummaged in the boxes for our labels. She called our names, we were given a tag to hang around our neck. “You must never, never take this off, this is important, is has your number on it!” I noticed my surname starting with an extra large initial.

Packaged like a parcel. Yes, we were packaged like parcels, a long line of children waiting patiently for the train. There was a Helper with a baby in her arms, it could not have been more than a year old. The Helper struggled with a laundry basket, there seemed to be nappies in it, what a baby carriage! Who would send such a small child away? Perhaps it went for adoption.

The train arrived. They shooed us into the compartments, these were single ones for about eight people. I thought, that will make it difficult for them to supervise the children. I had not seen many helpers.

Morris, Suzi and I were joined by three more children, an older boy and a girl and boy who I thought looked about seven or eight. The Helper picked up my label, read it, and said, “Sylvia, you are in charge. Good luck!” and then she went, presumably to the next compartment, along the corridor.

The older boy, named Helmut, helped me to put the luggage into the overhead nets, the ones used for hand luggage.

A slight squabble, who can have the window seats?

“Sit down and be quiet, here you can all have a sweet.” My little go-away present from the Domestic Science students at orphanage came in useful. It worked, but for how long?

Finally the train left. I introduced the children to each other. “This is Suzi…this is Morris…Helmut, how old are you?” “Twelve last May”. “”What is your name?” “Lisolette.” “And yours?” “Reuben”.

The train started to gather speed.

After a while a lady came around, offering drinks, “Pop or milk?”

“Do we have to pay?” asked Helmut.

“No, it’s free”.

I was glad it was in bottles with a straw. No messy, spilling cups. She said “If you have to go to the toilet, go with the older girl, we don’t want you getting lost.”

For an Express train it seemed to move slowly, perhaps it was not an Express train.

“Let’s have a sing-song”, I said. I started.

Wir Fahren In Der Kutch
Wir Fahren In Der Schnecken Post
Weil Sie Nur Einen Kreutzer Kost
Ri Ra Rutch

Ri Ra Roach
We travel in a coach
A coach as slow as a snail
This is a sorry tale
It only costs a penny
Go and tell you granny
Ri Ra Roach. [Very free translation by Sylvia.]

“I am not singing that, I’m not a baby”, complained Helmut.

“Of course not, you are there to help me.” That seemed to satisfy the boy. Each of the children had a turn on my lap, up and down, right and left.

“What is a Kreutzer”, asked Suzi.

“In your grandmother’s time, a Pfennig was called a Kreutzer.”

“I called her Oma”, said Suzi. [Oma=Grandmother.]

“In your Oma’s time there were not many trains, people went by coach and horses. What other songs do you know?”

Hoppe, Hoppe, Reiter
When er Faellt
Dann Schreit er
Faellt er in den Graben
Fressen ihn die Raben
Faellt er in den Sumpf
Macht der Reiter plumpf
Let the child fall between your legs.

Hoppe, hoppe, little man
Ride as well as you can
Don’t fall in the ditch
Because there lives the witch
Don’t fall in the brook
Because there live the rook
Who will eat you.

Peck, Peck, Peck [very free translation by Sylvia]

I was getting tired, giving the children turns on my knees.

“Let’s count telegraph poles,” the wires were dancing along the railway lines.
“When we get to fifty, you all get a sweet.” Bribery! “Now we have a little rest.”

The train stopped. I wondered why. I went along the corridor, to open the window on the door. After a while, I could fasten the leather strap, which regulated the aperture. I could see nothing — nothing to be alarmed about. I had heard that the SS stopped trains with refugees. Definitely no one there. When I returned to the compartment, Helmut said “One is not allowed use the loo unless the train is moving.”

“I know that, it means not in a station, ugh, disgusting. Clever, aren’t we?”

Helmut produced a mouth organ, he started to play Heiden Roeslein (the little red rose on the heath). I recognised the tune immediately, he played so well.

“Any of you know it?”

“What is it about?” asked the children.

“It’s about a boy who wants to pick a pretty red rose which grows on the heath, a rose with thorns. The song is very famous.” I had learnt it at school. My cousin Erica told me the song was about a Rape of a Virgin — I kept that to myself, naturally.

Liselotte said, “My daddy and I visited my mummy in hospital, we took red roses. That’s why I have to go to another lady to look after me. When my mummy is better she will come and get me.”

“Helmut, you are very musical, you are very good!”

“I would like to be a musician, but my father said, they are badly paid, there is no money in it.”

A lady pushed back the door to our compartment. She carried a large basket with rolls: “Egg or cheese, one or two?”

I replied, “Six of egg and six of cheese please,” thinking, one does not know when they will give us something else to eat.

Reuben called out, “I want ham, I don’t like cheese!”

The lady was shocked.

“Reuben, listen my lad, children eat what they get,” said I.

By way of apology, “Please excuse him, madam, Reuben comes from a ‘Reform’ family, he does not know any better.” [Reform family — liberal Jews who don’t keep the dietary laws.]

“Ah, so”, said the lady, still annoyed.

“We thank you, all of us. It is very kind of you.”

“Thank the Committee.” She stomped out.

We were nearing the border, I recognised the names of the towns, having looked up the various routes of the trains. I did not know the names of the port of embarkation.

“Aufmachen”, an SS man screamed, throwing the door open. He entered with a civilian. It was a headcount. “Five!”

They looked at me. “Your name, Miss”, called the SS man.

“Can’t find her name on my list”, said the civilian.

When they went out, I thought I heard the door give a click. I tried the door. It was locked.

Now I was frightened.

The transport was for children under seventeen years of age, I was seventeen years and four months. Surely they would send me back for those four months? Suddenly I realised, they must have thought I was a helper, they had a list with their names, an official list, with the stamped permissions.

Of course I was not on that list, I was a child! Stupidly I had tucked my label inside my blouse, I felt too grown up. Quickly I remedied it. Alright, I am a parcel, I am a child with a number.

The SS man and the civilian returned, the lock snapped back, they examined my label on my chest. They made a note of, asked to see my passport, then went out without a word.

God be thanked.

I had heard that sometimes people tried to smuggle themselves out, on a children’s transport. Perhaps the SS were searching for escapees.

God be thanked again.

Now we are over the border.

“Children, we have left Germany. Do you know where we are going?”

“England”, they said in unison.

Helmut said, “My little brother is in a town called Leeds. The lady said they would try to find me a family there, if they can. My father said we’ll go to America, when our number comes up, he’ll get us then.” My father had said exactly the same. No one else knew where they were going, that included myself, all I had been told was London.

We were travelling through Holland, we were safe, they could not touch us here — no longer.

Helmut went through his repertoire, he was good on march music, it put us in a happy mood.

“Another song, please”, begged the children. Reuben started with ‘Haenschen klein’. They all knew that song.
This is the most unsuitable song — how can I stop it?
Sweets — all have a sweet! My usual remedy.

Haenschen klein geht allein in die weite Welt hinein, aber Mutter weinet sehr, hat ja nun kein Haenschen mehr, and so on.

Little Hans travels all alone into the big wide world. His mother is very upset, she cries and cries, no longer has she her little Hans…

“Listen to me, I know a story, a real true story, about a boy called Hans. He went alone, from his village in Denmark to the capital city, Copenhagen. He was a cobbler, who made beautiful shoes and dancing slippers. He made red ones for a girl, they were so good she could not stop dancing, once she had put the shoes on. He made golden ones for the princesses at the Royal Court (my invention), so everybody wanted his shoes. But this is not the reason Hans became so famous, he told wonderful stories, and there were crowds of people who came to listen to his stories. He became very, very famous. His name is Hans Anderson. His stories got translated into all languages, into books, every bookshop sells his books.

“Do you know any of his stories?”

And so I told them the story of the ugly duckling.

“Can any of you speak a little English?”

Helmut exclaimed, “I’ve done two years at school!”

“Wonderful. You’ll be the teacher. Start with Good Morning, Good Evening, and How do you do.”

I was dead tired and left them to it.

Not having slept properly for several nights, I noticed that I was becoming irritable. This will never do. The children also were becoming bored or tired, or both. “I said, we’ll soon be there, let’s have a little rest.”

It was getting dark. Hoek of Holland. The train stopped, children assembling on the platform.

The Pink Hat arrived, she took charge of the smaller children, Helmut was to join the older boys. “ You have been a great help, don’t give up your music, you have real talent.” I gave him a hug — which he did not like very much.

“God bless.” Pink Hat said to me, “You are good with children.”

“Oh no, I sometimes helped out at the Orphanage, weekends.” All I wanted now was sleep…no more kids, I hoped there would be no more kids.

The children were shooed up the gangway of the ship like sheep, “Come along, come along, this way!” In a dining hall we were given a mug of soup, some bread and a bar of chocolate. The bread was white and square, this caused a lot of comment. I had seen this kind of bread before at our home, we called it English Sandwich Bread.

I was shown to my cabin, to my surprise it was an outside one, with only two bunks. “The upper one is yours”. Father had warned me that sometimes one only gets a deck chair. The bed was made up, too. I was asleep in minutes.

I awoke early. Noiselessly I climbed down the ladder. An elderly lady was snoring in the lower bunk. I had never heard her coming in. Looking out of the porthole, the water was splashing gently against the sides of the ship, a pink reflection of the sunrise on the water. This is England, this is England.

Now we were waiting for our train to London, it was a long wait, they seemed to be sorting out something or other. We waited on a meadow near the railway station.

The children were divided by age, big boys are to play football, small ones to make a circle over there! Girls, hold hand, come along…I stood aside, I thought, “Play your stupid games, get on with it.” I was wondering what I would do in London, what sort of people had been kind enough to take me in.

Pink Hat brought to me a little girl, who was crying, sobbing.

“Look after Ilse”, she took me aside, “She’ll have them all crying, take her for a walk.”

Ilse’s little face, dirty as it was, was stained with tears.

I took my hanky out. “Spit, this will have to do, we have no water.”

Ilse was so surprised, she stopped crying.

“Why were you crying?” I asked.

“I want my Mutti (mama).”

“You can’t have your Mutti, she is not here.”

“That’s why I am crying.”

I said, “I’ll let you into a secret, I want my Mutti, too. I never said goodbye to her when I left, she was not at home. She had gone to visit Grandpa, because he was very ill, I want my Mutti too.”

“But you are a big girl, you are a lady.”

“That makes no difference.”

So we sat down and comforted each other, Ilse on my lap.

“Let me do your hair, you have lovely red hair, it’s all messy…and knotty.”

“Promise not to pull it.”

“I’ll try. Look, what a lot of daisies are here, we could make a daisy chain! If you’ll pick them.”

I opened my suitcase to take out my little silver fish, my little treasure, my needle cushion.

“I need a fine needle to make the holes, otherwise the stem brakes. My Mutti gave me the little fish.”

We made a lovely daisy necklace.

Part 2 to follow. This is an extract from an unpublished book by Mrs Sylvia Hurst entitled 'Laugh or Cry. This was submitted by Liz Finnigan at Stanley Library on behalf or Mrs Hurst.

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