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German Refugees in Cheltenham

by The Stratford upon Avon Society

Contributed by 
The Stratford upon Avon Society
People in story: 
Susie and Helmut Schulenburg
Location of story: 
Stratford, Cheltenham, Germany and abroad
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 March 2005

11a — Susie and Helmut Schulenburg talk about their time in Britain as Immigres:

(Susie) “ Well I was born in 1935 in Nurenburg, and spent my first three years in a village called Allersberg with my parents, and where my grandparents had a factory which made Christmas tree decorations.
However, because my grandparents were of Jewish extraction, in the KrystalNacht in November 1938 my father and my grandmother (my grandfather having died before), were arrested, taken to prison, and in prison had to sign a paper saying they were giving the factory and our house to the Nazi Party of their own free will. And only after they had signed that, they were allowed to go back home again, and then my parents decided that we would try to emigrate either to Australia or to the States, but it was very difficult at that moment, so we fled to Hamburg, and from there an aunt of mine who lived in England, Aunt Nellie, she said come to England first and then we’ll see how you can get on from there.
But my grandmother didn’t come with us; she always said oh I am sure this dreadful thing with the Nazis will soon be over and I will be able to go back to Allesburg and so on, so she stayed on in Germany, and then in 1941 or 42, she was taken to the ghetto in Llodge and then she was murdered in one of the concentration camps.
And we came to stay with Aunt Nellie for the time being, and then in September 1939 when war broke out, and my father decided he can’t go on just living in the house of our aunt and waiting for something to happen, he found a job in Cheltenham with Spirax Sarko through a connection between his mother and a school friend of hers who was married to one of the then owners.
So we moved to Cheltenham, and my aunt said, I am giving you a list of three schools, just have a look at them and choose whichever you like, I will pay for your education. So we went to the first school, and I was four and I said to my mother I don’t like that school, and then we went to another school and I said oh those buildings are lovely, and I really like that, I mean, I said I don’t want to see the other school any more, I would like to stay here, but of course at that time we had no idea what it meant to choose the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, so of course we were very lucky.
I learnt English very quickly; I even stopped speaking German and when my parents said to me you have to speak German at home, I said I won’t, I’m an English girl! I just didn’t want to speak German any more, and I remember at Christmas we started on the 1st December, and I had to read the Christmas story in German, but we had to practise for three weeks till I could do that properly, so I was very English, I felt very English, I liked being in Cheltenham, but of course for my parents it was a dreadful situation because they had no money whatsoever and we had left Germany with two suitcases and they moved from one furnished flat to the other. My father, he went to work on a bicycle, but that was acceptable for the Ladies’ College during the war. The problems only came after the war, when of course things started like concerts for the parents, supposed to come in evening dress and so on.
But I felt very, very English: I joined the Girl Guides, and then of course I swore allegiance to the King and so on, until about a few months later our Captain found out that I was German, and she said but you can’t do that, and I said but I want to, and she said no, no, we will have to do it again and you’ll have to swear allegiance to the German Government that will one day be a free Germany, so I had to do that.
And then, my mother worked as a volunteer twice a week at the Queen’s Hotel which was then an American Officers Club, and that could be quite interesting, although it has nothing to do with my life. She was once in the lobby of the hotel, and a few…, at that time I think one called them coloured officers, came in, and they said can we come in here? And she said well why not, I don’t know why, why shouldn’t you? And then they walked in and then there was a dreadful hullabaloo, and they were thrown out because it was only for whites and it was really… and the English people were rather shocked about that, and my mother said well we’re all fighting the same war, so why do you have these barriers?
Well anyway my father he was a fire warden, and then he had his allotment and he liked being in England, but of course my mother said there’s no future for us in England. My father was interned for six months in Scotland, and then that time my mother and I could stay in Cheltenham, and I remember sitting on the bed of my mother next to me and she was crying and I was saying don’t be so silly, pull yourself together, I really remember that. I mean there are all those sort of flashes of things you remember. And I remember for instance when we were still in Germany, just before we were going to Hamburg, an aunt of mine wanted to take me out for a piece of cake in the afternoon and we went into a café, and I still see it, it was in the carnival time in February, [RosenMontag — Ed.] .and I still see big paper lanterns put over the lamps in the ceiling, red and yellow, and then I saw two people in uniform and my aunt pulled me out of there, and that’s why I still have this sort of …, fear of German Nazi uniforms or something, even if I only see it in a play or something like that, its so deeply embedded that you can’t get over that.
(There was no hostility from the other children at school) None at all. It was mainly because I was rather brainy and I did all my homework and I learnt very easily, so they said you shouldn’t learn so much, and why do you always get the best marks and the stars? And I said I like learning. And there was one girl, she was half Austrian, her father was a Scottish scientist, and we were once given two poems to learn, a short one and a long one. And Roberta and I, we were the only two who learnt the long one, and all the other English girls learnt the short one. But there was no hostility whatsoever, and my mother, sometimes… We were sitting on the stairs in the cellar when the bombs were dropping, because Cheltenham was bombed in the 1940s, some people said aha, your friends’ up there, but it wasn’t in a hostile way. And in the park, in Montpelier Gardens she was talking to people, and they said where are you from, she then suddenly realized it was better to say Bavaria, because people didn’t know if Bavaria was in Germany or in Switzerland, or in Austria.
And then of course when we were always looking for new flats, because people were taking in friends who had been bombed out, or something like that, that was a bit difficult because they said we would rather take Londoners who were bombed out than Germans, but I mean that’s quite understandable, one cant be annoyed about that.
Oh there was a refugee club, a large refugee club in Cheltenham, and they gave concerts and a little…, but the English people came there too, and I remember they once had a concert and I must have been about seven, and a little English girl and I, we both played piano solos, and it was in the Gloucestershire Echo, I was very proud of that.
My Aunt paid (the school fees), and of course she was very pleased that she really got nice reports every term, and she even paid for piano lessons which was great, and she would have carried on paying for my education, but my mother mainly, wanted to go back to Germany and my father then decided it was better, because we then got the factory back, although most of it had been bombed. In September 1946, yes, we got (our house back as well), but we never got refunded for all the things we had lost, we (only) got the buildings back. It was a court case which I think went on for three or four years, just dragged on and on, and my father then said oh come on, we’ll agree to what they suggest and I’m not going to fight any more, I’m just too tired and so on.
And I remember once in…, it must have been 1944, going to the birthday party of a school friend of mine, and it was just when the first reports were coming in of the VIs being sent over England, and naïve as girls of that age are, we then just said goodbye to each other after the party: we wonder how many of us will be at school prayers tomorrow? We sort of didn’t really understand what it was about, but I do remember going into the classroom on the 6th June 1944, and a girl saying the Allies have landed in France, it’s D-Day, and my first thought was oh, then we can go home, and I was very pleased about that because…
But as time went on when we were in Germany and so on, I felt drawn more and more to England, and Helmut my husband is very international anyway, although he’s German. We (met) in a very romantic way. Well my husband was a technical officer on a German cargo boat, and I had flown via the Caribbean to Peru where we had agents; at that time we sold a lot of artificial Christmas trees to them and decorations, and I said to my father, I don’t want to fly home, I want to take my holiday on a cargo boat, going up from Lima , going through the Panama Canal up to Antwerp. And it was in the harbour of Buenaventura in Columbia, I thought oh I’d like…, I had a film camera and I thought Oh I’d like to have a few of those sailors on it, too. And Helmut wasn’t wearing a uniform so I thought it was just one of the sailors, and he and a friend were leaning over the railing, and I said to them, oh do please turn round, and he turned round and smiled at me, and that was it! And that was 41 years ago, so we’ve been happy together ever since.
And then, well, we started coming to England bringing little Alexander, who when he was 16 went to St Donat’s in Wales (a Kurt Hahn college), he just loved it over here so he (later) applied to St Andrew’s and then studied social anthropology, and did his PhD and so one…and we kept coming over on holiday, and we were thinking about what do we do when we retire? And then we said well, it will be nice to live somewhere near Cheltenham… we said well let’s look around Stratford, and that’s how we started here. And in Germany, Helmut had already made 8 books on different towns or large villages or so with black and white photography. [Helmut here reminds Susie to go back to the end of the war.]
Oh, I see, yes. Well I heard that the war was over; I was having a piano lesson at the College, and the caretaker came in, closed the window and said the war’s over — and I got so excited I couldn’t carry on playing, it was incredible. And my mother had been in the cinema, the Regal cinema on the Promenade which ws torn down and then a sort of Georgian office building put up, and they suddenly flashed…, it was a film on Woodrow Wilson, they flashed on the screen ‘The War is Over’, so of course everyone dashed home and… I remember people congregating when it was dark in Montpelier Gardens, and some people wore pyjamas, and others were sort of hitting dustbin lids and such, but maybe that’s a fantasy…
[Helmut reminds Susie about a story where she got furious…] Oh yes, oh yes, yes, thank you for reminding me of that. I think the Germans invaded the Channel Islands in 1940, that means I was only 5 years old, and we were taken to the Daffodil cinema which is now a very nice restaurant in Cheltenham, to see a film on Disraeli, and then there was someone, not from the school, who then gave a little talk afterwards and said the Germans had now invaded the Channel Isles, and he went on…well anyway I got terribly excited and angry, and it’s astonishing that as a five year-old I can still remember that, and I wanted to stand up and say, but those are the Nazis, not all Germans are Nazis, but then I didn’t dare stand up, ‘cos that really had a deep effect on me because I thought, well, are they all like that? and so on.
(Back in Germany after the war) first of all they didn’t know in what class to put me. I was 11, and they first started putting me together with 11 year-olds. Then they put me with 14 year-olds, then with 12 year-olds because it was so very different, and the whole attitude was different because at College we were taught to speak out of our ideas, we debated things, whereas those other children (and some of them are still very, very good friends of mine), they were just told things, you had to learn it and that was it. You didn’t have your own ideas about things and I found that very difficult so of course I was a bit of a rebel at school because I then often stood up and said yes but I think so and so, and the teachers knew well that was the way I had learnt things in England. We had very old teachers, they were nearly all in their fifties or older, because they were the ones who had managed to stay out of the Nazi party, and that process was still going on.”

[Helmut's story in next part]

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