- Contributed by
- Elizabeth Lister
- People in story:
- Fritz of Reading
- Location of story:
- Berlin, London, Cambridge, Isle of Man etc.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 June 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by a volunteer from Reading on behalf of Fritz and has been added to the site with his permission. Fritz fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I was born in Berlin and lived there till I was 20. I wanted to be a musician, to play the cello, but by the time I finished school in 1937, Jews were not allowed to go to University or Music Academy, nor to cinemas or restaurants So, I became an apprentice in a Jewish-owned factory making dental equipment. But the next year, all businesses owned by Jews were taken over, so I had to leave.
I continued to practice the cello at home, taking lessons from a professional musician.
As a Jew, you tried to keep out of trouble. I remember once cycling to work, with my hands off the handlebars, when a policeman stopped me. Luckily, he did not demand to see my identity card, because that would have meant trouble. All Jews had to add a middle name to theirs, so they could be recognized: for men, the name was Israel and for women it was Sarah.
In 1936, I had stayed in Britain for a while with a family during school holidays. In 1938, they wrote to ask if they could help me emigrate to Britain. They got in touch with the Quakers who finally obtained the necessary permit, so I came in March 1939. Although the British Consulate in Berlin was not very helpful in my case, one official there helped a great many Jews to get out.
To emigrate from Germany, you needed permission from the police and from the finance department, besides a passport. You had to make a full list of every item you were taking, with its value and when bought, and inform the authorities when you were packing, so they could check what you were taking. If you were particularly lucky, the official would tell you he was going to lunch, so you could pack things in quickly. By paying a bribe, my parents managed to send abroad a trunk full of books by Jewish writers. In it, they also hid the family silverware, which was supposed to be handed over to the Government. I managed to take my cello with me.
I first stayed for a short time with my friends in Letchworth. I really enjoyed English breakfasts but wasn’t used to having my evening meal at 6-0 o’clock, so I was hungry at night for a while! I found strangers could be quite unfriendly to refugees like me from Germany, and the unions also feared we would take jobs away from their members.
Then, I went to stay in Cambridge. Under the terms of my permit, I was not supposed to take paid work. I first went as a trainee to help build a bungalow. Next, I became a cleaner in Clare College. My English was by now fairly good. On 1st September, 1939, when the war started, we were told to put up blackout in the windows to make it more difficult for German bombers to locate towns by night. Where I lived, they just painted the windows black, which wasn’t so helpful by day! After that, I stayed with a professor’s family, with 3 or 4 other refugees. In my spare time, I often managed to play music in orchestras or smaller groups.
In spring 1940, I went to a boarding school in Derbyshire as a gardener’s helper and was able to earn a little “unofficial” pocket money by giving cello lessons to a few boys. Then, the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland and France and I was detained by British security, along with thousands of other immigrants. Two detectives escorted me to York racecourse, where we lived under the stands where the horses where normally kept! Then, I was moved to the Isle of Man where we stayed in houses taken over by the Government, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. A few times, we were allowed to swim in the sea, which was nice but cold! I managed to get my cello sent, and gave some concerts with other musicians.
In September 1940, it became possible for refugees to volunteer for the British Army, which I did. After passing my medical, I was escorted to the ferry, but after that I was under King’s Regulations, i.e. military law! I went to Ilfracombe to join the Pioneer Corps. Of course I took my cello, and pretty soon that was spotted and I was drafted to Entertainments, travelling around Southern Command and Salisbury Plain. In 1943, I applied to join the Intelligence Corps and was accepted. We had to sign the Official Secrets Act to do work classed as “Top Secret”. After a while, I was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major. It was there that I met my wife-to-be. Her story is also on this website (see “From Domestic to Intelligence Service”).
After VE day, I was posted to Germany, to a camp where German political prisoners were kept, near Hannover. Once, two prisoners escaped. That night, two of us were ordered to go to the main station and check every train which left. Well, there were no lights because of bomb damage, so we had to walk up and down the corridors of every train with torches! That was a fool’s errand, especially since the German conductors/guards were furiously trying to get the trains to leave on time! We never did find the two men! Anyway, it was all in the line of duty in the Intelligence Corps!
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