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So Leisel, can you tell us a bit about why you’re speaking to us today, and about your history, your Untold Story?
Why I’m speaking to you today? Because I think people should know about families being disrupted, and children losing their roots, and their background. I came as a four year old child; my mother was already here, because she couldn’t get me out of Germany in 1939, and I came, on my own, not on the Kindertransport, via Sweden and Norway. And I never lived with my mother again once I came to England, although we were always in contact, I would spend school holidays with her and telephoned her; I used to go in the telephone box and put my two-pence in the box and telephoned her and spoke to her. But I never had any opportunities to talk about my family to my mother, one didn’t; and I regret that very much, because I know nothing about my father, except that he was in the First World War, fighting on the German side, he spoke three languages, he was a Prisoner of War, and thought Wales was wonderful, and wanted to come to England when Hitler came to power, and like a lot of German Jews, my mother turned round and said, ‘nothing will happen to us, we’re German.’
So, my father’s background is a complete blank, and I would like to know things about him that I haven’t got anyone to ask.
Whereabouts in Germany did your parents live?
A place called Hildesheim, which is not far from Hannover, everybody knows the story of the Pied Piper of Hameln, well we were up the road from Hameln, like from Leeds to Harrogate. So, that’s where I came from.
And you don’t have any recollection of…?
No, I don’t remember.
But your mum came here…
My mother came, I’m not sure when, as a domestic. Because before war was declared, people were getting out of Germany as a domestic, and she was already here, and I have been told by – I can’t remember the lady’s name – but when war was declared, my mother was heard to say, ‘Oh, my poor Leisel, I’ll never see her again.’ Because I was still in Germany, she was here; working for a family in Hull, and it was because of them, that she managed to get me out.
And that was the family she was working for?
That was the family she was working for. Originally I should have come out via Holland, well, luckily for me, the arrangements fell through, and one of the daughters of the family had a contact in Norway, and I came out via Sweden and Norway, where I was with a Norwegian family for about five or six weeks, and I actually spent Christmas in Norway, in Bergen, and I found the family after a lot of looking for them, I actually found the family again in 1980. And I wrote to them, and I made contact, I actually went to Oslo, and linked up with them, and I was able to say thank you for my life, because of them, I managed to get to England. I had memories, you see, and I never knew whether it was something I read in a book, or something I’d dreamt, I remember going to the theatre, a doll and pram and two boys, and they were able to tell me what these memories were. The doll and pram was given to me for Christmas, the theatre was the equivalent of a pantomime, which was all in Norwegian, and I impressed the family very much, because although I only spoke German, and the father of the family did the translations, and they were very impressed because I understood everything that had happened. The two boys were their sons, one was the same age as me, and the other one was two years younger. I actually met the two boys when I went to Oslo, in 1981. So that was wonderful, wonderful experience, and I kept in contact with them, until unfortunately Mrs. Alfsen died, and he had Parkinsons’ Disease, and he moved into a nursing home. So I have now lost contact with them again.
When you arrived – so you arrived in the UK in ’39?
No, I arrived in the UK in late January 1940.
Did you have anything with you?
I had a doll and pram and teddy bear, a white fur coat and muff. I don’t remember if I had any luggage with me – I probably did have something with me, but I don’t remember.
Do you have any of those things today?
No, unfortunately not. My teddy-bear, which I believe was a Steiff was given to one of my adopted cousins, the people that I lived with here in Leeds, my foster parents, had a large number of nephews and nieces, and I was told when I was about 13 that I was too old for a teddy-bear, and the teddy-bear was given to one of the nieces. So, no I don’t, I don’t have anything.
Had that come from Germany with you?
Yes, yes, it was probably one of the last things my mother had given me.
But you kept in contact with your mother?
I kept in contact with my mother, my mother remarried a refugee, in 1944. She was living in London, but my stepfather didn’t want me. So I stayed here with my foster parents, and I stayed with them until I got married. Made a home here, made lots of friends here, got married here, and I had my family and…
A story of hope there…
How were things with your foster family?
Like all children, we had our ups and downs, there was one major incident, that upset me terribly, when I was about nine. My foster parents wanted to adopt me, and my mother always hoped to get me back. And I was put in the position by my foster mother: ‘if we go to court, who will you choose to live with?’ Now that’s not fair to ask a child of nine; to make a choice between people who had been looking after her and her mother. Although I wasn’t living with my mother, I used to come on the train – seven, eight years of age in charge of the guard, all through the war, down to London. And to make that choice – it’s not fair. You can’t expect a child to say, ‘well I want to live with my mother’, or ‘I want to live with you’, because you’re hurting both sides. Anyway, apparently my mother and my foster mother managed to smooth things over, but it did make me quite ill. You can’t, can’t do that to children, it’s dreadful.
Did you have any brothers and sisters, or do you have any brothers and sisters?
I did have a brother, who was 15 years older than me, he apparently managed to get out of Germany – my mother was tipped off, (in) 1939, before she came to England, that they were coming for my brother. And he swam over some river, and got into Switzerland, she didn’t know where he was for over a week, and then these friends of hers got in touch and said that he was with them, he eventually joined up with the Free French (The Free French Forces), and was with the Free French in North Africa, because he also spoke three languages – French, German and English. After Paris was liberated, we knew where he was – my mother had contact with the Red Cross, after Paris was liberated, he came to find us, and he came to Leeds in his French uniform, very handsome, all the girls at school were very envious of me. But I’m afraid that we didn’t have very much contact. He worked for a time in Paris – he was a chef for the Rothschilds, and then eventually when he’d got married, went to work in New York, at the Waldorf Astoria.
We linked up again in 1980, but he was very bitter and twisted with things that had happened to him. He was on his third marriage, no children; I was happily married with three children, and I’m afraid that things did not work out, and I haven’t been in contact with him since. I never knew if I had grandparents, apparently one of my aunts and uncles were being transported to Riga, and they committed suicide on the train, I do have one cousin, she was in Shanghai during the war with her parents, and we did meet again in 1980, they live in Colorado in Denver. She’s only eight years older than me, so we’re in contact, but she’s the only real relative that I have, other than my immediate family.
So you’re a member of Holocaust Survivor’s Friendship Association?
Yes, I kind of fell into this, I never classed myself as a survivor. I always thought people who had been in a camp, or had been hidden were survivors. It was a very nice couple who persuaded me to join, I went to hear them talk about their experiences in Concentration Camps, and after the talk, I went over and I bought a book, and I got talking to Iby –
Iby and Val Ginsburg?
– And she said well, where are you from? And I told her and she said, ‘well you’re a survivor,’ and I said, ‘no I’m not! I was here in England,’ she said ‘You lost your home, you lost your father, and most of your family, you are a survivor.’ So with that, I came, my husband came with me, and we joined, and I have actually given a talk to the group, and I’ve spoken to lots of other people as well.
Do you consider yourself German or English?
English. Definitely English. I – for a long time – I wasn’t comfortable when we were on holiday and there were German people. I would look at them, especially the older ones and think – ‘Yeah, were you involved? Did you know what was going on?’ But you can’t be like that. The youngsters of today – you can’t blame them for what happened – it was a very bad time, they’d gone through losing the war – and the money situation was dreadful, then Hitler came and he was charismatic and people just fell into it. But I do think that these people who deny what happened are very wrong, because not only is there photographic proof, there’s written proof because the Germans were very good at keeping records.
And there’s stories like yours and so many other people’s…
Yes, mine’s very slight in comparison what other people have been through. But I’m here and I enjoy myself. I have a wonderful family, and some very, very nice friends. Very nice friends.
You can also find out more about Leisel and her story from the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association- See more at: http://www.hmd.org.uk/resources/podcast/i-was-able-say-thank-you-my-life-because-them-i-managed-get-england#sthash.3XdxU6ZA.dpuf