“The redeeming act of my life” – the Kindertransport 80 years on

In 1934 Fred Clayton visited Vienna to brush up  on his German and to take in the culture of that city.  He stayed with a Jewish widow and her sons. Little did he know that this visit would shape his life.  They lost touch after some time, but then, after Kristalnacht in November 1938, he received an unexpected letter. The following is an extract from my (as yet unpublished) book, Dreams of Dresden, telling the compelling story of Fred and his relationship with a family from Dresden between 1936 and 1948.

 

Fred had assumed that Karl was out of his life forever – he’d almost forgotten about the young boy and his family.  Everything changed after Kristallnacht in November 1938, when a pogrom against Jews was carried out throughout Nazi Germany. Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked, synagogues burned and thousands of businesses destroyed or damaged.  Fred read about these events with a horror that was increased days after when he received a much unexpected letter from Vienna.

Dear Mr Clayton,

I hope you are well.  I am sorry to write so suddenly after what must seem like a terribly long time, but we need to ask a great favour of you.  

       You have heard no doubt of the recent events that have taken place here and all over Germany and Austria.  My shop was smashed up in the violence that occurred.   I have come to the conclusion that it is no longer safe for us to live here. I fear greatly for my children’s future. I hope that Robert will be able to go to an uncle in Switzerland and find a job there, but Karl is still too young to work – he’s only a boy.  I know that the two of you were very fond of each other – Karl spoke of you often and looked up to you very much.  Is there any way you would be able to foster him? 

       I know I ask a great deal of you, but the situation is so desperate.  You are our only hope.

Please help us and save one who is dear to the both of us.

With kind greetings

Helene Schneider

This letter came like a bomb, and shook Fred into action. Having heard that the Government had eased immigration restrictions, allowing unaccompanied children under the age of 17 to enter Great Britain from Germany and German-annexed territories, including Austria, Fred went straight to the office of University MP Kenneth Pickthorn whom he had previously met through organising the New Peace Movement talks and asked for his help.  Mr Pickthorn in turn pointed him to the Quakers, who were organising transports from the Germany and Austria.  “But,” Mr Pickthorn warned, “We cannot guarantee that your friend’s sons will be on those transports.  There are many children in danger – too many to help.  The Government needs guarantees that each child will not be a burden on the state.  They’ll need to find foster families, have their education paid for.”  Fred said, expressing a conviction that he did not feel, that this would all be fine.  He rushed on to the Quakers and explained about Helene and her children.  Again, they explained about the numbers of children affected – they couldn’t guarantee each child’s safety.

“Please,” Fred said, “I’ll do anything I can to get those children on the lists. I’ll make sure they’re fully paid for, that they find foster parents, that their education is covered.  I’m their only hope.  I can’t let them down.”

The lady in the Quakers relented.  “Look,” she said, “Tell your friend to contact the Kultusgemeinde in Vienna. They’re planning the transports. We can contact them too, explain that you have pledged that all their costs will be paid.  We’ll do what we can, but we cannot promise anything.”

“Thank you,” Fred said, “And the boys’ mother?” The lady shook her head.  “The children have to travel unaccompanied. They’re expected to return to their parents when the crisis passes.  I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do to help her.”

After dinner that evening he found Richard Braithwaite, Lecturer in Moral Sciences, also a King’s fellow, whom Fred knew was a Quaker, in the Senior Combination Room.  Again, he told the story of Helene and her boys and he asked if there was any way Richard could help Helene and her boys. Richard said he’d see what he could do, but couldn’t promise anything.

Fred wrote to Helene urging her to contact the Kultusgemeinde in Vienna, and explained that he would happily act as a guarantor for them.  He also reassured her that he would do his best to help her come to England herself.  He expressed more confidence in his letter than he felt.  He wondered whether his rushing around would do any good at all.

December went by and Fred heard nothing.  Until, on Christmas Eve, he received a card from Dovercourt, a coastal town near Harwich in Essex.  The boys had arrived there from Vienna and were now in Dovercourt Bay Holiday Camp. They asked if it would be possible to visit.  Also, could Fred help their mother? Fred was overjoyed and went as soon as he could to the refugee camp.  There he met some young volunteers who told him, “That lad talks about his English friend the whole time.  Both boys will be so glad to see you – so few kids this end have people they can call friends.” Fred was shocked at how many children were bring pushed around from pillar to post in the frost-bound billets, and he knew he couldn’t allow Karl and his brother to be in the camp for long.  He made a number of visits to the camp and asked around anyone he knew if they could help by becoming the boys’ foster parents.  His parents and their friends didn’t have room and couldn’t afford it.  One couple tried hard, but ultimately failed.

 

But then, in the new year, the boys’ fortune began to change.  A rich Liverpool bachelor took Robert, a rich Lancashire family took Karl in, andRossall School, a public school on the Lancashire coast, agreed to waive its fees for him and a number of other refugee boys.  Fred told his friend, fellow Kingsman and Mathematician, Alan Turing this story.  Alan and Fred had been friends ever since their days as undergraduates together at King’s from 1931.  Fred had put his slight frame to use by becoming the cox of the boat in which Alan rowed. There was a mutual recognition and understanding of their intellect and their shared experience of being outsiders – Fred due to his size and working class background, and Alan due to his sexuality.  Over time their friendship developed as Fred was struck by how unashamed Alan was to talk about an area that he himself found inhibiting and confusing.  They both won post-graduate Fellowships in their fields which enabled them to maintain this acquaintance, often dining together with a mutual friend, David Champernowne.  Their relationship was interrupted in September 1936 when Fred went to Dresden and Alan studied cryptology in Princeton University, New Jersey.  Alan was still in America when Fred returned from Germany and they only resumed contact in July 1938 when Alan went back to Cambridge, but then spent all of their spare time together. It was Fred’s nature to be open about every part of his life with his friend so he shared with Alan about his struggle to find foster parents for the two Austrian refugees.  Alan’s response was wholehearted; he accompanied Fred to Dovercourt one wet Sunday in February 1939, where Alan agreed to foster another child himself, Bob Augenfield.  Bob too was able to attend Rossall School.  The Lancashire family agreed to let Karl come to Fred for part of the holidays, and so Alan and Fred had planned a summer holiday sailing together with the boys.  In the meantime, Fred did what he could to find a job for Helene.  He made enquiries at various shops in Liverpool, until he heard the news in August that finally, she would be able to join her sons in England in December.  But the outbreak of war dashed their hopes, and Fred feared once more for her future.

alan-turingv1

Fred was with Karl when war broke out, having spent a week sailing together with Turing and the boy he’d fostered.  The war would change all of their lives for good. Yet Fred had managed to do some good for some one – this, he would later regard as the redeeming act of his life.

 

In the late summer of 1942 Fred received out of the blue a Red Cross card which simply said.

 “Thank you for all you did for my boys – H.S.”

Fred was amazed. The card had come from Helene Schneider, Karl’s mother.  She had used her monthly Red Cross word ration on him, not the boys.  Somehow the card had got through, been forwarded from home and found him in those huts, a world, a war away.  Fred had heard no new horror about intensified persecution of the Jews. In their correspondence Karl had made no mention at all of his mother and his silence had suggested to Fred that she must have a job – war work perhaps – but he had never tried his English optimism out on Karl. Now, Fred basked in this restored contact, this warm sign of life.  And he began to hope. Desperately, the hope was vain, as he later learned in a letter from Karl:

Dear Fred,

I’m sorry to hear you’re ill.  …

But, about my mother, Fred, it’s no good.  My brother caught our uncle dying in Zurich just in time to be told that our mother and her sister were deported to Poland in September 1942 …

 

Fred wept.  Poor, poor Helene, poor Karl and Robert.  He began to make sense of the note he’d received so suddenly in 1942.  The date determined it – it was a note of farewell and final thanks as the end neared.  During the war Fred had heard rumours of the mass-murder of the Jewish people that had been carried out by the Nazis; and he’d been sickened to see the newsreels at the end of the war showing the death camps and the extent of the Genocide that had been wrought on Helene’s people.  Helene too must have seen that the writing was on the wall and wanted to let Fred know while she still could how much she appreciated all he did to ensure that her sons were spared the same fate.  In the midst of his grief Fred marvelled that she in her moment of deepest crisis had taken time to think of him.

 

 

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