Once lost to history, the thoughts, lives and stories of the 10,000 who fled Germany for the UK have been revived by the Imperial War Museum
When Herbert Koniec left his home in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in June 1939, the 10-year-old had two suitcases containing the last physical reminders of the life and family he was about to leave behind.
Koniec was one of nearly 10,000, mostly Jewish, children fleeing Nazi persecution who were brought to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1938 and 1939.
Among his few possessions – carefully selected and packed by his parents – was a pair of brown leather boots with clip-on ice skates. But the young boy never got to use them. “My feet were too big by winter time and there was no ice about.”
Before donating them to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), Koniec brushed the shoes and “pondered the thought that the last time they were polished would be by my mother in 1939. Both my parents perished in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis.”
The boots and skates are on permanent display for the first time – alongside an array of priceless belongings that tell the story of the Kindertransport – at the IWM’s new £30 million Second World War and the Holocaust Galleries in London.
They are three times the size of the museum’s award-winning First World War Galleries, span two floors and see IWM become the first museum in the world to house comprehensive spaces dedicated to the Second World War and Holocaust under the same roof.
Among the other objects to be viewed, some are more sentimental than practical. Sixteen-year-old Ruth Hirsch was packed off with the veil and myrtle wreath her mother, Lina, wore on her wedding day in 1921. Evelyn Finkler treasured a small grey toy dog with a purple ribbon around its neck; “The last gift my father gave me before I left Vienna, to accompany me on my journey to England.”
The stories are reminiscent of the classic children’s book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this autumn. Its author Judith Kerr made it out of Germany with her new woolly toy dog, but always regretted leaving behind her trusty old pink rabbit.
For James Bulgin, content leader for the new Holocaust Galleries, the objects and letters on display are equally important for what they say about the parents who “had to take this kind of leap of faith – we call it into strangers’ arms – because that’s all they could do”.
Among the exhibits Bulgin found most moving was a letter from Herbert Koniec: “He says to his mother in English, in his kind of scrawly writing, ‘I hope you’ll understand my words because I can’t speak your language any more’” – which as a parent I just find so difficult. You see parents writing back in really kind of broken English trying to be understood by their own kids.”
The new galleries differ from those you will have seen elsewhere in that they are bathed in light – an attempt to show that these events happened not in the shadows, but in the heart of Western civilisation. IWM’s team also visited mass shooting sites across Europe to capture full-colour images, rather than relying on black-and-white pictures from the archive.
“We’ve really tried to encourage people to think about these events as something that happened in our world,” says Bulgin. “A huge amount of people were involved in the propagation of this thing, and in every other respect they were what you would describe as ordinary. Also, it was much messier, more brutal and more barbaric than the idea of industrialisation would suggest. It happened over a vast, vast amount of territory. And it went on for a very long time.
“It’s also important to ensure that people understand quite how catastrophic the level of destruction was – I think sometimes there’s a temptation to sort of grab on to stories of survivors and rescuers because there’s something reassuring about that.”
The new displays will also give viewers a chance to reassess the Kindertransport. As a result of decisions by the UK government, the last time most of the children saw their families was when they waved goodbye out of the train windows.
“There has been a tendency historically sometimes,” says Bulgin, “to sort of mobilise the narrative of the Kindertransport to serve an agenda that suggests that Britain was doing all the right things at the right time, which of course isn’t unconditionally the case.”
The children themselves were only allowed to come on temporary visas – there was no expectation they would be staying – and if they had a sponsor, so they would not be a burden on the state.
“In many respects, the Kindertransport reflects the tenacity of individuals and organisations rather than governments. There was an amazing collection of individuals who did incredible things to help save these kids. But their parents weren’t allowed to come and that’s important, too – we can’t shy away from that.”
Bulgin also believes that visitors will inevitably draw comparisons with the refugee crises of today, all the more so when they consider the individuals “caught up in this history as people who were as normal as you and I and had the same kind of concerns. It’s impossible not to suddenly see a relationship.”
Among the stories is that of Hortense Heidenfeld, who was 18 when she escaped Breslau, Germany, in May 1939, to work as a domestic servant in a large country house in Surrey.
When war broke out months later, all of the other servants left to go into war work. Hortense remained, taking on their roles, working from 5am to 11pm.
But that paled into comparison with her real worries, say her daughter, Yvonne Gordon. Heidenfeld was shelling peas on the day her employer came into the kitchen to announce that war had been declared with Germany. “And my mum then knew she would never see her family again.”
Despite her employers being affluent enough to have two cars and tennis courts, they had refused to sponsor Heidenfeld’s parents, Georg and Stefanie, and younger sister, Beata – who are all thought to have been murdered at Auschwitz.
Almost the only reminders Heidenfeld had of the life and family stolen from her were the items of ornate Meissen crockery and monogrammed cutlery packed up by her parents – a set of six cups and saucers, a coffee pot, dinner plates, a milk jug and a sugar bowl.
“I don’t know what they were imagining in terms of how people might live in England,” says Gordon, “but that was all given to set her up for a new life here.”
For years, Heidenfeld kept her tea set hidden away, too painful were the memories. But in later life, they re-emerged, as she felt able to start sharing her story with loved ones.
“Drinking from that cup was a moment of pure pleasure,” recalls Gordon. “It was more than just drinking a cup of tea. It gave her a sense of joie de vivre, connection and continuity.” The pieces were donated to the IWM in 2019. Heidenfeld died three months later, aged 98.
“These objects,” says Gordon, “are all that is left of an era now lost, ransacked and put on the scrapheap by those who wanted to annihilate any remnants of those people.”
Of the cup and saucer finally going on display, she adds: “It’s a very powerful piece of crockery.”
- The new Second World War and The Holocaust Galleries are now open at IWM London. For more information visit iwm.org.uk