A Narrow Escape
by Helen Roberts
In the 1930s,my parents were a prosperous young couple living in Gelsenkirchen near Dusseldorf, in Germany. They were from the same town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rozniatov, near Lviv, then known as Lvov, a region which had become Poland after the First World War and is now in Ukraine.
Having emigrated to Germany after marriage, they were doing well.They had two young boys – twins - lots of friends and a thriving business. They had a shoe - shop employing at least 7 staff, and for a time had another shop, but due to the menacing atmosphere affecting Jews in Germany, decided to give up the second one.Their main shop continued to make a profit, despite the mounting tension. When Hitler’s antisemitic laws prevented customers entering Jewish shops, my parents’ customers came in through a secret back entrance – they simply circumvented the authorities because they liked the shop and its goods, and of course the owners!
Jewish business owners were, however, finding life very difficult by the late 30s. Kristallnacht on November 9th 1938 was catastrophic for my family. In a matter of an hour or so, their home, their shop and their lives were smashed to smithereens. Jewish shopkeepers were being rounded up and taken off to prison or camps, and the women were beaten and abused – my mother sustained a severe blow to her head and had her nose broken. The two boys were pulled onto a cart taking them off to some camp, but their quick wits enabled them to jump off the vehicle and hide in a cemetery till morning. My father was imprisoned, but my mother came with the iron cross he was awarded in the First World War ( he had only been 17 then) and a sum of money, and got him released.He immediately left the country and began searching for a safe haven for his family. He tried Sicily, but could not stay there, and went to Malta for three months, but had no luck there, not being allowed to work. Eventually he managed to find a sponsor to get to the UK, intending to bring the family to London. All this took about six months.
The months of waiting were horrific for my mother – she and the boys hid out in the back room of a friend’s home, often hungry because it was so difficult to buy food – especially if shopkeepers suspected you were Jewish. Eventually my father managed to get my mother and brothers into Britain, on the understanding that they were only temporary residents, awaiting their quota to get to the USA. They lived in one room, though the boys were first in a camp run by Moses Montefiore for refugee children in Ramsgate, where they learned some English. Then they were sent to a school, which was evacuated to Oxford when war broke out in September 1939.My father was forbidden to work – refugees were here on sufferance and on the understanding they were waiting for permission to go elsewhere, eg. the USA.
But before the threatened war broke out, my mother had some hair-raising adventures which nearly cost her her life. As soon as they were settled in London, she had a great yearning to return to her family in Poland, as she knew war was imminent and she did not know when she would see her parents again. Against all advice, she travelled back overland to Rozniatov. An acquaintance travelled with her, going to Poland for personal reasons of his own. While staying with her parents, on 3rd September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, the war broke out, the borders were about to close – and she was nearly trapped. She found this out by going into the street that night to find out why many people were on the move, trying to escape. In a panic, she joined these crowds, getting a lift on a cart going to the border. She had just managed to grab a coat. In her haste that night, she left with little money and had no time to say goodbye to her sleeping parents. This troubled her a good deal years later in old age, and gave her many nightmares.
But she had no time for sentiment that crazy night. Using daring and cunning, determined to get back to husband and children, she managed to get on a train out of Poland just as the borders closed.On the old Polish/German border she bribed the station master to keep her in a lock-up overnight safe from the SS, then to let her get on a train crossing Germany. Bribing again a station official on the German/Dutch border, she persuaded him to let her phone a refugee helper in Holland. She managed to smuggle herself over the German-Dutch border, and was then put on a fishing boat with other illegal emigrants from Nazi territory, and landed on the English coast –she did not know where - at dead of night. She and the other refugees on the boat were warned to be completely silent, as they were landing secretly and must avoid the authorities. Jewish relief workers put them on a bus to London, delivering the passengers to Woburn House, a centre for Jewish refugees, and from there she phoned my father to send a taxi for her ,as she had no more money on her. He was still in their room in Hendon, lodging with a Yiddish - speaking landlady, who became a great help to them as then neither of my parents knew any English.Cold, shaken and exhausted as she was - she finally got back to their recent and temporary home in the early hours.She was lucky. The man who had travelled to Poland at the same time as my mother never returned.
Her escape meant that I could be born, four years later.