Saving Children From The Nazis

Stapleford History Society 10 March 2015

Talk by James Foreman and Mike Levy

The March meeting of the Stapleford History Society focussed on relatively recent events – history that is very much alive in the memory of some Stapleford residents.

Jim Foreman began the evening by sharing with us his close family history: the fact that his mother and one of her brothers were the sole members of their family, who came from Bonn in Germany, to survive the Nazi era. The family were Jewish, and up to 1933 comfortably off and well-integrated in city life, the father proprietor of a successful men’s clothing shop. As persecution of Jews intensified, they gradually lost everything – as so many did. One of Jim’s uncles managed to get a visa that allowed him to come to England as a farm labourer in May 1939; his mother left on a ‘domestic’ visa in June, allowing her to work as a servant. The rest of the family perished in the death camps.

Jim’s shocking story was a prelude to a presentation by Mike Levy about the work of the Cambridge Refugee Committee. This was set up in 1939 as Britain became aware of the many refugees being created by Hitler’s takeover of the Sudetenland, then Bohemia and Moravia, and by the horrors of 9/10 November 1938, so-called ‘Kristallnacht’, when his thugs rampaged through German cities smashing the windows of Jewish-owned businesses (the ‘crystal’ left in the streets), and worse. Former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin aroused the nation in a BBC appeal. To save the children, the equivalent of £40-50 million was raised from public donations, and local committees were set up all over the country.

Cambridge’s Committee was spearheaded by three formidable ladies: Eva Hartree (an ex-mayor), and Sybil Hutton and Greta Burkill, wives of Cambridge professors. Eventually they were responsible for supervising the welfare of up to 2,000 children for whom homes were found in Cambridgeshire. We learned of the stories of several individual children, and what became of them and their families. Most pertinently, a boy called Carmi Carl Michael Steinberg was taken in by a Stapleford Quaker family, Elizabeth and Peter Layng. After a couple of years here, attending the Perse School, Michael was able to be reunited with his mother, and they got to America, where he studied music at Princeton and became a well-known music critic, before dying at 80. He came back to visit the Layngs in the 1950s.

Nearly 10,000 children reached Britain by the ‘Kindertransport’ before Hitler clamped down on those fleeing Germany – you may have seen the Kindertransport memorial at Liverpool Street Station. The 50 people who heard Mike and Jim speak will not soon forget the terrible facts and the stories we heard. Nor will we forget the Committee’s rallying-cry: ‘We must save the children!’

[report by Maureen Street]