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Inge and Ellen: my family and the Kindertransport

Inge and Ellen: my family and the Kindertransport

Inge and Ellen: my family and the Kindertransport
January 12
16:38 2019


I always knew that my late father had been a brave man during the second world war. He had volunteered at barely 18; he had served as a navigator in the RAF; and he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre by the Free France government-in-exile. “What for?” my sister, my brother and I used to ask him constantly. “For calling De Gaulle a taxi,” came his equally constant, modest reply.

He shared this modesty with his father-in-law, my grandfather. By the time I came to appreciate Willie Shalyt, or Uncle Willie as he was generally known around Manchester, he was a tall, well-dressed gentleman who had gone bald at an early age. Having been born in Vitebsk, Belarus, in 1895, he was too old for active service during the war.

Still, that did not preclude him from taking on war duties. He was a special constable during the war and remained extremely proud of the fact that he never made a single arrest. “If I caught anyone, I just used to give him a good telling off,” was his rather unorthodox modus operandi.

Such stories made up all that we, as children, knew of my family’s contribution to the war. All, that is, until the early 1960s, when thin blue airmail letters postmarked New York began to arrive. I remember my mother’s excitement every time one landed on our doorstep. She would read them avidly, phone her sister and read the contents to her, and then phone my grandfather, who had never really learnt to read English. Gradually, by the late 1960s, the identities of the senders of these letters became clearer to the rest of the family — and within several years we had met them.

The letters came from Inge and Ellen Levi, two sisters who had entered our family life in 1939 when they arrived in England as part of the Kindertransport programme, which would give homes to nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children in the months before the war.

Born to Jacob and Meta Levi in the town of Rexingen, southern Germany, they were nine and six years old when they left home. Ellen recollects being bundled into many layers of clothing, including a winter coat, by her mother, despite it being a warm day in July 1939 when she boarded a train for the Hook of Holland.

“I just recall saying goodbye,” Ellen, who is now 85, told me recently. “At that age, I just went with the flow and followed my elder sister.”

Her only recollections of the train are of sharing a bunk bed with her sister and having tea and white bread for breakfast.

The pair then took the boat train to London, where they were met by their aunt Lisa, then working as a maid, before boarding another train for Manchester. There they were to begin a new chapter in their lives as two young English girls.

Their destination was the home of my grandparents, Willie and Rachel, and their two daughters, Celia and my late mother Pauline, in Prestwich, north Manchester. Novelties included central heating and an Irish setter called Rufus. In September 1939, the month war was declared, Inge and Ellen started school despite neither speaking nor understanding a word of English. I can still recall my mother telling us about the question that Ellen kept asking in German: “When will my suitcase arrive?” Of course, it never did.

Ellen never forgot her loneliness as a child. “I never really fitted in anywhere — I was always different,” she recalled. Barbara Hallen, Inge’s eldest daughter, remembers asking once why she didn’t have a German accent; Inge said that she lost it because she wanted to blend in as quickly as possible.

What propelled my family to take in Inge and Ellen was a question that was neither asked, nor answered, at the time. The fact that my grandparents were also refugees was obviously an important consideration. My grandmother had been born in Romania, while my grandfather was from Russia and, I later learnt, had fled the pogroms. Both the girls and my grandparents were Jewish and the synagogue stood as a very strong focal point in their respective lives.

But, looking back, I believe that there were other reasons that prompted my grandparents to take in these two young girls, a move that must have caused some friction in their household. For one thing, they were two sisters, just like my aunt and mother, who my grandfather adored. Later in life, my mother would tell me that my grandfather used to make a practice of going up the stairs very loudly when he got back from work in the hope of waking one of them up.

Then there was the fact that Kristallnacht had taken place eight months previously. The burning of Jewish businesses by Nazi soldiers coincided with the late Sir Nicholas Winton rescuing 669 young Jewish children from Czechoslovakia. Back then, there was one common enemy: Nazi Germany. And it was this that focused the minds, hearts and wallets of so many brave individuals who, in the summer of 1939, welcomed the Kindertransport children.

When the heavy bombing of Manchester started, Inge and Ellen were evacuated to Fleetwood in Lancashire with another pair of sisters, who were daughters of friends of my grandparents. They were instructed by my grandfather “not to let go of their hands”.

But Inge and Ellen spent all their school holidays with my family. Then, in February 1945, my grandfather took them to Liverpool where they joined a Danish cargo ship, the MS Eria, which took them to New York to rejoin their parents. Their father, Jacob, had managed to leave Germany on the day war broke out; their mother, Meta, left in May 1941. She had planned to pick up her daughters in England but by the time she left — after the Germans had torpedoed the evacuee ship SS City of Benares, killing 77 of the 90 children on board — children were no longer allowed to leave the country.

Their eventual reunion at Penn Station was not a happy one. Six years of separation had changed Inge and Ellen’s aspirations but not their parents’ view of the world. “My parents were expecting two little German girls — but by 1945 we were two almost-grown-up British teenagers,” Ellen recalls. Alienation between parents and daughters would eventually follow, a state of affairs that was never rectified, to the daughters’ regret.

Inge and Ellen both married and had their own families. In 1976, they returned to England and came to Manchester to visit my grandfather and to stay in our family house. It was a very happy occasion. The friendship endured, with my parents visiting them in New York and the next generation forging their own bonds.

In November 2018, Ellen returned to London for the 80th anniversary celebration of the Kindertransport movement. When she accepted the invitation, she wrote: “This will probably be my last trip to England.”

Ellen never forgot her loneliness as a child. ‘I never really fitted in anywhere. I was always different’

Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage, an organisation that helps refugees, spoke at this event. “Today, governments are agonising over whether we can take in a few hundred of these children,” she said. “The campaign by Lord Dubs [a former Labour MP who was himself rescued from Czechoslovakia by Nicholas Winton] to resettle the most vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees in Europe has seen just 220 children so far brought to safety in Britain. But in the space of nine months, in 1938-39, Britons took in close to 10,000 unaccompanied children. Of course, the context today is very different, but we have perhaps lost sight of what we’re capable of as a country in the face of great humanitarian need.”

Like Lord Dubs and Leslie Brent, the renowned immunologist who also spoke at the commemoration, Ellen feels a great tenderness towards the country that adopted her: “I have such a love for this country that saved my and Inge’s lives. I will not have a word said against it. I am so lucky to have been accepted here, to have been made welcome and to have felt loved here not just by the country but by your family, who I consider as my own.”

And with that, Ellen looked across the table at which her son, her niece, my brother, my sister and myself were sitting, and held her arms out as if to embrace us all. My grandfather would have relished it.

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