1933 will be remembered for two main reasons. On the 3rd June, Margot and Franz Sommerfeld became the parents of twin boys in Berlin. It was also the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Hitler`s arrival on the world stage was unexpected.
The arrival of twins was also unexpected, as in those days no scans existed to identify in advance the arrival of twins. First to arrive was Heinz Gunter Arthur and 25 minutes later Klaus Peter Willy. When our father arrived at the hospital, he was met in the corridor by my mothers sister, our Aunt Ruth, and when she reported to Dad that he was the father of twins, he thought she was joking. He soon found out it was for real. We each weighed around 5 pounds and soon showed we had healthy lungs.
Our parents were middle class, and belonged to a Liberal Jewish Synagogue. They were not especially well off, as they both had difficult childhoods. Dad was born on 24th December 1898 in Berlin and never knew his father. His mother, Margarete Sommerfeld, was born in Mecklenburg on 1st July 1876. As a single mother she arranged for Dad to be brought up by a non- Jewish family – the Netzers - where he was happily integrated. She later married Sigmund Weill. Dad kept in touch with his mother but saw little of her, and we know that she did not succeed in leaving Berlin and died in Theresienstadt on 6th October 1942. Records seen by me at the Jewish Museum in Berlin show that she was prisoner number 1917 on Transport I/26 from Berlin to Terezin, which left Berlin on the 20th March 1941. We do not know about the fate of her husband Sigmund.
Dad had one younger brother, Kurt Sommerfeld who was born on 23rd November 1893. He was unable to leave Berlin before the war started. He escaped first to Hungary but was captured there, transported to Poland and died in Auschwitz.
Dad always obtained top marks at school, but due to his circumstances, had to leave school at the age of 14 years and became an apprentice in a commercial sales firm.
Between 1913 and 1933 he worked either in sales or in accounts.
Our mother, Margot Klopstock, was born on 2nd August 1906 into a typical middle class family living in Charlottenburg, Berlin. At first life was comfortable – her parents had a maid and Mum often spoke about her mother, the love of classical music in the home, and how her mother would come home from a concert, sit down at the piano and replay much of the music heard. Mum had an older sister Hertha, and a younger sister Ruth. There was also one brother Heinz (after whom Heinz Gunter was named) who was very loved and spoiled by his three older sisters.
Unfortunately he died at the age of 21 in 1930 while undergoing an operation for appendicitis. Heinz was an ardent Zionist and always said that he saw no future for Jews in Germany.
The situation for the family changed dramatically when Mum`s father died while she was still a toddler. Her mother however soon remarried and Mum always spoke with great affection of her stepfather. Then, when Mum was just 14 years old, her mother died of cancer and her grieving stepfather shot himself soon afterwards.
The four siblings had to split up and Mum went to live with the Lipschitz family and her Aunt Ida – who was later instrumental in saving our lives. Mum lived happily as part of the family with Aunt Ida, her son Fritz and his wife Kate, and watched their children, Ilse and Gad (who are both now living in Israel) growing up. After leaving school she was apprenticed to one of the top dressmaking firms in Berlin where she qualified in “haute couture”. Mum was very dexterous and an excellent dressmaker. She sometimes talked about the 1920`s dresses she made for the famous Tiller Girls! Little did she realise then, how important her trade would become when we arrived in England as penniless refugees.
At the time of our birth, Mum and Dad were living in rented accommodation in a small flat at 14 Presselstrasse, Steglitz. The flat turned out to be unsuitable for two babies, as it was upstairs and coping with both children and a pram proved very difficult. Within a few months we all moved to a ground floor flat at Heylstrasse 29, Schoeneberg, which we occupied until leaving Berlin in 1939. This flat is still standing today and consisted of 3 rooms – a nursery for both of us, a living room and a bedroom for our parents.
Life was soon becoming harder for Jews. In 1933, just before our birth, Dad had lost his job with the State Bank soon after Hitler came to power, due to the Nazi anti - semitic legislation. He next managed to find alternative employment with a Jewish insurance broker, Victor Sand. Help in the flat was not available but for some months our Mother`s two sisters helped – our Aunts Hertha and Ruth. They then managed to leave for Palestine around 1935. Some years later both sisters were able to help us with a loan of money when we first arrived in England. Fritz and Kate Lipschitz together with their children Gad and Ilse also managed to emigrate to what was then Palestine under the British Mandate. They also helped with a loan sent to England – which was later repaid after the war. The departure in the mid 1930`s of Mum`s two sisters left our parents with little extra family help or support – but the combined loan available to us after our emigration proved of immense value supplementing the ten shillings each we were allowed to take from Berlin.
We both share a number of memories about our early life in Berlin. Our father had not joined any political organisation and this no doubt helped, as he was fortunate not to be arrested. Many Jewish men were spending days on the underground in order to escape arrest. The noose gradually tightened and life for Jews became increasingly difficult. Peter and I were only 6 years old when we left Berlin in the nick of time but we still have a number of memories:
At our local park in Schoeneberg, a very small section was clearly identified for Jews, with benches painted yellow to differentiate them. We were not allowed in the remainder of the park.
When we were old enough to go to school, Mum was forced to take us to the Jewish School near Tiergarten – which involved a lengthy journey on the underground.
School was only for a few hours in the morning, so that Mum had to wait nearby, as there was insufficient time to go home. Most of the restaurants and cafes moreover banned Jews.
Our two best friends were the sons of the caretaker at our block of flats. We often played together in the courtyard and in each other"s homes. One day at school the children were told that it was forbidden to play with Jewish children. We were all in tears but they were no longer allowed to play with us.
All over Germany the Nazis were passing laws restricting the life of Jews.
Businesses were closed down and many men arrested and sent to concentration camps. Where we lived, the caretaker and his wife – the Schadlers - were very friendly towards us at all times.
They offered to hide our father in one of the cellars to avoid arrest. Dad declined saying that if they want to arrest him, they would have to do so from his flat.
Fortunately the Nazis never came for him. In a large city such as Berlin, it was somewhat easier to remain free than in smaller towns and villages. After the war, the caretaker and his family were still living in the same block and we were able to show our appreciation for their attitude and help by sending much needed food parcels for a few years and by certifying that they were not Nazis.
In October 1938 (at the age of five), we were taken for the first time to the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue for Simchat Torah – the special Harvest Festival Service for children. This Synagogue had a huge dome, which was visible from our train every time we went to school. One day we looked for the dome and saw flames shooting from it and the whole building on fire. It was the morning after Kristallnacht – the Night of the Broken Glass. It was after the night in which synagogues all over Germany were burnt down, shops looted and thousands of innocent Jews beaten up, arrested or murdered. Many ended up in Concentration Camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald.
Our mother had left her one fur coat for repair at a local Jewish furrier. The shop was looted and ransacked on the night of Kristallnacht. When next day Mum went to the shop, only a very few furs were left, and Mum often recounted the fact that to her surprise, one was her own which she was able to reclaim.
Towards the end of our time in Berlin, our parents no longer allowed us out alone in the street, as stones and milk bottles were thrown at us. Virtually all Jewish shops were closed and entry to most restaurants was forbidden.
The atmosphere was always tense as anyone could report Jews to the authorities.
On one occasion, at the age of 4 years, Gunter was sent to the local corner shop to buy some bread. He said to the shopkeeper “you cannot have a mother”. The shopkeeper asked why. Gunter replied, “Because if you had a mother you would not be wearing such a dirty apron”. If the owner had taken offence, this innocent remark could have led to our arrest. Fortunately the storekeeper laughed and told our parents – but this little incident demonstrates the risks and tensions of living under the Nazis. Even children could denounce their parents and concentration camps were full of innocent victims.
We sometimes heard and saw the huge Nazi parades, which were being held and asked whether we too could have the swastika flag. Needless to say, this was refused. The Germans loved these huge parades with banners flying. Even to this day we both still enjoy military parades – whether in the Army or as ex-Servicemen, and we sometimes wonder whether this is due to our background!
We went on holiday to Kolberg at the age of 5 years– a seaside resort on the North Sea that had been one of the major holiday resorts frequented by Jews. The resort is featured in the Jewish Museum, Berlin. In 1938 due to the anti-semitic laws, only a very small section of the beach was specifically marked out for Jews – we were not allowed to enter the water elsewhere and only a few guest houses remained for accommodation to Jews.
As the situation for Jews deteriorated, our parents fortunately decided in 1937 to begin efforts to leave Germany. This was not at all easy, as a visa was needed for all countries and usually an affidavit. This meant that one needed an invitation from abroad with the host family providing a guarantee that the refugee family would not in any way be a burden on the economy. We had few relatives abroad.
First an application went to Australia and after a few months we received a negative reply.
Not everyone realised the impending danger and what was happening!
Our father then wrote to relatives in Easton, Pennsylvania, pleading for help, which ultimately saved our lives, and we still have a copy of his letter sent in October 1938.
Here are extracts of this letter:
“ I herewith beg to excuse my taking the liberty of sending you these lines.………
The Brokerage Office I am with will be dissolved which means that I shall lose my position and unable to get another one under the prevailing circumstances.
I herewith beg to ask you to kindly let me know if you will be so kind as to give us an affidavit enabling us to come to America.
We are both, Margot and myself, healthy and not afraid to work to make a living for the four of us.
Hoping these lines will find you in good health and trusting to receive a favourable reply from you we are with our heartiest thanks
Yours very sincerely
P.S. Just to show you what the family look like we beg to hand to you the enclosed photo.”
The letter was carefully worded about “prevailing circumstances” due to censorship, and no doubt, translated, as Dad did not know English.
Fortunately, as it saved our lives, in a sworn affidavit Morris Lipschitz, aged 61, applied for permission to enable us to escape Berlin. An extract of his application reads:
“I am the Uncle of Margot and Franz Sommerfeld and two children, now residing at Berlin, Germany, who desire to come to the United States to join me and others of the family, and whom I am most anxious to bring over.
I do hereby promise and guarantee that I will receive and take care of my niece and nephew and their children, who are applying for an emigration visa, and will at no time allow them to become public charges to any community or municipality. I do further promise and agree that those of my relatives covered by this affidavit within school age will attend public school, and will not be permitted to work until they are of age.
I make this affidavit for the purpose of inducing the United States Consular authorities to grant the visa to my said relatives and herewith submit corroborative proof of my personal standing.”
If it had not been for this positive response from Uncle Morris and his daughter Helen, we would never have managed our escape from Berlin.
The legal documents and the affidavit were prepared by his daughter, Helen – later Helen Glick, who had recently qualified as a lawyer. We have always kept in touch with Helen, who delights in the news of our expanding families. We still have papers to show that the family in Easton had to go to endless trouble to prove that they were financially in a position to support us. This involved a complete and detailed summary of all the family income and assets to prove sufficient means to support our family.
Details are still in our possession and were shown to Helen and the family a few years ago when, with wives, we both flew to New York to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of Helen and her husband Fred.
Two months later, the American Embassy in Berlin wrote to us to advise that we were on the list to receive permission to immigrate. Everything depended on the quota of refugees allowed entry into the U.S.A. This vital letter, which quoted our allotted numbers, has been donated by us to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The letter was dated 16th December 1938 and confirmed our numbers for permission to depart as 42,686, 42,687, 42,688, and 42,689. All our parents could now do was to wait for our numbers to come up, with the situation deteriorating rapidly and the possibility of war breaking out at any moment. Hitler had marched into Austria and was threatening further conquests. One can well imagine the anxiety felt by our parents as they waited for news from the American Embassy. Our lives depended on getting the authority to leave for the United States.
At last in late July 1939 our allotted numbers came up and final preparations started. We were booked to leave on the 27th August 1939 from Hamburg by boat on the Hamburg – Amerika Line travelling via London. All our possessions were packed into a “lift” – a container, which was taken to Hamburg. The packing took two days and was at all times supervised by a Nazi official. There were strict regulations detailing what could be taken.
No items of special value were allowed. The whole packing was quite traumatic and we can still remember the room being sealed off overnight so that no extra items could be added.
It was compulsory for a full list of all items packed to be prepared in triplicate. Even small items such as toothpaste and safety pins had to be declared. We still have that list. We then waited anxiously for travel to Hamburg. The caretaker and his wife risked their lives helping us and providing food and drink during those traumatic days.
On Saturday 24th August 1939, at 7 o"clock in the morning, we were surprised to be woken by the arrival of our mother"s Foster Mother – our Aunt Ida. She had been listening to the wireless illegally. At that time you were only supposed to listen to the German news, which was of course controlled by the Nazis and censored. She begged us to leave at once and not to wait until the boat left Hamburg on the following Wednesday. She urged us to take the train that very same Saturday evening and get out of Germany as quickly as possible.
War was about to break out – just leave at once. Fortunately Dad listened to her and during the day purchased tickets for the 11p.m.train that same evening, leaving for Hook of Holland, via the border town of Bentheim. That change of plans at the last minute saved our lives. The boat never left Hamburg and all our belongings disappeared. After the war, we learnt, that all our possessions were stolen and sent for auction by the Gestapo. Our father had to borrow the money for the train tickets from the Caretaker, which we were able to repay after the war.
With the small amount of luggage left, we boarded the train that evening. The only one to see us off was a cousin. Her husband had gone ahead to London to prepare the way.
She had all her papers to leave and we begged her to join us. She promised us she would follow the next day on the 12 o"clock train, as she needed to fetch two dresses from the dressmaker. She never made her escape. She caught the train at lunchtime on Sunday and got as far as the German border at Bentheim, but was not allowed to cross the border, was sent back to Berlin and did not survive. We often saw her distraught husband in London who came to visit us during the war.
We did not have seat reservations and the train was packed with Jewish refugees trying to get away. I still remember the rush on the platform and that one man gave Mum his seat so that she could sit with the two of us! We remember that Mum shed a few tears as our train pulled out of the station. At the border station of Bentheim the next day, still on the German side with the Dutch border, the Nazi soldiers shouted out orders for everyone to leave the train. Take only your hand luggage, they commanded and leave all larger suitcases behind on the train. As soon as the train was vacated, it was shunted out of the station - never to be seen again. For the majority of refugees, the larger suitcases were lost, and we were still in the Customs Hall in Germany, surrounded by Nazi soldiers. We both still remember the fear and anxiety of that experience and the fact that our two larger suitcases had vanished. We slept on the floor of the large hall under armed guard.
We were hungry and thirsty. Luckily the passports and tickets were handed back after examination. The next morning a local train – a “bummelzug”- came into the station and we all piled on it – and it left and crossed into Holland! What a relief!
Peter and I can still visualise the friendly Dutch faces that greeted us at the small local stations and how the Dutch people brought chocolates and drinks. Freedom at last – even though it took three changes of overcrowded trains to arrive eventually at Hook of Holland.
There we caught the ferry to Harwich for a rather rough crossing, and then took the train to Liverpool Street Station, London. We arrived with one small suitcase each, what was left of the10 shillings for each of us, but we had survived. It was the 27th August 1939, a date stamped into our German Passport. On 1st September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. On the 3rd September Britain declared war on Germany. But we were safe.
Only recently a statue has been put up at Liverpool Station to commemorate the refugees who arrived at the station – especially the 10,000 children who came over on the Kindertransport without their parents.
Those of us, who had our parents, were the lucky ones!
We have in our possession the original Passport issued to our family in Berlin. On the front (with German emblem and swastika) it says “Deutsches Reich, Reisepass”.
On the inside page, with a bold letter “J” in red (to signify Jewish) and more swastikas, it gives our parents name – with the obligatory name Israel for Dad and Sarah for Mum –allocated by the Nazis for anyone Jewish. They were even obliged to sign with these extra names on the next page under the photographs. The passport was issued on the 5th August 1939.
On the next page our names appear as:
Heinz Gunter Arthur Israel
Klaus Peter Willy Israel
The next page (No.4) shows that the passport is only valid for one year till 5 August 1940.
By 1940 we were of course in England, but still held German nationality. During the war, Germany was represented diplomatically in London by the Swiss Legation , and we have on Page 5 two entries extending the validity of the passport on 12th July 1940 and 12th February 1941.
On page 6 the last Berlin entry shows a payment of £3 and 8 shillings - converted to 40 marks - for permission to leave. This was dated the 25th August 1939 – the very day we left in the evening.
The British had given us a transit visa on the 7th August 1939 "valid for entry to the U.K until 7/11/39." – Page 7.
Page 9 shows a Dutch stamp dated 26th August 1939 – when we left Bentheim Station in Germany and escaped into Holland.
Page 8 shows our arrival in Harwich on the 27th August 1939. The British permission granted reads:
"Leave to land granted at Harwich this day on condition that the holder will emigrate from the United Kingdom and will not take any employment or engage in any business, profession or occupation in the United Kingdom".
The back pages of the passport show that on the 4th November 1940 the Foreign Office issued us with separate documents and an exit permit No 336484 allowing a departure for the United States of America before the 26th January 1941. This exit visa of course was never used, as will be described later!
One can only try to imagine what our parents must have felt, arriving in London at Liverpool Station. We only had a small sum of money, a suitcase each and no knowledge of English – and we had no relatives or friends to meet us. Moreover we only had transit visas and were planning to move on to Easton in Pennsylvania – where we knew that we would be welcomed, financially supported, and helped to start a new life. Little could our parents have expected that we would remain permanently in England. We were 6 years old then, and now, 67 years later, are writing our story as naturalised British citizens.
Fortunately, after what seemed a long wait, representatives of the Jewish Refugee Committee arrived at the station to help and eventually arranged for us to be taken to the Russell Square Hotel. We were tired and hungry, but our parents did not realise, that our stay in the hotel was being funded by the Jewish Refugee Committee, with offices in Bloomsbury House, which co-ordinated help for refugees.
They were even worried to spend too money on food. On the first night our parents put us to bed and went out for a short stroll – not daring to walk further than the surrounds of the hotel in case they got lost. When they returned they found us awake on our beds surrounded by several chambermaids and lots of food.
We had rung the bell and in sign language had shown we were hungry. No doubt the fact that we were identical twins also helped!
Our parents had been obliged to arrange for the deposit of £300 in advance with a London solicitor to receive permission to enter England. As explained already, this amount was sent as a loan from Palestine, by our mother"s two sisters and a cousin.
With this loan we were able to start life in England, though still expecting to move to the United States. On 1st September 1939 – four days after our arrival in England, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, on 3rd September 1939, Chamberlain made his speech declaring war on Germany and everything changed.
We moved to Priory Road, Chiswick, to an address suggested to us by the family who took over our flat in Berlin. Soon after war had been declared, gas masks were issued which had to be carried at all times in small cardboard boxes. We still remember practising wearing them and how ridiculous everyone looked! Black out was introduced with strict instructions for no light to appear from any windows, all the street lights were turned off, luminous paint was used on the stairs and elsewhere to help in finding ones way in the dark, torches purchased and emergency rations stored.
War fever had started and the first sirens sounded. Mrs Eck, who owned the building, even made an emergency room out of the front ground floor lounge. She equipped this room with supplies of food, water, first aid, blankets and as far as possible made it airtight.
Across the road a small private school took pity on us and agreed to accept the two of us free of charge. One of the first memories was the impact of finding ourselves unable to speak to anyone. We were soon in tears, but fortunately one girl, aged 13, came to our rescue. She could speak some German – and this started a friendship, which lasts to this day. Isa Zeehandelaar was of mixed parentage – her father English Jewish and her mother Dutch Catholic. The family became our first friends in England and we shared many hours with them at their home in Hamlet Gardens, Ravenswood Park – especially on Boxing Day for many years – which coincided with Isa`s birthday. Isa has just turned 80 years and we keep in touch with her and her family in Worthing, Sussex. Isa has one daughter Zena who is married to Paul.
An English friend in the Insurance business persuaded our parents to move to Eastbourne.
Life there was cheaper, and we moved to one room near the pier. The building at 11 Cavendish Place still stands. Neither parent was allowed officially to work – we were still waiting for transport by boat to America. Our mother however managed to obtain a job as a cleaner in a pub opposite. She took the job on condition that she was not asked to clean the outside steps. She did not want to be seen by passers by! We soon made contact in Eastbourne with other refugees. The Rev Saunders at the local Baptist Church had welcomed the Jewish refugees in the area and provided afternoon teas and a meeting place. Many of us attended his Sunday services during which he said a special prayer for the Jews in Europe and the refugees. Two years after the war ended, Rev. Saunders and his wife arranged a reunion in London for all the refugees they had helped in Eastbourne. Peter and I performed a routine at that reunion – but more about our stage activities later!
At first life in Eastbourne was reasonable. Our father would take us daily to listen to the music at the bandstand, while our mother worked. We could not afford the deck chairs but stood and listened – especially when the band of the Royal Marines played, which was our favourite. Barbed wire however appeared on the beach edge and no swimming was allowed. On Whit Sunday in May 1940, Mum had baked her first cake (an apple cake) in England. Early in the morning two plain-clothes policemen arrived, told Dad to pack a small suitcase with personal belongings, and took him to the local police station without explanation. Our mother immediately went with us to the police to find out what was happening. She saw other refugees being escorted into the station, which at least reassured her that Dad was not being picked on alone. This turned out to be the first arrest of all Germans or Austrians for internment as "enemy aliens". The round up started within a radius of 10 miles along the South Coast, as the authorities feared that spies could assist enemy aircraft by shining torches. Our mother asked for us to be taken into custody as well, but this was refused. Instead we were told to leave Eastbourne within 3 days.
As luck would have it, Peter the next day cut his knee badly, requiring stitches. We had been playing cricket at the Baptist Church. The Doctor did not want Peter to be moved for a week – we therefore needed and obtained special permission to stay the extra days.
Peter still has this scar which was one way of telling us apart – at least while we still wore short trousers! Knowing our financial position the Doctor only charged a token fee.
Dad was transferred to Douglas, in the Isle of Man, and altogether spent 6 months in internment. He kept himself occupied by helping in the canteen. We have a document in our possession dated 18th September 1940 addressed from Central Promenade Camp, Douglas, IOM, which states:
"It gives us great pleasure to certify that Mr Franz Sommerfeld has been working in our canteen since May of this year. Starting under the most difficult conditions he has helped to build up and expand the Canteen, which has been working very satisfactorily and has done a good deal to mitigate the hardships encountered by some two thousand German and Austrian refugees interned in this camp."
The certificate was signed by the Canteen Committee Chairman and for the Camp Council by Dr Fabius Gross who added "Lecturer, Edinburgh University".
There was no difference in internment between the few Nazis and the majority of Jewish refugees. However Dad never complained about his time in the Isle of Man.
The refugees organised their time to best advantage – it was even there that the Amadeus Quartet was founded. Many of the refugees participated in the numerous courses and lectures, which were organised, and used the opportunity to improve their knowledge of English.
Our mother now found herself alone with us in London. During the next few years we could only afford to live in one room. First we moved to Dennington Park Road, West Hampstead. We had seen a room nearby which overlooked the railway line, which we both loved as we could watch the trains passing. But fortunately Mum felt that the location could be unsafe. Soon afterwards that building was destroyed in an air raid.
Our room was opposite the Synagogue. Whenever possible, and especially for weddings, we would cross the road to the Synagogue and take advantage of the fact that inside it was warm – while we had little money to feed coins into the gas meter in our room!
Next we moved to one room at 5, South Villas, Camden Square in Camden Town.
Air raids grew in intensity and we started to spend nights in the Anderson shelter in our garden.
This was a small corrugated iron shelter with convex roof dug down into the soil with only the roof showing. Its main advantage was that it was away from glass. Its main drawback was that it was cold, damp and of no use at all with a direct hit.
An example of the Anderson shelter is on display at the Imperial War Museum.
This Museum has also recreated an example of life in a shelter, with the ominous sounds of the air raid siren, the whistling of the bombs descending and the boom of the anti aircraft guns (which still can send shivers down your spine) and convey the feeling of relief on hearing the “all clear” siren. We enrolled at the local school but were not altogether unhappy when the building was destroyed in an air raid. Peter and I took up a new hobby – we would scour the streets every morning for shrapnel, which came either from the bombs or the anti aircraft guns.
Once an unexploded bomb landed right next door, and we were ordered to evacuate immediately. Our mother went to our friends, the Zeehandelaars, who lived on the other side of London in Stamford Brook, where we were at once made welcome and stayed for a few days until it was safe to return. There was a very special feeling of comradeship during the war, where everyone tried to help those in need. We were all in this together to defeat Hitler. The home of the Zeehandelaars was always full of soldiers, sailors and airmen, who were on leave.
As the blitz got worse, with nightly raids causing huge loss of life and damage, we moved, with thousands of other civilians, to take shelter in the underground. The next five months we spent every night in Tottenham Court Road Underground – Northern Line (platforms 3 & 4). This station was chosen because it was well below street level, and also convenient for Mum to visit Bloomsbury House daily. She was making every effort to obtain passage to America and with that the release of Dad from internment. Ironically he was better off and safer in the Isle of Man than we were, with the constant bombing and spending every day from 3pm to find a place till around 6am in the Underground.
We should have been allocated a boat to the USA but the authorities at Bloomsbury House thought it too risky, especially with young children. Many of the ships crossing the Atlantic were torpedoed and civilian traffic was eventually stopped.
We remained in the underground sleeping on blankets and making the best of the situation. Mum sent a telegram to Dad, in case he was released, a copy of which we still have saying:
"Are alright – waiting for you. Always sleeping Tottenham Court Northern Line Platforms 3 or 4. Have got letter from you. Love Margot Gunter Peter."
There was quite a social atmosphere on the platforms with tea and snacks available.
Toilets were put up at the end of the platform. At first we got into trouble for using the toilets too often – until we proved that there were two of us! We would stand near the escalator and have fun shouting out "this way for Central Line, Platforms 1 and 2 ". We soon discovered that the best slot machines for peppermints were at Leicester Square and would take the train for one station to buy them. This was just before sweets were rationed.
Every day we had to put down our blankets on the platform to reserve our space.
Once it was quite a shock when all our blankets were stolen at a time when we could hardly afford replacements.
Arriving back home each morning, after taking the train to Camden Town and walking to South Villas, we never knew whether our building would still be standing.
All around we could see the damage from the previous night, the fire brigade still active, the air raid wardens on duty and the ambulances ferrying the wounded.
The sky was often red from all the fires around. One of our friends, who slept in Tottenham Court Road, was bombed out five times.
When Dad came home at last and we knew that travel to America was no longer possible, we moved to 30 Steeles Road, near Chalk Farm – still in one room. The air raids had lessened and we were able to sleep at home. Once a land mine (one of the largest bombs) landed without warning a few doors from us during the night.
It shattered all the windows and we were lucky not to be hurt. Otherwise life was becoming more normal. Gorings" Luftwaffe had been defeated and the Blitz finished.
Only occasional air raids took place.
Milk deliveries commenced again with women driving the horse drawn carts. For fun Peter and I sometimes joined the milk delivery woman to help. Most of the men were away fighting.
There was not a great deal to do in spare time and at weekends. The main activity during the weekend was the cinema or the “flicks” as it was often called. Often we went on our own. Many of the films were designated “A” – which meant you needed an adult to accompany you. In those days it was quite safe for us to stand outside the cinema and ask strangers “will you please take us in?” As twins looking exactly alike and always dressed the same we had no difficulty in getting in. Of course we always went into the cheapest seats at the front of the cinema.
We were enrolled in the local State Primary School in Chalk Farm. Because of our German origin we had a most unhappy time there. The children thought of us as Germans, and their fathers were away fighting the Germans. The fact that we were Jewish did not matter to them. Mum was walking near Swiss Cottage one day and passed a school in Crossfield Road. Not realising that one should normally make an appointment, she rang the bell and in her broken English asked to see the Headmaster. This proved to be a stroke of luck for both of us. Mr Wathen liked the two of us and offered to let the two of us enrol for the price of one. This was how we started at the Hall School, Hampstead – a private Preparatory School with excellent teaching in small classes. It was not long before our English improved and we caught up with much of the education we had missed. The four years spent at this school gave us the basic academic start, which was to make all the difference to our education in the future.
Sending us to a fee-paying school meant a lot of sacrifice on the part of our parents.
They did not realise for instance that the school fees would rise each term. Dad at first had found work as a demolition worker, and then as a timekeeper with a demolition firm. After that he found work in a coat factory, where he was in charge of the out-workers. Mum started to use her skills as a dressmaker privately and also took on piece- work sewing belts. Eventually Mum established herself in dressmaking and Dad started his own Insurance Brokerage in the West End. We also moved in 1943 to a 2 room flat at 49 Gilling Court, Belsize Grove. This seemed like luxury to us, having lived since 1939 in one room with no private toilet facilities. We shared a bedroom, which Mum also used for her dressmaking. The second room was used as a living room as well as a bedroom for our parents. For the first time however, we had our own kitchen and bathroom in a self -contained flat. Money was still short and we would sometimes help counting the belts or with sorting. All the furniture was purchased second hand – mostly salvaged from bombed out houses.
After 7 years in 1950 we moved to a third floor flat next door, to 81, Holmefield Court - with the luxury of 3 rooms – a tiny bed-sitter for us, a living room, and a bedroom for our parents. This was our home until we both got married – right through our time in the Army and at University. We had a studio couch in our room, which we used for sitting during the day and then converted into 2 beds at night. One advantage of both Gilling Court and Holmefield Court was that nearly all the flats were let to refugees. We therefore made lots of friends including Steffi Feher and the Kalfus family. There were only a few youngsters however of our age.
The garden had a swimming pool, which had to be kept empty as the water could reflect and be noticed by enemy bombers. We did however have a part of the garden to play football and cricket. A number of bombs did drop and caused damage to the flats but we were spared. Part of the garden was taken up by a concrete shelter, which we had to use from time to time.
At home we spoke German so that we both became bilingual. This was recommended by our Headmaster, who advised that we would benefit speaking more than one language once the war ended. Hitler made two last efforts to make life difficult for civilians in England. The V1 was a flying bomb, which travelled without pilots to fall at random. Full of high explosives, it could cause a great deal of damage. There were air raid warnings in advance and you could hear the drone of the engines as well as see the planes coming over from the South. When the engine stopped, you knew that the flying bomb was hurtling down and you dived for cover – if at home under the table or into the corridor. Many flying bombs were shot down but those that got through were quite frightening.
But even worse were the V2 Rockets, which just dropped out of the sky suddenly and without warning. The projectiles were so fast that no warning was possible – these were in fact the first guided missiles. One morning we were walking towards the Hall School near Crossfield Road, when a large explosion occurred nearby quite unexpectedly. This was one of the first missiles to hit London. Soon many more followed and there was never any warning, nor any defence. Mum arranged evacuation for the three of us to get away from the danger, while Dad stayed behind to work. We spent about 3 months in a small village called Disley, near Stockport – not far from Manchester. This turned out to be our first experience of country living, which we very much enjoyed. We lived with a very friendly Quaker lady, Mrs Whitworth.
When the war in Europe finally ended in 1945, we were very much more settled as a family.
Our time at the Hall School was coming to an end. Mum and Dad knew little about the school system and automatically enrolled us for entrance examinations to Haberdasher`s School – a fee paying Public School. We were offered entrance for 1945. One of the friends we had made, the mother of Bruce Cryer, who was also at the Hall School, suggested we should consider a State Grammar School such as William Ellis in Highgate. In this way we could achieve a good education without the high fees of the private system. In 1945 we successfully took the 11 plus examination, which gave us entrance to William Ellis School Grammar School, in Highgate, where all tuition was free. This certainly turned out to be a lucky move as the standard of education was high and we spent many happy years at the school.
We were immediately put into the 2nd year and stayed until 1952. We took the School Certificate with Matriculation exemption, and then Advanced Level. We became Prefects and immersed ourselves fully in the life of the school. Among the activities we enjoyed were chess, dramatics, the stamp club- which we ran - and the school choir.
Both of us gained a great deal from the encouragement, help and advice we received from our Headmaster, Mr Lockwood. He taught us Latin throughout our time at the school and got to know us well – although he could never tell the difference between us. He used to encourage the learning of Latin as a living language and we volunteered to join his demonstration classes, which took us, for the first time to Oxford and Cambridge. When the time came to apply for University he urged us to try for Oxbridge. Entrance examinations were a requirement and we first sat for Cambridge – Mr Lockwoods University.
We spent a week on scholarship examinations and interviews at Trinity College, Cambridge – and were offered places at Fitzwilliam House. Next we sat for a further week at Pembroke College, Oxford where we were offered entrance to read Modern Languages starting in October 1954 – after National Service. We preferred Pembroke and accepted - and the whole of William Ellis School was given a day off to celebrate.
Peter was awarded a State Scholarship and I had a Major County Scholarship.
Financially there was little difference as both of us were provided with sufficient funds to cover all our tuition, as well as living expenses.
By 1948 our family had become accustomed to life in England and no thought was given to move to America. The family became naturalised British and we had no intention of uprooting ourselves again. When we had a family discussion on whether to become British, we knew that it would mean that we would be called up for 2 years of National Service. We all agreed that as England had saved our lives by allowing us entry as refugees, the least we could do in return was to agree to join the forces when the time arrived. We anglicised our names by Deed Poll to Summerfield and Gunter Arthur became George Arthur while Peter Wili became Peter William. We still mixed primarily in Continental circles. In 1940 we had joined the New Liberal Jewish Synagogue – made up entirely of German speaking refugees.
In fact for many years all the sermons were conducted in German. We both had our Barmitzvah at the Synagogue in 1946 and much later, weddings – when it was renamed Belsize Square Synagogue. Peter became a member of the Board. We were also regularly involved with the Association for Jewish Refugees (AJR) and became members of the Association of Ex-Berliners. Swiss Cottage became the centre of a large refugee community with local cafes, such as Dorice and Cosmos, where virtually only German was spoken and continental cakes and food eaten.
The whole area became so Continental that the story was told of the bus conductor on the No 31 bus, who called out “Swiss Cottage – have your passports ready”.
During the war there was strict rationing of all food and clothing. It took quite a number of years after the war for life to return to normal. In fact it took nearly 10 years for England to make good the ravages of the war years. During the war we often spent Sunday nights as a family playing Canasta or other card games. At the same time we would listed to the wireless – especially Albert Sandler and the Palm Court Orchestra. Monopoly was also popular. We often went to the cinema – but of course television was only in its infancy.
Our parents waited until we finished school before purchasing their first set.
There were relatively few children within the community, and we became well known – especially as twins. We enjoyed entertaining and took part in local cabarets in German mostly produced by Viennese refugees. At the age of 8 years we took part in weekend shows put on by Arthur Steiner called “By Candlelight” and a whole page article with photographs about us appeared in the magazine “The Illustrated” on the 26th December 1942. We were involved for three shows every weekend for several months. This was followed by performances in a regular show put on by Peter Hertz at the Blue Danube Club in Finchley Road. We both went regularly on Saturday mornings to tap-dancing classes with the Doreen Austin School in Baker Street gaining bronze medals. During the war we gave a number of performances to the Forces and after the war also took part in some charity programmes to aid concentration camp victims. You can imagine the impact we had with the Navy when we pointed to the audience dressed in sailor outfits and sang “Hey there mister, you better hide your sister, because the Fleets in!” We also undertook some film work appearing in a Ministry of Information film together and also individually. I did some “dubbing” in the film “White Cradle Inn. Peter was involved in one performance where the amount he was paid enabled us to purchase two bicycles. Every penny we earned, our parents put into Post Office accounts in our names. Mum and Dad also paid for us to have lessons on the accordion – as they put it they chose the piano accordion as they could not afford a piano. We always enjoyed entertaining and continued from time to time for many years. Even today we can synchronise perfectly without previous rehearsal!
We were called up for two years National Service on 18th September 1952 at 19 years old.
There is a War Office regulation that the older twin brother can ask to be stationed with the younger brother – provided they are both in the same medical category.
We were both A1 and although, as the older brother George never requested to have Peter with him, we were always stationed together. Before joining, we were given some useful advice from Mr Zeehandelaar, who had been a Warrant Officer in the Army. He said: “Make the best of the damn thing” and this we did! At the time air travel was still relatively risky and therefore Mum and Dad advised us to opt for the Army. In fact we probably flew more during the next two years than we would have done in the Air Force. Many of our contemporaries in the Air Force never flew at all and spent all their time in the U.K.
We were called up to join the R.A.S.C. (Royal Army Service Corps) and were first sent to Blenheim Barracks, near Aldershot for initial training. There we underwent an assessment using psychological tests to determine how best our time in the Army could be spent. The Personnel Officer recommended both of us for Officer Training.
It was at this time that we met Paul Winner who joined the Army two weeks after us.
He became a life-long friend and has played an important part in George`s life as will be described later. We also attended Yom Kippur services at the Aldershot Garrison Synagogue.
Next we went to Buller Barracks as Potential Officer Cadets. After a short time there we were recommended for special training on the Russian Language Course.
In 1952 the Cold War was at its height and many of the troops with linguistic ability were sent for total immersion training in Russian. Quite a number were sent to Cambridge for training – and success then led to a Commission. With our background in French, Latin, German at Advanced Level and Spanish at School Certificate Level, we appeared obvious candidates.
We were told however that we would need to resign from the Officer course, which we did.
We were then posted to William Barracks, Aldershot to await the start of the next Russian Course. In the meantime our basic training continued and we also took the course in office administration.
At that time in 1952 British troops were spread in all parts of the world. They were for example stationed in Germany, Egypt, Gibraltar, Malta, fighting the insurgency in Malaya, in Kenya against the Mau Mau, fighting the war in Korea and dealing with problems in Trieste and Cyprus. Just when our basic training ended, serious trouble erupted in the Canal Zone, Egypt and the War Office decided to send out all available troops to deal with the emergency. Within a short time some 80,000 troops were stationed around the Suez Canal to guard against Egyptian takeover.
King Farouk had been ousted and President Naguib had come to power. The British had evacuated Cairo and Alexandria and had moved the Headquarters of the whole Middle East to Fayid, in the Suez Canal Zone. We were sent to a holding camp at Bordon to be kitted out and to prepare for posting to Egypt. When we protested that we were waiting to be called to the Russian Course, we were told that we would be summoned back from Egypt when the next course started. In practise we were never recalled and soon were on a flight from Blackbushe in a 36 seater Viking aircraft to the Canal Zone by way of Malta, Tripoli, Benghazi, and El Adem in Libya.
On the journey out, we even survived a forced landing in Sardinia when one of the two engines malfunctioned. In addition we spent a night in Malta, and experienced an air pocket during a sand storm over the desert, when the aircraft unexpectedly plunged.
We spent 5 months in the Suez Canal Zone between February and June 1953.
Much of the time was on active service. Naguib sent his fedayeen to attack the British garrison and try to force us out. We had to carry our rifles with live ammunition at all times and lived in tents – four in each tent, which did however have proper beds and a concrete base. We were lucky enough to have interesting work allocated in the Statistics Section of the Middle East General Headquarters (GHQ) in Fayid and gained experience on the first computers used by the British Army. These were huge punch card machines made by Power Samas - now on view in the Science Museum, where they cause much amusement due to the fact that they were larger than the size of doors. We still had to undertake our normal Army duties such as guard duty – and during active service this meant three hours on duty and three hours off – instead of the normal two hours on and four hours off. I remember that I was alone on guard duty at the Medical area with a Bren Gun on my 20th birthday. At midnight I sang “Happy Birthday to myself”!
Recently all troops who were on active duty in the area have been awarded the General Service Medal – surprise for us both after some 50 years! The only time we wear the medals is when we attend the Association of Jewish ex Servicemen parade (AJEX) – held annually at the Cenotaph in November. At the last parade the Duke of Edinburgh took the salute.
While in Egypt we were given leave to spend the week of Passover at what was known as a Moral Leadership Course held at a special holiday camp at the Great Bitter Lake, close to the Suez Canal. Some 100 Jewish troops in the area attended (Army, Navy and Air Force) and one of the Army Rabbis, Rev Alan Miller, flew out to lead the Course. It felt exciting to recite the prayer “lead us out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage” and to be stationed at the very point where Moses is said to have led the Israelites across the Red Sea. The neighbouring Artillery Unit volunteered to stand guard duty for our group so that we could all fully participate in the week. As a way of saying thanks, we organised a show for the unit on our last night. There was quite some talent among our members and the show went down well. Peter and I took an active part in organising the evening and participating.
The Army always catered specifically for Jewish troops. Kosher food, matzot and Israeli wine were provided for the whole week – cooked by Egyptian cooks under the supervision of Jewish soldiers in the Catering Corps. A picture of the participants appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.
At around that time Peter and I were also featured in an article, which appeared in the issue of “Menorah” – a magazine for Jewish troops in the Forces. When we first arrived in the Canal Zone, Jewish troops in the area would meet regularly at a RAF base with transport provided. When however the Arabs became aware of our meetings and began to fire on our transport, the meetings were abandoned.
However at this point in June 1953 our lives changed unexpectedly when we applied to take leave and spend two weeks visiting relatives in Israel. This normally was possible for military personnel in Egypt by flying first to Cyprus. The fact that we were both working on Top Secret statistics in the General Headquarters of the Middle East caused immediate concern. Our request was refused on security grounds as we had access to too much vital information. As the Colonel told us, we would immediately be approached by Israeli Intelligence on arrival in Israel. At first we protested that we would of course never divulge any secrets. The decision however was taken to post us immediately to Malta – from where transport to Israel was not possible. Within two days on the 13th June 1953 we flew to Malta – perhaps the most fortunate event in our Army lives, as we were moved from dangerous active service to what was in essence a posting on a holiday island. I remember sending a telegram home with the words: “Posted to Malta. Wonderful news”.
We were fortunate to be allocated interesting positions at HQ RASC in Malta until September 1954. This posting gave us a complete contrast to the active service and harsh conditions in the Suez Canal Zone. We were promoted twice in the Army on the same day ending up as Corporals, so that in uniform it was impossible to tell us apart.
We had a joint 21st birthday celebration in Malta and a telephone call from our parents which had to be booked months in advance. We found a restaurant in Valletta with a private room where we invited a dozen of our best army friends for dinner to celebrate our birthday. We joined the Malta Cultural Institute, went Old Time Dancing, learnt how to drive in a Morris Minor, took correspondence courses – George in Philosophy and Peter in English Literature - played tennis and enjoyed the beaches. We also spent a week in Sicily touring the Island, travelling overnight by boat. We also managed to fly home for leave by way of Rome.
Among the friends we made in Malta was David Baggaley. We have kept in touch with him and have seen him and his wife Anne a number of times in London and Nottingham. It was while in Malta we also read widely and both individually questioned whether to read Modern Languages at Oxford. Interest moved towards the possibility of reading Law and we commenced correspondence with Pembroke College to change our courses. Fortunately, after some persistence on our part, the College agreed.
Starting in October 1954, we both read Jurisprudence for three years at Pembroke College, Oxford and obtained the same 2nd class Honours degrees. In fact throughout our academic work our results were very similar. Although we now dressed differently, it was still difficult to tell us apart. We played doubles tennis for the College and boasted that the twin whose service was in best form could serve for both throughout the match. It must have been quite confusing for our opponents.
In other areas we tried not to compete.
George became Captain of Chess for Pembroke and produced Revues, and became Head of World University Service for the University, following on from Paul Winner – our friend from the initial period in the Army. Paul was at St Johns College but a year ahead as he was invalided out of the Army. When a pianist was needed for a Pembroke revue, George auditioned 3 pianists from different Colleges. One pianist stood out as by far the best and he was chosen to play. His name was Dudley Moore – little did we expect him to turn out so famous as a comedian as well as an actor. He of course still became well known also for his piano playing.
Peter became President of the Pembroke Law Society and Literary Society and was in the chess team. We knew that if we had stood against each other for office, it would have been chaotic! We still performed our song and tap-dancing acts to songs such as: “No strings and no connections, no ties to our affections, we are fancy free and free for anything fancy”. We also took part in an Edwardian Evening performing our “Soft Shoe Shuffle.”
We have often looked back at our time at Oxford as being especially happy. It also played an important part in our development. It was the first time that both of us enjoyed the company of girlfriends. The students at the College however were all male. At the time in Oxford there were 24 male Colleges and 5 female. Discipline was strict. During the day you could invite your lady friends to your rooms, but they had to be out of College by 10p.m. Any infraction of this rule could lead to your being “sent down”. Fortunately this still left plenty of scope! Pembroke had an Annual Ball with 3 separate Bands and groups, which went on till dawn. We would then take out punts on the river for breakfast. At the time Peter was dating Marianne Granby and she came up for the Annual Ball. Little would they have thought at the time that, one day many years later, they would get married, after each was divorced.
Most evenings, after dinner in Hall, we would take turns to invite friends for coffee and biscuits in our rooms. The College was quite small – only 50 new undergraduates each year spanning all the subjects. There were 10 of us reading Law in total but we mixed with fellow students of all the faculties. We were quite spoilt in many ways. In the first year Peter and I shared a large living room/study with separate bedrooms.
In the second year we each had a living room/study, separate bedroom and a small kitchenette. There was no running water but each staircase, with normally 8 students would have its own “scout” who cleaned the rooms, made the beds, and did the washing up. In the second year the kitchenette could be reached by way of a small separate staircase so that one would not be disturbed while studying. At mealtime the “scouts” would serve the food – and at dinner the College silver was used and large candelabras were on display. The “scouts” were all middle - aged men most of whom had been with the College for years. In the first year Leslie, and in the second year George, always called you “sir”. The third year was spent in a small house near the College where Peter and I found “digs” with Mrs Edwards in Paradise Square.
With only an outside toilet the accommodation was hardly “paradise” but adequate.
A good bladder seems to have been essential in those days! . The toilet, washing and shower facilities in College in fact were no better and always involved an outdoor walk (or run!). At least the “scout” did bring up hot water to our rooms for washing every morning. There was also Hector, with the limp, who fetched our shoes from outside our rooms every morning and brought them back shining.
Most of the studying was undertaken in the Libraries. The Law lectures were held in large halls to accommodate the undergraduates from all the different Colleges.
They were not compulsory and you would discuss with your personal tutor each term, which lectures were worth attending. On average one attended about 6 to 8 lectures every week – sometimes making a mad dash by bicycle between lectures, which could be held in all different parts of the city. The main task however each week involved preparing an essay, which you read out and discussed with your tutor. Tutorials were held once or twice a week either alone or with one other student – a vital factor in the Oxford system. Your tutor was usually in your own College – we were fortunate to have Mr R.F.V. Heuston, who was a specialist in Tort and Constitutional Law. It was quite customary to have an “essay crisis” the night before a tutorial. You would then immerse yourself in your study and “sport your oak” – close the extra oak door outside your main door, to prevent anyone disturbing you. There were 3 terms in the year, but each term only lasted 8 weeks so that ones time at Oxford was always hectic as well as enjoyable.
It was necessary to spend some time during the holidays studying to keep up with the pressure. With our tiny bedsit room at Holmefield Court, we did not have good facilities at home. We therefore often used the facilities of the Law Library at University College, London by travelling there for the day on the underground. We also both however found time to travel abroad. At this stage our lives were diverging. Up till then most of our activities and progress in life had been very similar.
We found however that increasingly each of us wanted to develop our own identity.
This was partly achieved by avoiding putting ourselves in direct competition with each other. At least as far as girl friends, travel abroad and extra activities was concerned.
Obviously, as we were both reading the same degree subject, leading to an Honours Degree in Jurisprudence, we coincided for studies – but not in tutorials. But each of us needed to establish our own identity – even though we still looked so alike that everyone found extreme difficulty in telling us apart.
In the meantime our parents were much more settled to life in England. Dad had started his own Insurance Brokerage at 1 Bentinck Street, London W1 and was making a success of his firm. Mum continued some dressmaking on a very much reduced scale. and became involved in voluntary work for the Association of Jewish Refugees. They were also both active members of the Leo Beck B’nai B’rith Lodge.
At this stage it will be much more appropriate for each of us to continue writing our own story………..
|From 'Quakers in Britain'|
|George and Peter Summerfield|