Life before leaving

Before leaving their own countries, different refugees led contrasting lives – it is impossible to summarise a single “refugee experience”. Most of the refugees discussed for this project came from Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia, and the vast majority were of Jewish heritage. Nevertheless, there was variety in their geographical distribution, age, politics and level of religious adherence.  

The Jewish population of Germany in 1933 was 525,000, or around 0.75% of the population. Most were heavily assimilated, spoke and considered themselves German; 100,000 Jewish men fought for the German Army during the First World War. The majority of German Jews lived in cities, although there were smaller populations throughout the country. Most Jews in Austria lived in the capital, Vienna, the population of which was 10% Jewish. Many Viennese Jews were supporters of the Social Democratic Party (the only non-Jewish party that accepted Jews as members), but there were also a number of smaller, Jewish-led parties. There were over 350,000 Jews living in Czechoslovakia by 1933, most of whom also lived in cities and were well assimilated. The Old New Synagogue (Altneuschul) in Prague remains the oldest active synagogue in Europe.

Central Europe during the Interwar Period (courtesy US Library of Congress)

Many future refugees came from middle-class backgrounds. Kate Bosse-Griffiths was the daughter of a Jewish mother (who had converted to Lutheranism) and a Christian father in Wittenberg, Germany. Wittenberg was a town of some 20,000 inhabitants, and Kate’s father Paul worked as chief surgeon in the local hospital. Her mother, Käthe, came from a fairly wealthy Jewish family (Kate’s maternal grandfather, a solicitor, held the title of “Councillor and Royal Notary of the King of Prussia”).

The family had a maid, Hedwig, a large garden across the street, and the children received a cultured education. Kate played the violin and was taught Classics at the local grammar school – her elder sister Dolly was the first girl to attend it, at Paul’s insistence. Kate later studied at university, earning a degree in Egyptian sculpture, and secured a post at the Egyptological Museum in Berlin. Her dismissal on account of her Jewish background, which also barred her from future public employment, prompted Kate to flee to Britain in 1937.

Kate's mother with her sister Dolly (left) and Kate (right), 1913 (courtesy Heini Gruffudd)
Kate playing the violin aged fifteen in Wittenberg, 1925 (courtesy Heini Gruffudd)

Julius Weil spent his childhood in Cologne in Germany. From a religious Jewish family, he attended Jewish schools, and had his bar mitzvah in the Glockengasse Synagogue. His was the last ceremony held there before it was destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938. 

During this pogrom, over 267 synagogues were destroyed, hundreds of Jews were murdered or committed suicide, and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were forced to close. In the aftermath, approximately 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps; the Nazis holding them responsible for the damage to their own homes, businesses and places of worship.

The event caused outrage throughout the world, and was the trigger for many Jews to flee the German Reich. Julius came to England with his school, and, after the war, moved to Merthyr Tydfil, becoming an active member of the local Jewish community.

Watch the full video of Julius’ story here (External)

Not all future refugees were Jewish; some fled for political reasons. Anton Hundsdorfer was born in Bavaria in 1902. He grew up in Bohdašice in what became Czechoslovakia, but moved to Munich in 1918 to escape his stepfather. Here, he witnessed the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, and became inspired by its ideals. He joined the German Communist Party (KPD) and became a committed cadre. 

Anton used to deliver anti-Nazi leaflets throughout Bavaria on his motorbike, and was close to other leading members of the KPD, including Hans Beimler (who was later killed fighting for Republican Spain in the Spanish Civil War). This made Anton an enemy of the regime after 1933, and he quickly fled across the border. He survived in hiding, sleeping in pig sheds to avoid detection, but also performed raids into Germany to deliver anti-Nazi literature. On one such occasion, he encountered a Germany army patrol, and received a bullet wound while fleeing back over the Czechoslovak border. Following this, he abandoned attempting any further raids.

Anton on his motorbike, which he used to distribute KPD propaganda (© Ernie Hunter)
Anton (looking to his left) on a march in Munich. The KPD was banned at the time, so the march was disguised as a jiujitsu demonstration (© Ernie Hunter)

After six years in hiding, he managed to enter Britain in 1939 as an agricultural labourer. Although a master joiner, he told immigration officials that he was a pig farmer, since being an agricultural worker was one of the few ways to gain admission. He worked on farms in Worcester and the Wirral before being interned. On his release, he gained a job in the Forestry Service in Llangollen, where he met his future wife, Fanny Höchstetter. They married and remained in Wales for the remainder of the war.

Find out more information through the Northern Holocaust Education Group, set up by Anton’s son, Ernie Hunter (External)
Evelyn as a young girl (courtesy Jewish Museum London)

Evelyn Ruth Kaye was born in Vienna in 1930. In this clip, she describes her early childhood in the city:

Her mother hoped that Evelyn had inherited some of the artistic talents of her father’s family, who owned a small theatre. Evelyn even appeared in a nursery production at the theatre. Unfortunately, her uncle (who was only slightly older than Evelyn) had told her some “naughty words” to replace the rhyme she was to perform. When the time came to say the line, she could only remember the “blue” version: “so my grandfather pulled down the curtain rather quickly!”

Although from a Jewish family, Evelyn’s childhood was not greatly religious. The family didn’t keep kosher, and she had only been inside a synagogue once. Nevertheless, her father was arrested after the Kristallnacht pogrom, during which her mother was forced to clean the street with a toothbrush, and Evelyn fled to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1939. She initially went to a hostel in London, before being evacuated to Wales, attending school in Builth Wells, Powys.

Listen to Ruth’s story in full here (External)

For all German Jews, life changed forever when the Nazis came to power. After the Anschluss in 1938, Jews in Austria also experienced increased antisemitism. Hans Albrecht was a schoolboy from the village of Kleinmünchen near Linz. In this interview recorded by the Imperial War Museum in 2006, he remembers how people began to treat him differently after the Nazis annexed his country:

 
And another sister whom I met on the road once, I greet her and [she] said “Go away from me, you swine of a Jew.” And I remember I was at the hairdressers once, and…her father-in-law said “Can I sit in another seat please? I’m not to want to sit down where a Jew sat down.” 

 

This was particularly stressful for young Hans, who had learning difficulties. He had to be accompanied on his way to school in case he was attacked by Nazi sympathisers. His family made the decision to send him to Britain on the Kindertransport, where he spent time in Llandudno, before moving to Brighton. 

Listen to Hans’ story in full here (External)
Hans Albrecht in later life (courtesy Hans Albrecht Foundation)

Dorothy Fleming also remembers how her life changed after the Anschluss. Once the Nazis had taken over, her schoolteacher made an announcement:

 

I remember the teacher telling the children that we have a new regime now, and you’ll have noticed that things are different, and I want you to promise me that you will come and tell me if you hear your parents or any of their friends, or your brothers and sisters, saying anything nasty about this new regime that we have, you are to come and report to me. So what she was doing, she was encouraging the children to tell on their parents, as we say, and I found at age ten, that that was intolerable, and at age sixty-seven, I still find it intolerable!

 

Soon afterwards, Dorothy (like all Jewish children) was banned from attending the school. Her father’s opticians was taken over by the Nazis, and Dorothy and her family fled to Britain.

Listen to Dorothy’s story here (External)

Josephine Bruegel was born in Bohemia in Czechoslovakia. She grew up in a German-speaking household, and only began learning Czech when she went to grammar school. When Josephine enrolled in Prague University to study medicine, she became more political, being involved with both Zionists and Social Democrats. At one point she was even arrested while visiting friends in Vienna for throwing a Nazi flag on the ground. She was released due to her Czechoslovak citizenship.

After the German annexation of the Sudetenland following the Munich Agreement in 1938, Josephine was offered the chance to go to England. Just before she left, she was forced to burn several cases of anti-Nazi documents she had been keeping in her cellar for activists from the now-banned Social Democratic Party:

She arrived in England, finished her studies and was eventually evacuated to Cardiff.

Listen to Josephine’s story in full here (External)
Josephine Bruegel (sitting, far right) at school in Czechoslovakia (courtesy the estate of Josephine Bruegel)
Further reading

Joža Bruegel, Memoirs (London: Yumpu, 2002)

Centre for Holocaust Education, ‘Who were the six million? Exploring Jewish life before the Holocaust’ (https://holocausteducation.org.uk/who-were-the-six-million/)

Anthony Grenville, Continental Britons: Jewish Refugees from Nazi Europe (London: The Association of Jewish Refugees & The Jewish Museum, 2021)

Heini Gruffudd, A Haven from Hitler (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 2014)

Northern Holocaust Education Group (https://northernholocausteducationgroup.org.uk/)