#oldstockstories - true stories from Jewish refugees in the local community
This month, we’re welcoming Ben Caplan and 2b Theatre Company all the way from Canada to TOM as they present the beautiful show Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
In the run up to the show, working together with Sussex Jewish News, we reached out to people in the local community who had their own refugee stories and asked if they would be happy to share them with us. Here’s just one of those stories - a true and honest account of Kate Atkins’ escape from the holocaust put into words by her daughter Gweni Sorokin and her son Harry Atkins written circa 1980.
Early in 1939 things were very bad in Germany for the Jews so my husband and I decided to emigrate to South America. Shortly before we were due to leave the country we received a telegram from the South American authorities stating that refugees were no longer being allowed into the country. Whilst we were deciding what to do my husband was arrested by the Gestapo and even though I managed to get him out by proving that we were about to leave Germany, he had to flee the country very quickly and England seemed the only place to go. When he got here, he immediately joined the British army and soon got permission for his wife to join him.
“She was worried about her luggage, but I couldn’t care less. We had the opportunity to escape with our lives.”
Two weeks before war broke out I started my journey across Europe. From Berlin the train made its way to Aachen; the German-Belgian border. We arrived late at night and were ordered off the train and into the customs shed. All our passports and travel documents were taken away and I even had to surrender my watch and wedding run while the luggage was being searched. You had to have a list of everything you were taking with you and if anything was discovered in your baggage or on your person it was immediately confiscated. Then, one by one, we were taken to a small room for a body search. While waiting around I got into conversation with a woman who was also travelling to England with her small son. We were all cold and tired but had to wait patiently on the platform. When my turn came the customs officer in charge of searching the women did a very strange thing. She told me not to bother about the search but as we had to allow some time to elapse before I returned we chatted. She returned my documents and asked about my husband in England and did I want to see him again?
What a stupid question; of course I wanted to be with him but, just as important, I wanted to get out of Germany. She then told me that at 5am, a train was due at the station which was the boat-train going on to Dover. It stopped only long enough to throw out the mail sacks but unless I was on that train I would be returned to Berlin and certain death. I was to tell no-one as spies were all around and she would be in big trouble if she was found out. I went back to the waiting room and the woman I had been speaking to before asked about my encounter with the customs lady. I wasn’t going to say anything but when I saw the face of her little boy I motioned her to follow me outside. In the middle of the platform, away from everybody, I told her about the in-coming train. I warned her not to breathe a word to anyone, even her son, and when the time was near we would walk out again onto the platform on the pretext of getting some fresh air. She was worried about her luggage but I couldn’t have cared less. We had the opportunity to escape with our lives. Nothing else really mattered. A few minutes before five o’clock we were ready and waiting. The train pulled in scarcely coming to a complete halt. The woman jumped on, I handed her boy up to her then jumped aboard myself. I still had one foot on the platform as the train started to move out of the station and the last thing I remember seeing were the faces of the doomed passengers still in the waiting room.
All I had with me were the clothes on my back and the equivalent of 50p in my pocket. I sat back with a sigh of relief. There were no more Nazis now… this was a Belgian train travelling to Dover with Belgian porters checking our papers. Apparently this was the last train leaving Aachen for the foreseeable future. When this news sunk in I sobbed my heart out. After years of living in fear of my life I was finally safe. Anyone else trying a similar route later on was going to be sent back to a death camp simply because they had tried to escape. I think I must have had a guardian angel watching over me all that time.
“Some people cheered, some sang, a lot cried but all of us were thankful to God.”
Finally we reached Ostende. More customs officials but this time it wasn’t so frightening. All that was asked was where we were going and what was the purpose of our visit. Then the ferry sailed. During the crossing I had time to reflect on the miracles that had happened so far. All my fellow passengers were in similar circumstances so when the ship was in sight of the cliffs of Dover we all came out on deck to watch the English coastline approaching. Some people cheered, some sang, a lot cried but all of us were thankful to God. As the boat was going through the process of docking I heard all kinds of strange sounds coming from the harbour. Imagine my feelings when I learned that the port was, in fact, being sealed off as the rumours of war were now very strong. No more boats would be landing at Dover.
Suddenly I was standing on British soil and there, beyond the barrier was my beloved husband eagerly awaiting my arrival. He had no way of knowing the exact time I would get to England but had put his faith in my determination and in God that we would be together again. I don’t think I could ever describe those first precious moments. Lots of hugging, kissing and weeping: both of us so grateful to the Almighty for our reunion.
I have lived in this country for more than forty years now and became a naturalised citizen as soon as possible after coming here. My husband served in the British army for the duration of the war. Both our children were born and raised here as were my grandchildren. Since coming to England I have travelled to many other countries including South America where I might have lived had things been different. In my opinion this is the best country in the world where one can be truly free. I regard myself as a British subject and proud of it. I hope you all realise how lucky you are to be British… I certainly do.