- Harry Grenville
Following Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, when German and Austrian Nazis smashed 7,500 Jewish stores, the British Jewish Refugee Committee appealed to members of Parliament to admit to England children up to the age of 17. This resettlement was known as Kindertransport and in less than a year, 10,000 Jewish children made the journey from Germany and went to foster families, orphanages or group homes. This was how Dorchester resident, Harry Grenville, came to live in Camelford, North Cornwall with his sister in July 1939.
What was it like leaving your family and coming to Britain?
As a child, I wasn’t part of the discussion, but I knew a lot of Jewish families in Ludwigsburg were talking about leaving. Not that anyone believed there would be an extermination, but life was getting difficult and there was talk in the community about an ejection. The plan was that my parents and grandparents would apply for an American visa and we would meet again in the United States. But my grandfather died from ill health in 1940 and my parents and grandmother were taken to Theresienstadt camp in 1942.
For me, the move was a very quick cut-off and I rapidly became immersed in village life. My sister and I were the foster children of a professional family and we were sent to the grammar school in the small town. I knew a little English when we arrived. I’d been kicked out of the German school in 1936 and then attended the Jewish School in Stuttgart twelve miles away, where I received some English lessons. I also took private lessons with an elderly American lady from Boston. In Camelford, I acquired English rapidly, within a month I was familiar with the North Cornwall dialect. My sister and I were welcomed by the village. The youngest son of my foster parents introduced me to others as ‘their refugee’ and the Headmaster’s younger son took a great interest in me. I became absorbed into Cornish life and regarded it as my home but not all Kindertransportees were so fortunate.
Were you able to keep in touch with your parents?
When the war started it was no longer possible to keep up contact with my family in Germany. Some relatives passed on letters through Rotterdam and some distant relatives in Seville were able to communicate. My father’s elder sister in New York also helped. Through the International Red Cross we received 25-word letters, the last one came in 1944 saying they were leaving the camp for the east. There were no more letters after that.
Theresienstadt wasn’t an extermination camp but a place where Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were sent. There was terrible overcrowding and the conditions were poor. Later, most were sent to Auschwitz. When I went to the International Red Cross in Northumberland Avenue in late 1945, their names did not appear amongst the lists of survivors and our fears were confirmed.
Were you able to grieve for your family?
Not at the time. I was too busy working for the army. I’d kept up my knowledge of German when I lived in London and worked in a lab at Hammersmith Hospital. At the time, the army was recruiting interpreters and although I wasn’t accepted into the Russian programme, I was able to train as a German interpreter. It was a very intensive course and I studied alongside service people and girls who’d completed German A level. Eventually, I was appointed as an interpreter and worked with the administration of the German Prisoner of War camps. I met my wife while I was based in Cattistock and my last job was in Cheltenham. As part of the work, we had to give the prisoners of war a political grading. I met a couple of unrepentant Nazis, but 90% were non political and didn’t care.
I came close to a sense of personal sadness in 2009 when I was invited to Germany to see the stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) laid by Gunter Demnig in remembrance of my parents and grandmother. These are cobblestone-sized memorials for victims of Nazism, set into the paving stones. I was glad my three children accompanied me as it was very emotional, revisiting the town, the building where my father ran his wholesale business and the flat we lived in.
How do you feel about the continuing market for books and films about the Holocaust?
There’s a lot of literary output about the Nazi period and it’s right that children learn about this in school. I watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on television and was deeply disturbed by that – the horror of it all.
How has your personal history impacted on your sense of identity?
I was born Heinz Willy Greilsamer but I’ve been Harry Grenville for much longer. I joined the British Army and later became a teacher of biology. I am very much part of the British way of life. I am happy to talk about my experiences, I certainly don’t hide anything.
Thank you very much Harry.