It almost could have been just any average day at Sheffield railway station, with hordes of confused passengers anxiously checking the departures board to see when they would be on their way. It was only the short trousers and German accents that gave it away. Rather than embark to another city in the UK, on 16th November bewildered Sheffield commuters were instead transported back to 1938 for a theatre production to mark the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
In November of that year, Britain allowed 10,000 unaccompanied children, mainly Jewish, to arrive from areas of Nazi-occupied Europe as their antisemitic policies began to be take hold.
The Kinder, who were told to arrive with just one suitcase, travelled by train from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to the Hook of Holland, where they got on boats to Harwich.
From there, children were sent to homes all over the country.
One of these Kinder was Johanna Hacker, who arrived from Vienna with her two younger sisters in December 1938, before settling in Sunderland. Her 9 month-old baby brother Max was too young to travel, and was lost his life in the Holocaust with Johanna’s parents.
70 years on, Johanna’s daughters Ros and Jane Merkin, with their cousin, musical director Max Reinhardt, created the play Suitcase to commemorate the journey that their mother and thousands of other children made.
Jane said: “Kindertransport has been a really important part of our lives. Our mum, who died in 1994, didn’t talk about it a lot, but we grew up knowing that story.”
Originally devised as a one-off show at Liverpool Street Station in 2008, the play is now touring ten railway stations across the country to mark the 75th anniversary.
Suitcase is performed as a piece of on-site promenade theatre. Audience members are led around the station by volunteers – or ‘organisers’, taking the role of members of the Refugee Children’s Movement who helped to facilitate the arrivals.
Amidst the din of a busy station and constant announcements over the loudspeaker, the audience take the role of the Kinder. Along their journey they are confronted by angry foster parents sent a girl rather than the boy they’d hoped for, a patriotic railway worker inspired by a political speech and a bigoted woman who worries the children will spread diseases.
Ros said: “We wanted to look at what’s the closest we could get to the experience that the Kinder might have had when they arrived.
“What does it feel like when the woman who doesn’t want the kids here talks to you as though you’re that person?”
One member of the audience didn’t have to try too hard to imagine what that must have been like.
Susanne Pearson, nee Ehrmann was born in 1928 in a small town near Ostrava in then Czechoslovakia, before moving to Prague at the age of four.
Sue is now 85, and lives in a bungalow in Hunters Bar with her husband of 67 years, Harry. Speaking with a strong Sheffield accent, there are few clues to her past, although she remembers it vividly.
“I was an only child and had quite a privileged childhood with a lot of sport and a lot of music.”
Although conditions didn’t at home deteriorate whilst Sue was there, people’s attitudes started to change as the Nazis advanced on Prague.
“I can remember being told not to talk to strangers and, being Jewish, people started to restrict their own activity.”
‘Saved my life’
Sue was a member of the Red Falcons, a left-wing youth organisation that had links with the Woodcraft Folk in England. Although Susanne was too young, other members of the Red Falcons had attended a summer camp in England in 1938.
“Quite a few of the Red Falcons were Jews…so when Prague became occupied [in 1939], the Woodcraft Folk people here realised that quite a number of the people they had got to know at this camp were in danger.
“So they wrote letters to its members saying, what can we do?”
Around 20 families offered homes to these young children, so the head of the Woodcraft Folk approached Nicholas Winton, a British businessman and humanitarian who was organising the rescue of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia. Winton agreed that the organisation could choose which children it wanted to offer homes to.
“It was that really that got me here and saved my life.”
Sue travelled with around 15 other children from Czechoslovakia, and she was sent to Beauchief in Sheffield, where she lived with her foster family for five years.
Initially, Sue communicated with her adopted family in German, as she spoke little English. But she was keen to fit in with local children.
“I didn’t want to be different. I learnt to speak English very quickly, and I learnt it with a Sheffield accent which I’ve still got. By the New Year you couldn’t have picked me out.”
Sue briefly attended primary school, before being sent to the local “sink school” until leaving at 14. She was 17 by the time the war ended, and had began working as a nurse.
Despite adapting quickly, she was often homesick.
“Oh yes, horrendously. The bit they got so right in Suitcase was the parents telling the children ‘you’ll go and we’ll follow’.”
But she never saw her parents again.
“They were taken to Lodz ghetto in 1942. My Dad died there the following year.
“I do not know what happened to my mother.
“I think, because there is no trace of her, that she must have lived for quite a long time after. The Germans were very meticulous in keeping records.
“The date of death of my father is quite clear.”
Sue’s experience was not uncommon. 63% of the Kinder never saw their parents again, murdered in the Nazi ghettos and concentration camps.
Ros Merkin said: “A lot of the Kinder never spoke about what happened to them.
“For a lot of them there’s a trauma that’s been hidden, but as they’ve got older there’s a sense that you can…or you need to or you want to tell that story.
“There’s also a sense of running out of time.”
Sue has stayed in Sheffield. She and Harry had two children, adopted another and also fostered, and she is now a great-grandmother to three young children. She later went back to school to study O-levels, and became a teacher, rising to head before going on to lecture in Early Years Learning at Sheffield Polytechnic.
But it took her until 1970, 25 years after the end of the war to be able to travel back to Czechoslovakia. She also got back in touch with one remaining cousin, who had moved to live in Palestine. Like many of the other Kinder, it took a long time for her to speak about her experiences.
“We had the Anne Frank exhibition come to Sheffield in 1984, and after that I got permission to go give talks in schools. And the number of people who said, ‘Sue, I didn’t know that about you.’”
“It’s not an easy subject to bring up.”
And in recent years, one of the group of 15 Czech Kinder who travelled with Sue made contact, and many of the group have since met up in London, Prague and Israel. She has also got back in touch with an old friend from home who now lives in Chicago, and they speak regularly.
For Sue and others, it is clear that significant anniversaries and public events like Suitcase are important for bringing Kinder together and helping them begin to talk about their shared experiences. As each big anniversary of the Kindertransport arrives, there is a growing urgency in sharing their stories.
But Ros and Jane Merkin also think Suitcase has a contemporary relevance, both to the families of Kinder and to child refugees today.
Jane said: “A guy in Hull came up to us who was desperate to get a ticket, because his mother came [on the Kindertransport]. He took out an envelope and produced a photograph of this group of Kinder lined up at Hull station who had just arrived from London. And there was his mother, aged about five, in this amazing big thick fur coat.
“This guy looked at me and just started to cry. It was extraordinary.”
But Suitcase is not simply a piece of historical drama. Some of the individual scenes, such as the lady who tells the audience that Britain is full and can’t cope with any more refugee are clearly written with a nod to the modern world. Why do the writers think that the Kindertransport story is so relevant today?
“Finding out things like 1100 unaccompanied kids still arrive in Britain each year,” Ros explained.
Jane said: “Now it’s even harder for kids to make their way from a country where things are so bad they can’t stay there any longer.
“We need to be aware of what’s going on and look after them and protect them.”