Excerpt from ‘Escaping Hitler’

Thought it about time I gave my many followers, who have not yet bought Escaping Hitler, a taste of the book.  I hope you find it interesting.  If you would like a copy (U.K. only) do email me at phyllida.scrivens@icloud.com and I can give you the options of how to receive your signed book (both by me and Joe) at a discounted price.

This section is set in Germany during early 1939. The italicised opening is a direct quote from Joe during one of my many interviews with him.

Cross Countries

‘I thought, “If war breaks out then I’ll never get away.” I was determined to get to England before the shutters came down. I would try and get over on my own. Of course I couldn’t tell my parents. They wouldn’t have allowed it.’

Günter’s paternal grandfather Heimann died of a heart attack on 28 February 1939. At the age of eighty-five he never recovered from the shock of his arrest on Kristallnacht. His body was returned to Meudt for burial, grave number 36 in the Jewish cemetery. Although still recuperating from his illness, Alfred took his young son to attend the ceremony. As an orthodox Jew, Heimann was buried in his tallit, the neckband removed and one of the fringes cut off, symbolising that once dead a Jew is no longer obliged to observe the rituals and customs of his religion. Günter stood amongst the adult mourners, joining the traditional chanting of the El Malei Rahamin, a prayer reassuringly declaring that the deceased is now ‘sheltered beneath the wings of God’s presence’. The sensitive child shed a tear for his grandfather as the simple wooden casket lowered into the grave to the rhythmic beat of the spoken Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

After three or four weeks of recuperation Alfred received a visit from a member of the Gestapo.

‘I think you are fit enough to work now.’
‘But I’ve not found any work yet.’

‘You don’t need to. You’ll be building the autobahns, and there is a lot of digging to do.’

Alfred was attached to a forced-labour unit living in caravans on the roadside miles from Koblenz. He was allowed to return home at weekends only if he could afford his fare, which wasn’t often. Expelled from school, with no father, no friends and reluctant to venture out, Günter had little with which to amuse himself, apart from watching the endless columns of Black and Brownshirts marching through the streets below. To ease the tension he made music on his new violin, losing himself in the moment.

Rumours were circulating in the Jewish community that a group of people in Great Britain had successfully lobbied their government to allow the immigration of more refugees, specifically children between eight and sixteen thought to be under threat from the Nazis. They would enter England on temporary travel documents and re-join their parents once the crisis was over. A £50 bond was required for each child and they would make the journey in sealed trains. Volunteer families and financial donations were actively being sought in Britain. Those children for whom sponsors could not be found, would be housed at Dovercourt, a holiday camp on the east coast of England, until a foster home could be found. Above all the refugees were not to be a drain on the British State.

Whilst there was no way out for Alfred and his wife, it was crucial to offer their son a future. They asked Günter if he would like a chance to go to England. The boy did not hesitate. His application was lodged and the wait for a response began. Sometime in February 1939 a brown envelope arrived from the Jewish Refugee Committee in London. The letter was brief and to the point: ‘We can now confirm that Günter is on the list and you will be advised when a seat is available for him on a Kindertransport out of Cologne.’ Günter read the letter over and over, excited at the prospect of escape. It became his ‘special treasure’ and lived permanently in his trouser pocket.

Excerpt from Escaping Hitler by Phyllida Scrivens February 2016


Gunter Stern as a young child in Nickenich
Günter Stern as a boy


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