My sister and I fled Nazis as children – 22 of my relatives were killed

Even though I was only eight, I felt painfully aware that I was different to others.

It began on the playground in Leipzig when I was taunted for being Jewish. Then on the way home from school, I would see copies of the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer, with cruel cartoons depicting people like me as an evil that needed to be eradicated.

My mother, sister and I – unfortunately my father died when I was younger – heard reports of concentration camps and there was a real atmosphere of fear among Jews sweeping through Germany. Everyone could feel something bad was about to happen to us.

So when I was awakened in the early hours of 28 October 1938 by Nazi officials banging on the door of our family home, I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a huge shock.

Nevertheless, it was terrifying.

It saddens me when I see so many conflicts going on in the world today (Picture: Dr Martin Kapel by Paul Banks, courtesy of Holocaust Centre North)

As my mother shook me, I rubbed my eyes wondering what was happening and she told me to quickly get dressed. Behind her stood three armed officials in Nazi uniforms barking orders.

Me and my 11-year-old sister grabbed a few possessions, as they made it clear we would not be coming back. Then we were marched to a local police station where we were put on a bus with other Polish Jewish families.

I looked around as we drove, and could see everyone was fearing the worst as we were taken off the bus and man-handled onto a packed train. There were people of all ages and I remember some were carrying babies. As I studied fellow passengers, I suddenly realised that there were sick people among us and some had been taken from hospital beds.

The sun had come up now and as we passed other train stations, my mother recognised that we were going eastwards. It was dark by the time we arrived at a small town on the border between Germany and Poland.

We were ordered off the train and organised into rows of four by SS officers before they began to march us in the direction of a forest.

The SS men had torches but we had to walk in the dark along an uneven forest path and some would stumble or fall from time to time. A few collapsed, but the SS men would not let anyone stop and kept driving us forward with bayonets.

It was at this point that I was certain I was going to die. I felt sure they were taking us into the forest to shoot us all.

But they didn’t and we would later learn they were carrying out orders by the head of the Gestapo for the expulsion of about 17,000 Polish Jews living in Germany at the time.

As we came to a railway line – which I now know was the border – the SS officers stopped and said they would not be going any further. They ordered us to carry on walking in the dark between the rails and we stumbled on in terror before crossing ploughed fields as we headed towards some lights in the distance.

We eventually reached a hamlet where someone must have alerted the Polish police because it wasn’t long before they came and took us away. Now we were completely in limbo and rejected by the Polish government.

I remember reading history as a child and a lot of it felt abstract and remote (Picture: Dr Martin Kapel by John Steel, courtesy of Holocaust Centre North)

Thousands would stay in refugee camps on the border for many months, but I was fortunate to escape before the Germans invaded Poland and got to Britain under the Kindertransport scheme.

My sister and I were among approximately 10,000 children who were saved and we arrived in the UK in July 1939, just before the war started. My mother had managed to get to France, where she survived the war in the Vichy zone.

I stayed with a foster family in Coventry with my sister, where we would go on to experience the bombing raids that became known as the Blitz.

At one point, I can remember two bombs landing within 50 yards from our house. They blew all our windows out, along with the front and back doors. Part of the roof was blown off too. I was frozen with fear.

This was a difficult time and I was still a young child separated from my mother in a country where, at first, I couldn’t speak English and no one seemed to speak German. The sense of isolation was overpowering and, for a time, I genuinely felt lost.

Holocaust Memorial Day should be the wake-up call (Picture: Dr Martin Kapel by John Steel, courtesy of Holocaust Centre North)

But in my heart, I knew I was fortunate. I knew lots of people had no chance and not one of my 22 relatives in Poland survived. They were all killed by the Nazis.

Sadly, I was never properly reunited with my mother because of the effect that her war experiences had on her and we were never able to live as a family again.

But even though the Nazis tore our family apart, I counted myself lucky because of the opportunities that Britain offered me. Once I learned English, I thrived at school and was able to get a scholarship to go to grammar school.

I then studied chemistry at the University of Birmingham and would later work in this industry and then lecture at the University of Leeds. My sister married and had a family, and she is still alive today.

When I retired at 65, I was fortunate to be introduced to Holocaust Centre North – an exhibition and learning centre that helps schools and communities learn about survivors’ experiences – and I have made lots of friends with other survivors who escaped Nazi Germany.

It’s so important to keep history alive (Picture: Dr Martin Kapel by John Steel, courtesy of Holocaust Centre North)

I’ve also done many talks with schools and I’m always encouraged by the young people I meet who ask lots of intelligent questions and have a genuine appetite to learn.

It saddens me when I see so many conflicts going on in the world today and the war in Ukraine is another senseless tragedy. Whenever I see the news or read about war, it always affects me.

These are not just statistics or a faraway story to me. They are human beings, just like me and you.

And although this is always upsetting, I’d like others to really think about it instead of changing the channel and forgetting about it. That’s why it’s so important to keep history alive and for people to feel our stories rather than just hear them.

Holocaust Memorial Day should be the wake-up call that reminds us what discrimination, racism and hatred can lead to – and that’s why history always resonates in the present. 

I remember reading history as a child and a lot of it felt abstract and remote. If young people today see the Holocaust in these terms, then it will fade from memory and that’s what I fear the most.

Because if that happens we will never learn and keep making the same terrible mistakes.

You can discover more stories like Martin Kapel’s at Holocaust Centre North in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email [email protected]

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