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Secret Kindertransport Meeting

Kurt Rosenburg and Stanley Cohen at a reunion many years after Kurt was taken into the family as a Kindertransport child.

Few private individuals, especially young people, ever have a chance to get a glimpse at history in the making off the battlefield. Natalie Elgrod's father, Stanley Cohen, was an exception. This private memoir describes one of these rare instances. This short piece is a tribute to the elders who made the decision to initiate the Kindertransport, the father who preferred not to leave his teenage son in the dark about the fate of German Jews, and the author, who relates his experience with dignity.

The death has recently occurred of Lord Richard Attenborough, the iconic British actor and director. On reading about his life I was interested to learn that the Attenborough family took two young Jewish Kindertransport girls into their home. It prompted me to turn to the writings of my father Stanley Cohen who passed away some months ago at the age of 93.

My father has written his memoirs as a private project for the family, in which he has told of his many interesting experiences recalled from his earliest memories. 

Lord Attenborough (2007): His family took in Kindertransport youngsters. Photo Credit: www.flickr.com

One of these memories was of being a teenager in 1938 when he was taken by his own father to a meeting which took place in a hotel in Birmingham where the family lived. Much is known about the Kindertransport from the people who were saved by it, but this memoir comes from a different angle and one that is interesting to hear about, as few people were privy to these early secret meetings, and certainly no-one who is alive today.

Natalie Elgrod

Here follows the excerpt by Stanley Cohen:

"…However, that particular morning my father called me into the sanctum of his office. He told me that there was going to be a very important meeting that afternoon to which he was going and he said he would like to take me.

I shall never forget that meeting I went to with him. It was held in the Grand Hotel in Colmore Row in one of the hotel's large ground floor rooms.

When we arrived there we were shown into a room which was guarded at the doors. Inside were assembled all the elders of the Jewish community. There was no-one at all of my age for I was by far the youngest of anyone attending. Now that I come to think of it, there cannot be anyone still living who was there and the meeting was never reported at all in the lay press or the Jewish press, so that this account could be the first anyone has heard of it.

After everyone had arrived, and the room was quite crowded, the guards at all the doors turned and locked them. No-one else was allowed in after that. Then from the corner of the room stood up Rev. Dr. Abraham Cohen, whom I knew quite well as the Chief Minister of the Hebrew congregation, and he addressed everyone.

At the outset he said that nobody must mention a word of what he was going to tell us and that was why there was security on the doors and that, above all else, no word must leak out to the press.

He then told us that he and Mr. Jack Cotton had just returned from London where they had had a meeting with a group of Jews from Germany. The news from Germany, he said, was very grave. Jews were being rounded up and made to scrub the streets by Nazi SS men. They were being persecuted and taken to concentration camps which were slave labour camps and were being terribly maltreated. He related stories to us that made our hair stand on end.

Of course we had heard stories before of maltreatment of Jews in Germany, which we did not know whether to believe or not, but now we were given the true facts.

It must be remembered that people in England at that time were scared stiff of any possible war with Germany and believed intensely in a policy of appeasement. Every day we would read in the papers that what Germany did to its own people was absolutely no concern of ours. Germany was a paragon of virtue according to the popular mood of the time and the Prime Minister, Birmingham's own Neville Chamberlain, had the matter well in hand so there was nothing to fear. Indeed, as time went by nothing was done at all to offend Hitler, who took advantage of this and was building the biggest war arsenal and army that the world had ever seen.

Now we understood why this had to be a 'closed' meeting. If the gentiles heard about it, they would pooh-pooh it all and it would cause a terrific amount of local anti-Semitism.

Hush hush ... the Grand Hotel in Birmingham where the secret meeting was held. Photo Credit: Brittish Library-www.flickr.com

Dr Cohen's speech had stunned the people in the room; it was then followed most eloquently by Mr. Jack Cotton. After repeating horrific stories of oppression of Jews in Germany, he said the purpose of the meeting was to try to do something about it. The delegation of Jews from Germany that they had just met in a secret session in London had told them that we could do nothing to help them, but their main concern was that their children could be somehow got out of Germany before it was too late.

Jews were still allowed to leave Germany and he implored every family present to take in a Jewish child refugee and thereby probably save its life. My father and I left the meeting completely shocked at what we had heard. He told me that he had immediately told Mr. Cotton that we would take in a child and for him to make the necessary arrangements straight away.

It was only a few weeks later that one evening my father came home late carrying into the house with him a sleeping boy dressed in a German suit. This was Kurt Rosenburg from Berlin. Soon after Kurt, two more German children came to live with us, a little boy called Peter Rosenthal and a very small girl called Eva Lefkowicz.

Many other Jewish families in Birmingham, as was starting to happen throughout England, took in children from Germany as a result of that most important meeting which I was privileged to have attended."

 

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Monday, 03 October 2022

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