IN June 1989, 1000 men and women crammed into a sports hall in Harrow. They had one thing in common: they had all been rescued by the British government when war broke out in 1939. Ten thousand Jewish children were sent on trains over to England from Germany and Austria in what was referred to as the “Kindertransport”. One of these children, Ruth Barnett (neé Michaelis), was four years old when she travelled with her older brother to England.
In 1989, a friend told Ruth about a 50th anniversary reunion of all the adults who had been part of the “Kinderstransport” scheme.
“Up until then, I knew nothing about the Kindertransport”, says Ruth, “I thought that only my brother and I had come from Germany.”
Without realising it, Ruth had avoided anything to do with her past; whenever people mentioned anything to do with the war, or her husband watched a war film, she would find some excuse to leave.
“You’re not a whole person if you cut off your roots.” she says.
Ruth was born in 1935 and was originally recognised as a German citizen, like her parents, but the Nuremburg Laws came along eight months later to change that. Ruth’s father, Robert Michaelis, was born Jewish, which meant that his baby daughter had no official nationality.
During her four years in Berlin, Ruth’s parents tried to protect her and to give her as normal a childhood as possible. The few flashes of memory that she still has of those years growing up in Germany are mostly happy, interspersed with strange moments which, in retrospect, Ruth knows were caused by the fear surrounding the Nazis. Her father once hid in a broom cupboard because the Gestapo were after him; Ruth’s aunt, ‘Tante Ella’, tried to tell her niece that her father was shaking with laughter (rather than fear) because it was all a joke, but Ruth was old enough to know this wasn’t true.
When Hitler came to power, many Jewish families had already left to escape to other countries, but many more stayed, including Ruth’s parents. They thought that the situation in Germany would calm down.
On November 9th, 1938, ‘Kristallnacht’ or ‘Night of the Broken Glass’ brought the Nazis’ actions to the attention of the rest of the world. It was after this blatant display of violence and hatred towards the Jews that the English government organised for children from Germany and Austria to be sent over (without their parents) to England.
“Parents had to make heart-rending decisions in sending their children to safety. Many rightly feared that they might never see their children again.” said Ruth in her autobiography Person of No Nationality.
At four years old, Ruth didn’t understand what was happening or where their mother had gone when she left them at a foster home in England. Ruth describes sitting around a table with Martin, their mother and Reverend Stead and his wife, eating tea.
“It was just like another outing for me. After tea, my mother put us to bed and tucked us up with a story,” said Ruth in her book, “It all seemed like an adventure. That is, until I discovered in the morning that my mother was no longer there.”
Whenever Ruth asked her new foster family questions about her mother, or cried because she missed her parents, she was met with anger. So she eventually decided she must be inherently bad, to be sent away to England. When her mother didn’t return to bring them home, she started telling people that her mother was dead.
This conviction that she was a bad child, deserving of punishment, followed Ruth around for many years. Her first foster home, Merston Rectory, only served to reinforce this, as her memories of living there are described in Person of No Nationality as “a nightmare of confusion, fear and pain.”
Reverend Stead treated the children with kindness, but he didn’t spend much time with them; the majority of the care was given over to his wife, Mrs Stead, and her companion, Miss Wright. They made a habit of refusing to give Ruth food at the dinner table until she could ask for it using ‘proper’ English, which meant that she often went without. Miss Wright also enforced specific times for going to the toilet, causing Ruth to wet the bed later on.
A bright spot in the horizon for Ruth and Martin came in the form of their boarding school, ‘The Friends School’, run by Quakers. So when they were told, at the end of the school year, that they were not to return to Merston Rectory because Reverend Stead was ill, they were delighted.
From the peace of The Friends School, Ruth and her brother were thrust into a world of complete chaos. They were sent to a hostel in Richmond, full of other children, which was relatively unsupervised. The chapter in Ruth’s book, Person of No Nationality, which talks about her next foster home (the Goodrickes) is titled: “A Real Family at Last”. After being wrenched away from everything that was familiar at such a young age, Ruth and Martin had not experienced any kind of security for a while. Living with the Goodrickes changed this.
Ruth felt so at home as part of the family that she started calling Mrs Goodricke “Mummy”. But she was told, gently, that Mrs Goodricke was not her mother, so not to call her that. Coupled with other events, this caused Ruth to withdraw into herself.
“I really didn’t know who I was.” said Ruth in her book, “The way depression was treated at that time was to tell the sufferer to ‘snap out of it’. When you are depressed, that is just what you can’t do – even if you want to.”
Ruth wasn’t the only one to suffer with the effects of the war. Her brother Martin, always such a source of strength to his sister, struggled to fit in with the Goodricke family and they agreed it would be best for him to move away and live with another family. They went to live with the Halting family on their farm in the South Downs. Ruth fell in love with the farming lifestyle and the beauty of the South Downs.
Four years after first moving there, Ruth’s mother contacted her and later visited her, with a desire to bring her ‘home’ to Germany.
“[For] ten years we were brainwashed with British propaganda against Germany in the war.” says Ruth, “As a small child, I believed it all. Most 14 year olds in England today are much more capable of thinking and questioning. I was very sheltered, so that the experience of being made to go to Germany was terribly shocking. That shattered my trust.
“It was the Kindertransport in reverse. Suddenly, a second time, my whole world had gone and I was in a frightening world gone mad.”
Ruth’s parents wanted her to slot straight in to her new life in Germany, but for her, it was overwhelming. After years of trying to adjust to every change in her life, struggling to fit into her foster families and find a sense of home, while thinking the whole time that her mother was dead, Ruth decided to give up. No longer would she be the obedient, docile child that everyone wanted her to be. She went for long walks and stayed in bed for hours, avoiding spending time with her mother during the day. On one occasion, she ran away from her parents’ house for 24 hours and ended up sleeping in a barn.
After this, Ruth’s parents resigned themselves to the idea that their daughter was not settling in, and they made an agreement with her. She would be able to go back to England, as long as she visited them during her school holidays.
“If I hadn’t [rebelled], I don’t know what my story would have been.” she says, “I might well be a mentally ill depressive, as I doubt I would have ever worked through my trauma.”
After university, Ruth was persuaded by her fiancée, Bernard to try and restore her relationship with her parents.
I thought I’d go to Germany and try to really get to know my parents.” she says, “I honestly wanted to give it a chance, because I knew that I hadn’t been able to when I was repatriated at 14. But it didn’t work.”
In 1958, Ruth and Bernard were married in a Jewish ceremony and Bernard received a grant, which allowed Ruth some freedom. She was employed in a small grammar school, where she was in charge of biology for the whole school. For the next 17 years, Ruth continued teaching, but knew that it was time to leave when the racial tension in a particular school in Acton grew too strong for the staff to deal with.
She re-trained as a psychotherapist, something that allowed her to look into some of her childhood behaviour and gain greater understanding. Three years after leaving Greenford High School, Ruth had built up her own private psychotherapy practice. It was during that third year of working as a psychotherapist that Ruth attended the reunion of the Kindertransport children.
“Now, there are plenty of good therapists, so I have retired.” says Ruth, “In order to talk, mainly in schools, but to any group that invites me. I’m very pleased to go and raise awareness of stereotypes that lead to racism.”
Ruth’s particular passion is for Roma-Traveller Gypsies, a people group that she looks upon as one of the most badly treated in Europe. She has written a second book, called Jews and Gypsies: Myths and Realities, which is self-published (“[my publisher] didn’t trust me that I would sell enough in schools” she smiles.)
“We have to learn and commemorate what’s happened in the past in order to be able to build a future.”
In Jews and Gypsies, it talks about Ruth’s conviction that she cannot stand up against anti-Semitism unless she also speaks up for other people groups who are being maligned.
“Real, convinced, Nazis were a small crowd.” she says, “The majority were bystanders and a small number who disagreed, were prepared to be active resistors and rescuers. That’s what I’m trying to challenge – people to take action and to think, before it’s too late.
Ruth works with the Holocaust Educational Trust and goes into schools to talk about her experience, but she emphasizes how long it took her to get to that point. For her it was 50 years before she was even able to look into her past, let alone speak to others about it.
“Self-confidence and trust have to be restored before you can speak in public.”
Ruth describes her husband’s “endless patience and encouragement” as the only reason she managed to gain enough confidence to speak about her experiences.
“I completely lost my trust in human people. That is what surviving genocide does to people. I have listened to [a survivor of the] Rwandan genocide, who was persuaded to speak before I would consider she was nearly ready, and it’s re-traumatising if you’re not ready.”
“I would never put pressure on anybody to face their past, if it’s a traumatic past. You can’t see trauma, like if a person has a rash or a broken arm or a broken leg.”
This is why Ruth knows she must continue to speak out against injustice. “Education to counter racism must go on. I think this is important. There are not that many people who speak out.”
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