I can tell you terrible stories

30th November 2012 at 00:00
A pioneer of Holocaust education in Germany and the UK, Margot Barnard (pictured) escaped from the Nazis in 1936. She talks to Adi Bloom about working in schools against anti-Semitism for more than half a century

In 1936, when Margot Barnard was 16, she left her family home in Nazi Germany and went to make a life for herself in Palestine. At the railway station, Margot's mother refused to let her leave.

"Don't go! Don't go!" she pleaded, tears streaming down her face. "I'll never see you again." Her father simply stood there, white-faced and silent. Slowly, Margot disentangled herself from her mother's embrace and boarded the train. She did not see either of her parents again.

"It was terrible, you know?" Barnard says now from a sunlit living-room in North London. "When you stand in front of the only thing you ever knew in your life and you have to say goodbye. That threw light on the rest of what I did. That I was - what do you call it? - a waif. There was nobody else."

Barnard was not to return to Germany for almost 20 years. When she went back, however, she used her extraordinary experiences and those of her family to become one of the earliest pioneers of Holocaust education in German schools, and then in the UK, too. Such was her impact that, earlier this year, one of Bonn's secondaries was officially renamed Margot Barnard Realschule. And this summer, her autobiography, I'll Never See You Again, was published in English for the first time.

She was born Margot Kober, in 1919. "They tell me I'm a real product of the Weimar Republic," she says, indicating her approval when the interview begins several minutes early. "Always punctual, you know?"

Although she has lived in her Hampstead flat for more than 40 years, there are the remnants of a German accent when she speaks and her conversation is peppered with German, Yiddish, Arabic and Hebrew phrases.

"My childhood was absolutely wonderful," she begins. "There wasn't a rainy day or anything." She chuckles. "Because the German Jews, they were all well-educated. We were everywhere, the Jews.

"All of them, the Germans, had one thing in common. They believed that we, the Jews, were bad people, straight off, because we killed Jesus. They either said we crucified him or killed him. Now crucified and killing - they're bad words."

Barnard is 92, but she speaks fluently and coherently. The non sequitur, therefore, takes a while to sink in.

"One morning in school, when I was eight, nine years old, my best friend came up and said, `I can't play with you any more because you are Jewish and you killed our redeemer.' Redeemer? Nebbish (loser)."

Margot ran home to her mother, confused as to what she had done wrong. Margot's father had been awarded the Iron Cross for his services in the First World War; the family attended German theatre and read German literature. "I was very good in German and French. I went to the best school," she says. "I was always successful. Everybody at school wanted to play with me. My mother used to make beautiful birthday parties. But the German Christian people were very nationalistic."

Always a precocious reader, within a few years she had begun to read Karl Marx. "Liebling, what are you reading?" her mother would call up to her. "Oh, just a book," she would reply, turning another page of Das Kapital.

Gradually, her interest in Marxism morphed into a commitment to Socialist Zionism. By 1936, she decided to emigrate to the nascent Jewish homeland in British-mandate Palestine. "It was a terrible time for the Jews in Germany," she says. "Wherever you were, if you were a Jew you had trouble. And to live like that is terrible. To be undermined: Jews are not allowed. Dogs and Jews are not allowed."

And so, after the railway-station farewell, she settled in the Middle East. Of course, war was looming in Europe, and Barnard spent her early years in Palestine attempting to secure the permits necessary to bring her parents from Germany to Palestine. She did not succeed. "I got telegrams from my parents nearly every week," she says. "They were in a terrible state, and I couldn't do anything to help them. All the time, day and night, I would have that on my mind. The whole world on my neck all the time."

At this point, there is a clatter in the corner of the room. A framed photo, showing a teenage Barnard with her parents, has fallen over. Barnard sits up.

"That is weird. Because I've been talking about them. That is eerie."

The decision to return

Later, she joined the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force. It was while stationed in Egypt that she learned of her parents' deaths in concentration camps.

Not long afterwards, she married Ted Barnard, a British soldier. Her husband decided to remain in the army after the war, and he was stationed in Hanover. This was a joint decision: Margot was keen to return to Germany, too, to conduct family research. While in Hanover, she found herself talking at a dinner party about her pre-war experiences. One of the guests suggested that she go into schools to speak. Although it was only a decade after the end of the war, German schools were surprisingly receptive to the idea. "They couldn't have been more ready to hear another side," she says. "I talked about how anti-Semitism developed. I said - and they didn't like it at first - that anti-Semitism didn't just start in the 1930s, with the Nazis. My parents, they could tell you terrible stories, you know.

"The German young people were brought up with the wrong story. And we have to tell them the true story. So then I explained, a little more fully, how Christianity used Jesus. Everybody knows the Jews do not crucify. But in Germany they were portrayed, year in, year out, as killers. When you asked a child, a Christian child, they would answer: the Jews killed our Jesus. Khalas (the end)."

The defining element of Barnard's experience, of course, is that she left Germany before the war began and did not return until it had finished. Sadly, she was confronted by resentment from those who had been left behind. As she speaks, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is something she has struggled - and still struggles - to accept.

"When I came back, I met my old school class," she says. "I thought, the Jews who were with me at school - we used to all be nice to each other. We liked each other very much. But they all did bad things against me."

At one point, she received a letter from an old schoolmate. "I said, `Oh, we must all meet," Barnard recalls, "and she immediately said to me, `We don't have to be friends. We don't have to meet. As a matter of fact, I don't really want to.' Madness. Madness." She is animated now: she sits bolt upright in her chair. "I couldn't . I . I . I remember I didn't know what to say. I had to think, `What's going on?'"

She tells a similar story about the work she undertook in English schools after the family's return to London. By this stage, there was already fledgling Holocaust-education work taking place in British schools, and Barnard joined an association for survivor-speakers.

"Right from the beginning, I was the victim," she says. "They were mostly people who had been in concentration camps. I was not in a camp, but I can talk about Germany, the situation there, because I was in all that.

"But some didn't speak to me. Many were jealous. One girl, she was from the East End, but she came to England from Poland. So she told everyone in the place not to talk to me. She said, `These people don't really like you, because you haven't been in a camp, and you stand there and talk about anti-Semitism or whatever. They don't want you.'"

Nonetheless, Barnard continued to provide Holocaust education in schools. And she still gives talks today, travelling to Germany to address the third post-war generation. "At the beginning, the children say, `Were you tortured? Did you escape?' That's the first thing they ask," she says. "And I say, right away, `I don't want to talk about things on television.'

"We need to give that third generation of Germans - to say, you can do it differently, if you want to. That was the only thing I wanted to pursue. We must approach talking to the third generation not with guilt. Not to tell them: look what you've done. We must tell them how it came about. How the Holocaust came about."

Slowly, she stands up again and goes to fetch copies of her book, in German and in its new English translation. She is very proud of the book, she says; she is less concerned about the decision to name a school after her. "Of course I'm proud, you know. But this is the most important thing: that they understand I was against any war, any Holocaust. In Africa, South Africa, wherever. Wherever these awful things happen."

I'll Never See You Again is published by Pomegranate Books. www.pomegranatebooks.co.uk

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