Tales of a Holocaust survivor

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Aberdeenshire pupils have received a moving account of the Nazi atrocities from a special visitor who experienced them at first hand

It's more than 70 years since Hans and Gertrud Oppenheim took their little daughter to Hamburg station and said goodbye to her for the last time. She had a red ribbon in her hair and carried a toy dog and a tiny suitcase. She was just seven years old and they would never see her again.

It was July 1939 and Dorrith was one of 10,000 unaccompanied children who escaped from the Nazis, just five weeks before Britain declared war on Germany. Just 20 years earlier, her father had fought on the German side in the First World War.

Most of the young refugees were Jewish and were brought to Britain on Kindertransport. Some would be reunited with their parents after the war, but many would not.

On the day I visit, Dorrith is telling her story to pupils at Hill of Banchory School in Aberdeenshire during a Curriculum for Excellence day. She's a grey-haired 77-year-old who walks slowly with a stick.

The children have been studying the Second World War in books and on the internet. Few pupils have this privilege of a first-hand account from someone who escaped the Holocaust to Scotland.

Pupils sit silent on the floor as Dorrith recalls the events of 1938 which led to her flight from her hometown of Kassel.

"On November 9 and 10, the Nazis orchestrated a night of violence and killing against Jews throughout Germany," she recounts. "Their excuse was the murder in Paris of a German embassy official by a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, who wished to demonstrate his protest at the forced deportation of his family to the Polish-German border.

"On this night, Nazi thugs roamed the streets, burning synagogues, ransacking Jewish shops and breaking up or killing terrified Jews. There were a lot of Jews killed and a lot were sent to concentration camps," Dorrith tells the two P7 classes.

"The Nazis themselves named this night Kristallnacht - the night of shattered glass," she explains. "A lot of synagogues had beautiful chandeliers and a lot of glass, and it was all this glass that they broke."

Hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish shops were destroyed and Dorrith's home and school were vandalised in the orgy of destruction unleashed against Jews across Germany.

Dorrith's parents spent months organising papers to allow their daughter to escape, as part of an agreement with the British Government. When she finally left, they packed her tiny suitcase with a few treasured possessions - a book of scraps and two family photograph albums recording happier days.

"I think they must have known what was going to happen, and they took so many photographs and I remember my parents by it as well," she tells the children.

Her parents organised guardians for her in Edinburgh and hoped to join their daughter there. But war broke out before they could escape.

Dorrith went to George Watson's School. She married and had a family of her own, and in 1996 wrote a children's book about her journey, In My Pocket - a reference to the only words of English she knew when she arrived here.

"All I could say in English was, `I have a handkerchief in my pocket.' Later on, whenever I learned a new word, I would put it into that sentence: `I have a dog in my pocket'; `I have a house in my pocket'; `I have a teacher in my pocket,'" she laughs.

In 1940, her guardians sent her to the countryside for safety. Dorrith describes how she tried to blend in with the other pupils. "I wanted them to think I was an evacuee, just like all the other children," she says.

But it didn't always work. She describes how stones were rolled down a hill towards her: "The boys thought that, coming from Germany, I must be a German spy - at eight years old," she says.

Back in Germany, her parents were sent to Frankfurt, then deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp and finally to Auschwitz. She travelled there years later, but learned nothing of her parents' fate.

After her talk, the children have a day's activities based on the Second World War theme. They are dressed up like 1940s children and perform plays they have written about evacuees. They have also recorded their own versions of the Declaration of War against Germany and Dorrith stays for tea with cakes made from wartime recipes.

Two of the pupils describe their reaction to their study of the Holocaust: "It was horrible, the way they died and the way they treated the Jews," says 11-year-old Matthew Law.

His classmate Lucy Walker says: "It really freaked me out when I heard about all the gas killings and everything."

Laura Johnston, the probationer teacher who organised the visit, says they took an interdisciplinary approach to their Second World War topic.

"In art, we've made Anderson shelters and clay models of war memorials," she explains. "In their language, they have researched Anne Frank's history on the internet, then they wrote about Anne Frank. They've also done letters home as if they were an evacuee and were away from their family."

Another P7 teacher, Dawn Davidson, asks Dorrith if she is glad she visited Auschwitz. "Yes, absolutely," she answers without hesitation.

"What struck me most were the exhibits of things that were left behind once the camp was closed. There was one and it was just a mountain of shoes, and then another one: masses of cases, mainly with their owners' names and addresses, and then there were baby clothes."

- In My Pocket by Dorrith M Sim, illustrated by Gerald Fitzgerald (Harcourt).

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