The ship docked in Harwich early on Friday morning…Immigration officers came on board to check the large white card, with the passport photograph we had rushed to obtain in Berlin…Finally we were allowed to walk down the gangway…There was much clicking and whirring of cameras and shouted questions…We were making the news as the first contingent of children to arrive under the scheme soon to be known as Kindertransport.
Gisella Eisner, ‘Cottage Pie on Tuesdays’, unpublished memoirs. Wiener Library Collections.
Those who already had foster families or schools arranged and waiting for them travelled on from Harwich. The remaining children were taken to a vacant Butlins holiday camp in Dovercourt, funded and run by the Refugee Children’s Movement. The children slept in wooden chalets designed for summer, and the freezing temperatures feature prominently in their letters and memoirs. They also often commented the strange English food, provided by Butlins at £1 per head. Clothing was also donated by Marks and Spencer, but fleeing persecution rather than poverty, few children needed it.
Meals were eaten in a large central hall, where activities organised by the adult volunteers also took place. Activities included English lessons, sports and games, singing, dancing, and occasionally shows put on by visiting performers and variety acts. Both Gisela Eisner and Frank Henley also recalled trips to the local cinema, and Frank remembered the Chief Rabbi coming to speak, but didn’t remember what he spoke about!
‘His enthusiasm and persistence soon had us on our way to fair a fair competence in ‘Daisy, Daisy give me your answer, do’ and the amazing ‘I like a nice cup of tea in the morning’ which had us counting the number of cups drunk in a day. How could people drink that much tea?’
Gisella Eisner, ‘Cottage pie on Tuesdays’ remembering ‘the sing song man’ who volunteered at the camp.
Children typically stayed at Dovercourt no longer than one month whilst the Refugee Committee found other homes for them. Younger children and girls were easier to house, and as time went on the children remaining at Dovercourt were mainly older boys. In March 1939, the remaining girls were transferred to another camp, and in April 1939 the camp was vacated to be reopened by Butlins for the summer season.
Frank Henley, with a number of other older boys, was sent from Harwich to a different camp near Lowestoft. With no foster families to go to, they were later moved first to a boarding house and then to Dovercourt camp where Frank stayed for around six weeks. Courtesy World Jewish Relief and British Library Sound Archive
Now I shall try to write a letter, first thing in the morning as soon as the post arrives. The boys are at school, the constant comings and goings in my office have ceased for a few minutes, but [now] there’s a boy waxing the floor because it’s Friday and it’s coming down in “sheets”, as they say over here and I really must do something to save my office, which is on the ground floor and which is entered by every official and unofficial visitor and resident, from complete dilapidation. . . . . . .
When I was still working at the institution, I had my daily break after lunch and my daily strolls. Every day had proceeded in its usual course and you could take a break without having to worry about it. And while teaching satisfied me, and I put my heart and soul in it – I’m not able to do it here, because I don’t have the inner peace to stay focused for an hour on something, which seems less important than the other things that need to be done. If a boy can properly pronounce ‘th’ or not, I really do not care about that at the moment, while I’m supposed to decide at the same time whether he shall work in agriculture or in a factory or go out to sea and to decide whether the respective offer is good enough so that we can take the responsibility for sending our boys there. Decisions that mothers and fathers wrestle with for nights and years to make the one for their children, we have to make numerous times a day without knowing the children, although we actually should. Every day, I receive letters from parents and parents and relatives come to see us of late. I think, you know me well enough to know what a [psychological] burden this is for me and how it aggrieves me to see how some decisions perhaps should have been made better. We’ve had a lot of grievances with a group that we had sent to a farm school […]