New lives

The children’s experiences once they got to Britain very much depended on the individuals and organisations who took them in. Gisella Eisner was one of many who felt unwanted by her foster family, and at the age of 14 was even expected to pay her way, working in her foster father’s workshop. Others were luckier, taken in by families who cared for them a great deal.

‘What affected me immediately was a noticeable lack of cordiality and warmth towards me…How would she have coped if, instead of me, she had received the younger child they were said to have wanted? Would such a little girl have been expected to stay quietly in her room without books, games or toys to occupy her?’

Gisella Eisner, ‘Cottage Pie on Tuesdays’, Wiener Library Collections.

Frank Henley, like many other boys over the age of 13, was never found foster parents. He lived in a succession of group homes, and worked on a farm and then in a tailor’s workshop. Interviewed in 1989 by Alan Dein. Courtesy World Jewish Relief and British Library Sound Archive.


My dearest Parents, Hannah, relatives and acquaintances. It’s beautiful here, the food is very good. At college all the girls are very nice they are all except one darkblond. I sleep very well here. I came on this plane. Please keep the card for me. I hope you are well. Write soon. 10000000 x 1000000 kisses your Gerti

Postcard from Gerda Mayer to her parents shortly after arriving in england. Translated by Gerda Mayer (Stein) in unpublished memoir ‘The Emigrants’, Wiener Library Collections.


Letter from Ilse Majer (Williams) to her parents, describing her new home and with a drawing of her bedroom. 11 July 1939. Wiener Library Collections. She writes: A cup of tea, a plate with one egg, a bit of sausage … I’ll most probably write to you 3-4 times a week. Now I’ll try to draw my bedroom as best I can….Write soon, lots of kisses , Ilse


Excerpt of letter from Hannah Kuhn’s mother, Herta, to her guardians describing Hannah’s news from boarding school. May 23rd 1939. Wiener Library Collections.


Photo of Kurt Katzenstein (Ken Gardner) with his foster father Harold Abrahams. Wiener Library Collections



Kurt Katzenstein’s school report Summer term 1939. When he later had to choose an English name for the army, he chose the name Gardner after his Form Master who he greatly admired (see signature.) Wiener Library Collections.



Land girls and boys

Many children, like Frank Henley, went not to families, but communal homes and schools, set up by Jewish, Christian and charitable organisations. Hundreds were sent to training camps organised by Zionist youth movements to prepare young ‘trans-migrants’ for eventual emigration to Palestine. Ruth Peschel, for example, went to the Whittingehame Farm School in  East Lothian, set up in the former estate of Arthur Balfour. As an older child, she would have had to work as a Madricha (youth leader.) Accounts suggest she was one of the Ruths who worked in the kitchen, mentioned in the song below.


Song from Whittingehame Farm School, written in a mixture of English and German, with Hebrew words and Scottish phrases. Wiener Library Collections


While the conditions at Whittengehame seem to have been relatively good, this was not the case at all such training camps, many of which were set up in a great hurry and had to accommodate many more children than they were designed for. Children who had already been part of Zionist Youth Movements in Germany and Austria knew what to expect in Hachscharah (kibbutz) training camps, however many children who ended up in them did not, and were quite shocked to find themselves camping and farming.

We were forced by dire necessity to send our child abroad… We found out only at a later stage that the children would be sent on Hachscharah (kibbutz training) in England… They are accomodated in tents, where they have to feel cold, and water drips into the tents from the top … help me get my child out of this camp…’

Letter from Elisabeth Geller to the Council for German Jewry, London, regarding her daughter Lotte who was staying at Great Engeham Farm, a temporary training camp for children who would be sent to Palestine. 17.9.1939 Vienna. Wiener Library Collections.