Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

For the February edition of the Ambassador Newsletter, we had the privilege of interviewing Holocaust survivor, Susie Barnett BEM.

Susie was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1938 to a Jewish family. As an infant, her father was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Susie’s mother saved up enough money to free her husband and allow him to claim refuge in Shanghai. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Susie’s three older siblings escaped to the UK on the Kindertransport. Just months before the war began, Susie and her mother managed to flee Nazi Germany and arrive in England. Susie and her siblings went into social care for much of their childhoods, and never lived together as a family. She met her father for the first time at age 9.

Susie married and started a family of her own and became a secondary school teacher. It wasn’t until later in life that she began to share her testimony.

Can you tell us a little about what life was like for you, your parents and your siblings in Nazi Germany and how your family managed to escape?

I was only 11 months old when I was brought to England in July 1939, so I have no personal memories of life in Nazi Germany. However, my parents were in their thirties and my three considerably older siblings were 9, 8 and 4 respectively in 1933, so they were all considerably impacted by the ever-increasing weight of Nazi discrimination and persecution.

The impact of Nazi persecution after January 1933 came as a huge contrast to the life my parents led prior to then. My family were prosperous middle-class people. My father had a successful coal handling business and they lived in a large apartment in Hamburg and had a family car in the 1920s. My mother’s family had been in Germany since the 18th century and were comfortably off business people in the small town of Uelzen, thirty miles or so from Hamburg. My mother even had her own nurse as a small child.

All this was in great contrast to what happened to them after January 1933. Even though my father had fought in the German Army in the First World War, their legal rights were taken away from them and eventually my father’s business was confiscated by the Nazis, as well as other possessions. They were left with very little money and life became a bitter struggle to survive.

Bit by bit, the ordinary features of their everyday lives were removed and life became harder and harder. They lost their car; Jews were not allowed to own cars, or even bicycles. They were not allowed to travel on any form of public transport. They could not go to the cinema (which my older sister particularly loved), the theatre, to the opera or to concerts. They were not allowed to attend any form of public entertainment or sport. They could not go to museums or art galleries. They could not go into a public park. Eventually, they were allowed only to shop in Jewish shops, and then only at limited times of the day.

My siblings were expelled from their schools and made to go to Jewish schools. Their friends largely shunned them at best; at worst there might be actually hostility.

In June 1938 my father, along with four hundred other local Jewish men, was arrested on the trumped up charge of being ‘work shy’. After a short spell in an ordinary prison, he was quickly transferred to the living hell of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. There he both saw and suffered terrible cruelty and watched the wanton killing and execution of prisoners.

For the next eight months, my mother’s life, and that of my two sisters, aged at that time 14 and 9, and that of my brother, aged 13, became even worse. They had no money and relied largely on what food my brother could forage and on food and money slipped to them at the dead of night secretly by two non-Jewish friends.

In February 1939 my father was released from Sachsenhausen on condition that he left Germany within four weeks, though in practice it took four months. The Jewish Committee in Hamburg, allowed to exist by the Nazis to encourage and help Jews leave Germany for good, obtained a ticket to Shanghai, which required no visas and where twenty thousand Jews found refuge. There, life was very hard and became even harder when the Japanese occupied the city in 1941. He could not get away from Shanghai until 1947, when he was able to get to Britain to join the rest of my family. In 1939, my mother obtained places for my two sisters and brother on Kindertransport and they travelled separately to London between May and July 1939.

Through a cousin in London, and with the help of a Home Office official, my mother was able to obtain a domestic work visa and came with me as a baby to this country on 27th July 1939, just five and a half weeks before the outbreak of war.

Could you describe your experience of growing up in the UK? At what age did you find out about your family’s escape from Nazism?

I was only eleven months old when I came to the UK and never lived with my parents until I was nearly ten years old. I never at any time lived with any of my siblings. From July 1939 to January 1948 I lived in either foster homes or children’s homes. Some of these foster homes were very unsatisfactory; in one instance, my mother had to call on the police to help remove me from a particularly filthy house. From the age of six and a half to when I was turned nine, I lived at the Beacon in Tunbridge Wells, a hostel for Jewish refugee children, so I must have been aware that I was a refugee though I have no conscious memory of that.

Neither my mother, nor my three older siblings spoke to me about their experiences in Nazi Germany when I was a child. Indeed, neither my brother nor my second sister ever spoke to me about this at any time in their lives. My father spoke a little, but not very much. This was very typical of refugees from Nazism. It has also to be remembered that the immediate post-war years were very hard for almost everyone and people wanted to look forward to better things rather than to look back at the terrible years of the Second World War and what led up to it.

I was certainly aware that my family had escaped from Nazi Germany by the time I was at secondary school, though there was never a single revelatory moment. When I first started at secondary school in 1949, the war and everything to do with it was only four years behind us and was not a subject for ‘history’. In those years, I never spoke about it to anyone else. I did, though, tell the comparatively little I knew about my family history to my future husband when we met in 1962.

Like almost every older person, I bitterly regret not asking my parents more about their lives while I had the opportunity. In practice, though, my mother always refused to talk about either her life in Germany or her early years in the UK, even though she lived until she was 85.

What made you decide to share your story later in life?

I began work as a teacher in 1958 and married in 1963. That period and the next twenty or thirty years were a time when my husband and I were bringing up a family and establishing ourselves in our professional careers. We were focused on the future and I had little time to think about my family’s past. Also, it was not until my older sister was in her seventies, that was in the 1990s, that she began to talk about my family’s experiences. Nor did I have access to the invaluable material about my family provided to me by World Jewish Relief and the Wiener Library until the 2010s.

As a teacher, I did use some of my family’s experiences. Although I never named them or revealed it was my family I was talking about, in school assemblies in the late 1980s and 1990s. However, I was still, at that point hampered by a lack of hard facts. I also spoke to one or two schools which invited me to speak about my story in the 1990s. I was in my fifties by that time.

Everything changed in my mid-seventies. I joined the Association of Jewish Refugees in 2009 and started to become much more aware of Holocaust survivor testimonies. Then, in 2014, I made contact again with some of the ‘children’ I had been with at the Beacon Hostel nearly seventy years earlier, now in their seventies, eighties and nineties. For the first time, I became aware of their survival stories.

At about this time, too, I was at an AJR meeting which was addressed by a member of the Holocaust Educational Trust staff. She asked me what my story was and I briefly outlined it to her. She asked whether she could come to my home and discuss me giving my testimony to schools and other organisations. I was reluctant at first because I was not sure whether my testimony was relevant to HET’s Outreach Programme. However, she did persuade me and in July 2015 I gave my first talk to a school for HET. The rest is history!

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Ordinary People’; in what way do you think ordinary people like ourselves, the Ambassador community, can challenge antisemitism and other forms of hatred today?

It is a truism that it is vital for ‘ordinary people’ to challenge antisemitism and other forms of racial and other hatred wherever and whenever they come across it, especially in a world where it is an ever increasing problem. It is much more difficult to say how that can be done in practice. What does strike me, though, as someone in her eighties, who admittedly makes little use of social media, is the enormous importance social media has in the spread of lies, conspiracy theories and other misinformation that leads directly to the spread of antisemitism and racial hatred.

It seems to me that the main challenge to this vile stream of hatred must come from ‘ordinary people’ calling it out, ridiculing it and putting the facts on record. On social media, as in all forms of human intercourse, the majority of people are tolerant and humane, not racist or prejudiced. However, such ‘ordinary people’ must not stand by and let a prejudiced minority set the agenda. ‘Ordinary people’, and most especially young people, must speak up at every opportunity for civilised values of tolerance and inclusion; that is the answer to hatred.