One has the duty to speak out

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Leslie Brent at his home in north London

Simon Guy and Rob Ferguson spoke to Leslie Baruch Brent, who fled Nazi Germany as a child, about how quickly racist ideas can take hold and why it’s crucial we continue to challenge them today.

What are your memories of your childhood in Germany in the 1930s and how the climate changed?

Well, I had a very normal, happy childhood until Hitler came to power: a good family life. Things changed dramatically after 1933. I lost my non-Jewish friends, people were embarrassed to meet my family in the street and some of them crossed the road to avoid giving us the Hitler salute and some just ignored us. Life became very trying. Our small Jewish community in a town in Pomerania had to abandon the synagogue in 1936 or thereabouts because stones were thrown through the window in the middle of a service.

At school I was subjected to a lot of antisemitism. I had a teacher who taught me English who appeared in a Brownshirt uniform from time to time and was very antisemitic and didn’t like me — the only Jew in his class. One day I arrived in the classroom and somebody had written on the blackboard, “All Christians are cheats and liars”, and of course the finger was pointed at me. I had to stand in a corner and listen to an antisemitic diatribe. After that the persecution became more physical — stones were thrown at me, I would come home with a bleeding head. There came a point when my parents thought I couldn’t go to school any more and they moved me to a Jewish boys’ orphanage in Berlin. The director kindly took me in, as he took in a number of boys who were unable to go to their school any more and who were not necessarily orphans.

After Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 the penny dropped and German and Austrian Jews suddenly realised what life was going to be like in Germany. The Kindertransports were organised in a great panic immediately after Kristallnacht. Thanks to the director of the orphanage, Dr Kurt Crohn, I was nominated to go on the first Kindertransport on 1 December from Berlin along with seven other boys.

Jewish and non-Jewish organisations, including the Quakers, were instrumental to pressuring the Chamberlain government to accept children in unlimited numbers — under certain conditions but nonetheless no limit was set on the number and that turned out to be just under 10,000. It could have been more if war hadn’t broken out, and might have included my sister. That part of my childhood was very disturbing, though I understood that my parents were sending me away to England for my own safety. The night before the train left Berlin there was a family gathering at the tiny little flat that my parents occupied at the time, and we talked about going to England and what it implied and I should be a good boy and not to talk to strange men. A suitcase was packed for me with clothes with my initials on them. The next day my parents came and waved me off.

I was in a compartment with several other boys from the orphanage. It was a very, very tense journey because whenever the train stopped we were afraid we might be taken off. Some children in other trains had very unpleasant experiences with SS men or German police patrolling the train, emptying their suitcases, throwing away toys, and just being very difficult and unpleasant. We didn’t get that.

As soon as we crossed the Dutch border the atmosphere changed dramatically. We arrived at the border town in Holland and on the platform were women handing out biscuits, chocolate, fruit, drinks, smiling at us — we weren’t used to anyone smiling at us in the street. It was an extraordinary experience and I’ll be forever grateful to the Dutch. We then went to the Hook of Holland and took the overnight ferry to Harwich. From Harwich many of us were taken to a camp called Dovercourt which was a Butlin’s style holiday camp with little wooden chalets without heating and a dining hall for communal activities.

This was the severest winter that England had encountered for decades and we were very cold in our chalets. We were kept alive courtesy of Dunlop, who provided us with rubber hot water bottles. Some children found Dovercourt camp very traumatic. I adjusted to it — I played table tennis, learnt English, and I was chosen by the BBC to take part in a broadcast which went out in early January in which I described what a day in the life of Dovercourt camp was like in far from perfect English.

I was very fortunate. All the other boys in that orphanage who did not leave, along with their teachers and the director, ended up in Auschwitz.

I got a good education. Years later I ended up doing my PhD and the subject on which I was to be taught was immunological tolerance. I had been subjected to racial intolerance, so I thought, well, this sounds like a really good subject to research!

You describe how there was a very sharp change in the climate in terms of your classmates, the school and teacher. Do you have any recollection of how these attitudes were normalised prior to the escalation?

I had a non-Jewish friend who was living in the same block of flats. We were very friendly and visited each other’s flats and played together. One day I fell off a chair and cut my eyebrow. We were horsing about and pretending to be the arch enemies — he represented the Germans and I the English. His mother put some raw beef on it and treated it very well. Then comes 1933 and this friendship just disappears. His father had joined the Sturmabteilung [Nazi paramilitaries]. Other boys were accepted into the Hitler Youth and I felt a bit excluded because they did some rather nice things — they went on excursions and did sports and so on. So I thought what I pity I can’t be one of them, though I didn’t want to wear their uniform.

It was a very abrupt change. My parents were very assimilated German Jews. We were religious, we went to services in the synagogue, but culturally we were very much German, listened to German music. I remember my father playing Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words on the piano, and he sang in a local men’s choir. Like most German Jews my parents couldn’t understand that there was no future for them in Germany. They thought this can’t possibly go on, but it did.

It was only after Kristallnacht that German and Austrian Jews realised that life was going to be impossible for them. Virtually all the synagogues in Germany were burnt to the ground. Windows of Jewish shops were smashed. Jewish homes were invaded and ransacked and thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps nearby. They weren’t death camps in those days but they were extremely unpleasant and brutal.

My parents tried desperately to get to America. They wrote to an American financier called Baruch, which was our surname — no relation — but I don’t think they ever got a reply. The Americans were only taking in very small numbers of Jews. The Chamberlain government’s act of allowing the child refugees into the country was unique and the only other country that can claim to have shown mercy was Albania, because it took in many Jews, and is now taking many refugees.

Is there a comparison between your experience as a refugee from Germany in the 1930s and refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere today?

I feel very upset about our government’s attitude towards these child refugees who are roaming around the continent, parentless, homeless, short of food, short of shelter, abused, taken advantage of, trafficked — absolutely horrendous. The Dubs amendment was intended to bring 3,000 children over and I think about 300 have been brought over. It’s totally inhumane. I can only imagine that the government feels that UKIP, and the message they spread around the country, is a potential danger to them. Anti-migrant prejudice is being fed politically by UKIP and other organisations.

Of course we have poverty in this country; there’s no doubt about it. There is poverty and food banks and all the rest of it. And yet we are a relatively rich country — one of the richest in the world — and there are many councils that would be willing to accept children and to look after them, provided the government gives some financial support. I can’t help feeling that there is an element of racism in this — would the same attitude have been adopted had these children been white Europeans rather than Muslim children from Africa and the Middle East?

Have you always spoken out and related your own experiences?

I have always spoken up on human rights and tend to be on the side of the underdog. In the 1950s I was at University College as a lecturer, in the Department of Zoology. We were doing immunological research in that department when a college, Fort Hare, in South Africa was closed by the apartheid regime. It was a college for black students, with black staff, and they closed it down. I made an appeal single-handedly to all the staff at University College. I sent a letter to them, raising money for a fellowship for one lecturer, and that was very successful and he did come over. I also took part in the great anti-apartheid march.

And you took a public position against the Iraq war in 2003.

When the idea of attacking Iraq was first conceived I thought it was complete madness. I felt Saddam would have fallen sooner or later through internal reverberations and to attack would be disastrous. A week or two ago I came across a three-page typed letter which I’d sent to Tony Blair in January 2003 [two months before the attack] in which I laid out in great detail the dire consequences that would flow from an attack on Iraq. Unfortunately they all came to pass. I did not receive a reply until after the attack more than two months later, and it was a bland, standard hand-out seeking to explain the reasons for the attack.

On the day of the attack I went to Archway underground station and stood in the rain holding a candle with about 20 of us and you could almost feel the roar of the planes taking off. My local MP Jeremy Corbyn joined us. It was quite dispiriting because you felt the die had been cast.

I do feel very strongly that many of the consequences we are now facing — terrorism, refugees and so on — flow from George W Bush’s attack on Iraq and Tony Blair. If I ever were to meet him in the street I would want to assault him, except he’s so well protected by bodyguards that it would be impossible.

Along with my family I joined the big stop the war march [on 15 February 2003]. It was an extremely moving experience.

How do you feel about the suggestion that it is antisemitic to criticise Israel, or more fundamentally, to take an anti-Zionist position?

I’m not a practising Jew but I’m ethnically Jewish. The Israeli government claims to speak on behalf of all Jews throughout the world. Well, they’re not speaking on my behalf. What they are doing to the Palestinians is outrageous and indefensible. So I have spoken. I’ve written letters to the Journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees about it. I’ve been called a self-hating Jew. I belong to the organisation Jews for Justice for Palestinians, and I do feel strongly that as a Jew I have the responsibility to speak up and speak out against what is happening.

Every day that passes the possibility for a two-state solution, which to my mind is the only possible solution, is becoming more and more impossible, because they are taking over so much land — they’ve taken over more than 40 percent of Palestinian land; they’ve built settlements everywhere. I can’t imagine Israel ever dismantling those settlements, which would have to take place if a peace were to be concluded.

So, yes, I feel very strongly about that. There’s a complete conflation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism; people confuse the two. I’m certainly not antisemitic and I despise people who are antisemitic but I am critical of the Israeli government just as I feel critical of our own government in Britain. I think one has the duty to speak out and not accept what is happening without a fight.

What are your thoughts about the challenge to the anti-racist movement, the left and others in uniting against the threat of racism in the world today?

I saw a programme on television the other day in which a reporter went to Montana — very mountainous, full of forests, very underpopulated. He interviewed a number of people in a little town. The whole state of Montana has received about 15 immigrants yet everyone he spoke to was incredibly opposed to immigration, how it would change “our way of life”, “impinge on us”, and so on. I think it is a major problem now, in this country as elsewhere, and I wish that the left of centre parties could form a loose coalition and oppose this trend in parliament as well as outside parliament.

Leslie Baruch Brent came to Britain on one of the early Kindertransports which saved 10,000 children from death at the hands of the Nazi regime. His German-Jewish family was murdered. He went on to study Zoology and become an eminent immunologist in the field of tissue and organ transplantation. He was the co-discoverer of immunological tolerance and has been Professor Emeritus, University of London, since 1990. He recently supported the Alf Dubs campaign to welcome unaccompanied refugee children, speaking to a vigil at Liverpool Street station and to a demonstration at parliament. He has also spoken out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the Iraq war. Leslie Baruch Brent’s memoir, Sunday’s Child, is published by Bank House Books, £16.