Stephan Brent: the story of a local Kindertransportee
Local man Stephan Brent, who came to Scotland as part of the Kindertransport, has kindly shared his story with us. Below is a small part of his story, transcribed from an interview dealing with his childhood – his life in Germany before he came here, his journey and his first few months at Portobello, where he lived with a family called the MacGregors, who had volunteered to help Jewish children in need even though they had children of their own and weren’t Jewish.
Stephan Brent’s story
Right, my story. First of all, my name is Stefan Brienizer. And many years ago I anglicised it because people couldn’t pronounce it and couldn’t spell it. And this is not a joke, there was a factory manager in Edinburgh where I was working and one day they phoned up and said ‘Please, change your name to something that I can pronounce!’ And that is absolutely true. And I said, ‘That’s a good idea, I’ll do that.’ So now I’m anglicised or Scottishised – can you say that?
I was born in 1928 in Breslau in Germany. Which is now I believe called Wrocław in Poland. My parents were Jewish, and I was never brought up religiously. We held some of the festivals, weren’t very orthodox in any possible way, weren’t even kosher. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful [laughs].
I remember certain things, which I shouldn’t have done. I came here when I was ten years old. But before that, I used to go to places where there were signs up saying ‘Juden verboten’ [Jews forbidden], but being a curly blond-haired child, nobody bothered me. The only time I was kind of bothered was going to a Jewish school, and en route to that we had occasionally kind of upsets – small upsets – between schools anyhow I suppose.
I actually learnt Hebrew at this school, and I can’t remember a damn word of it. I can’t remember anything about the school except the name, which was ‘Rediger Platz’. I don’t remember a teacher, I don’t remember a pupil, I don’t remember anything about the school at all. [Laughs]
Anyhow, in November 1938 there was the Kristallnacht as you have probably heard. I remember seeing the broken windows of Jewish places and so on. And of course all over they had this ‘Juden verboten’ sign. Anyhow, in January 1939 I broke my leg. I was messing about on the trams, which were at the end of my road – it was a big thoroughfare, and I used to jump on and off the trams, really naughty. [Interviewer comments ‘normal’.] Normal 10-year-old. I broke my leg, because I got a flash of electricity from the control box. I took fright and just jumped, broke my leg. Somebody carried me home, and from there I went to a Jewish hospital in Breslau. Of course my leg had to be straightened. They didn’t have much time for me actually, because by this time they were coming back from the various camps – there was frostbite and all sorts of things. Anyhow, I got a local injection in the leg I suppose somewhere. I remember seeing the colour of the ceiling when they straightened it. [Laughs] I was there one night and I was home the next day with plaster up to my thigh. That was me in bed for six weeks [laughs]. Anyway, that came off, and my leg had to be massaged and treated because it had shrunk, or the muscles had certainly shrunk. It didn’t matter because I was a reader, I would read a book a day in those days, and I was well fed.
What else have we got. I went to various places I shouldn’t have gone. Circuses, picture house. I remember going to the picture house, one of the films I saw was Shirley Temple (in German). I remember that one (laughs). I was never challenged. [Shows interviewer some pictures.]
That was January, beginning of February and so on, and I didn’t know what was going on but I was told at the end of June that I was going to Britain. [Pauses] And, er, to people called MacGregor in Scotland, in Portobello actually. That’s all I knew. I was packed off in a train from Breslau to Berlin. Stayed overnight there in a hostel of some kind. And, er, the next day travelled overland to Hook of Holland. [Interviewer asks ‘Stefan, was that the Kindertransport?’] Yes, that was the Kinderreiter [poss translation: children’s train; ‘Reiter’ means ‘rider’ and words like that]. … Er, overland to the Hook of Holland, and from there ferry to Harwich, and from Harwich to London, where I was met, the train was met, by an old family relative or friend, I’m not sure, who was going round with a card with my name on it [laughs]. Er, she packed me off to what I know now was King’s Cross immediately, by taxi, and I was put on a train to Scotland. [Interviewer asks why Scotland?] Well that same lady, who was an old friend of the family, she had cousins in Edinburgh, she was a widow, lived on her own in West Wickham in Kent, and she had the cousins in Edinburgh, they were doctors, lived in Gordon Terrace in a beautiful house in Edinburgh, and they were part of the Jewish congregation, or whatever. And they had been approached by Dr Libbitz [?], Sam Libbitz, who was the doctor of the MacGregors. So this was a circuitous route by which I came to Portobello, because Mr MacGregor or Mrs MacGregor had wanted to help. They weren’t Jewish. They were non-church-going Protestants who wanted to help, so they asked their doctor, Sam Libbitz, did he know anybody? So that’s how I came to be there.
[Interviewer comments ‘And you wouldn’t be able to speak any English!’] Not a word. And they didn’t speak any German. Not a word. Anyway, I was picked up in Edinburgh by Dr Stirk [?] and Mr MacGregor and taken by taxi to Portobello Durham Road, where I stayed, and introduced to Mrs MacGregor, and they arranged a phonecall to Breslau to tell my parents I was safe and so on. And after that I remember puking up my guts [laughs] – probably eaten far too many sweets – because I don’t remember eating anything else! Except on the ferry, I remember eating white bread, and I’d never seen white bread. That stuck in my mind. Not any meals in Berlin, or anywhere else. Nothing, nothing on the train, nothing. But I remember the white bread on the ferry [laughs]. Amazing isn’t it, what sticks in your mind.
Anyway, Portobello. At that time the schools were being kind of broken up because the kids were sent up to various country places away from Edinburgh. [Asks interviewer:] I don’t know how old you were? [Interviewer answers ‘I was one of them who was sent away.’] You were sent away. Well, I was sent up to Buckie, of all places. There was a girl in the house, she was six months younger than me. And there was also a boy who was five years youngerbut he didn’t go up, no they kept him at home. So, we went up to Buckie, and she was very, very homesick. It lasted three weeks and then they had to come and get us back to Portobello [laughs]. Anyway, the schools had broken up, but individual teachers were coming to individual houses with maybe half a dozen kids, to continue schooling. This was the way I learnt everything. Because I arrived on the 5th of July (not the 4th of July, it wasn’t the American …) and this was obviously end of September that that happened, and this teacher taught me everything, and there were only half a dozen people in the class. Also I was a favourite, because he got a nip of whisky every time he came down [laughs]. I’m not joking! I would say I contributed to being the favourite. He was obviously a very good man. Until – quite funny –the schools started up again.
That was the junior school, then of course I went to secondary school. In the junior school they were wonderful teachers. [Interviewer asks ‘What school was it?’] Portobello Secondary School, Portobello School. The teacher I remember was Mr Johnson. [Interviewer comments ‘My husband had Mr Johnson as a teacher.’] Was he at Portobello? My goodness. [Interviewer: ‘Jim Fraser. Don’t remember?’] No. He must have been a marvellous man, Mr Johnson, I remember, not every detail about him, but I learnt everything from these teachers, between the two of them. Obviously I was metric, spoke German, I didn’t have the script, I could possibly write in ordinary script – because the German script is completely different. So, I went into the senior school, not the senior, but the secondary down there. And I was a fantastically clever bloke [laughs], turned out to be dux of the school after three years at the junior secondary [laughs]. Just because I had a bit more experience of life. The highlight was I won the Burns Poetry Prize [laughs]. The English teacher was a fellow called Kennedy. He came from in Northfield, just around the corner from where Angela [who became Stephan’s wife] lived. [Interviewer says ‘Northfield? That’s where Jim, my husband came from.] Interesting, interesting isn’t it. It goes in circles doesn’t it. He was a horrible man actually. I couldn’t do anything wrong [right?]. Which doesn’t help when you’re held up to the rest of the class. He was quite a vicious man. He used to belt people quite a lot. Not a nice man. However. I was probably dead scared of him, I don’t know.
But in the secondary school there were a lot of good teachers. Most of the men were away to war, so they were mostly women. Our Latin teacher was Margaret Halley, and she wasnae that much older than I was, and obviously we all fell in love with her [laughs]. Lovely curly hair, she was lovely. Marjorie Ducket [?] was the music teacher. Your husband will remember them probably. [Interviewer: ‘I think so.’] Paddy Gladstone was the French teacher. And he was particularly interested in me too, because of my brother being in France, in fact when my brother came and visited we went to his house for tea in er – not Corstorphine – anyway, in Edinburgh. Very nice man, Paddy Gladstone, I don’t know why they called him Paddy, he wasn’t in any way Irish. And Mr Watt was the maths teacher, he was just an ordinary bloke. But they were all good teachers, except the art teacher – your husband might remember him. Flappy MacKenzie, he was called. No, no! He was an art teacher, that was it – not quite normal! I can’t remember the science bloke. Anyway, they were very good teachers. Miss Richardson was geography, or history, one of them. Mrs Thompson, or Miss Thompson, she lived up the road from us in Portobello. They took care of me, very good. I don’t think I was an easy child.
[Interview continues with more about Stephan’s life: he got a bursary to Heriot’s, but left soon after to work at a knitwear factory in Edinburgh, then he worked at Kilspindie in Haddington, and had a lot of other adventures as he grew up, got married and had children.]
Some links about the Jewish community in Breslau, where Stephan was born: