Leeds woman who fled the Nazis speaks to mark Kindertransport 80th anniversary
Gillie Rawson does not cry about the deeply disturbing events of the Second World War '“ she does not cry at all these days.
Others she knows who also lived through the persecution of Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s have said the same.
But Mrs Rawson, now 93, could be considered one of the relatively luckier ones – she escaped from her native Vienna to England aged 13 as part of the Kindertransport scheme, which brought unaccompanied Jewish children to the UK ahead of the conflict.
The 80th anniversary of the first batch of Kindertransport children arriving in England takes place tomorrow, and to mark the occasion, Mrs Rawson reflected on the persecution of her people, her migration to Britain and her life in Leeds during an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post.
“When Hitler marched into Austria in March 1938, it was a Friday. By the time the weekend was finished, Jews were barred from all sorts of things,” she said.
Her father Siegfried lost his furrier business, one which he had run since before Mrs Rawson was born, and then came the Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass.
On November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis torched synagogues, vandalised Jewish homes, schools and businesses in Germany and killed close to 100 Jews before 30,000 men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Mrs Rawson, of Moortown, said: “By then it was really, really serious. Anybody that could get out did.”
Her daughter Sandi Firth, 71, said: “One of mummy’s cousins had the baby thrown out of the window in front of her.”
As part of Kindertransport, Mrs Rawson and her younger brother, Willi, took a train to Holland before sailing to London in 1939.
She said: “I was 13 and my brother had his ninth birthday the day after we arrived in England.
“I felt at home. At the beginning I thought, ‘This is going to be finished in a short time and I will go back’. When the war started, I realised that was it.”
The siblings were taken to live in Liverpool, but were later evacuated to Chester, a place they enjoyed.
Mrs Rawson later moved to a hostel for Jewish children in Birmingham.
It was there she met future husband Henry Rawson, another Kindertransport refugee who had fled Danzing (now Gdansk, Poland) alone in May 1939, aged 13.
She said:“We had wonderful times.
“The ages were 14 to 19 in the hostel. There were boys and girls. Quite a lot of us met their partner there.
“My husband was a very, very handsome man. A very, very handsome boy. The girls in the hostel used to consider it a great treat to walk with him in the street, he was so handsome.”
She added: “Of course we had to be home at 10 o’clock at night. He never did. He came home through the fire escape to my bedroom.”
Mrs Rawson later had to stay in hospital because she had tuberculosis, and Henry was the last to visit her after being told to go by her friend Trude.
“One day he came to visit me. Somehow we fell for each other on that day, and very shortly after he went in the RAF,” she said.
Mrs Firth added: “He was glazed. He had fallen in love with her literally over the bedside.”
But Mr Rawson, originally Rosen, joined the forces at 18 and served in Burma.
“He won leave and came back to England for four weeks and we got married in that time,” she said.
The pair wed at the Singers Hill Synagogue, Birmingham, on October 2, 1946.
Sandi was born in 1947, followed by Terry in 1948, and John in 1949.
Meanwhile, her parents, and other relatives had enough of the conditions in Austria and fled to Hungary on foot through woodland, eventually spending two years in Budapest.
Her mother Elisabeth ‘Ella’ Herzka and her sisters spoke Hungarian but their husbands did not, so did not dare speak.
One person remarked: “Three deaf and dumb men in one family – what a tragedy.”
A family member then arranged to pay for them to go to Israel in a journey negotiated by SS officer Adolf Eichmann and Rezső Kasztner (also known as Kastner), a leader of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee. But the train went no further than occupied territory.
Mrs Rawson said: “Kasztner rang Eichmann and said, ‘Where do we go from here?’ He said: ‘Auschwitz’.”
It was reportedly driven to a place with a similar name by mistake – but the nearest concentration camp was Bergen-Belsen, so it was taken there.
Mrs Firth, 71, said: “My grandmother went in the shower where the gas didn’t come out that day.
“They thought it was going to be a normal shower.
“They miraculously lived.”
Through arrangements again made by Kasztner – who was accused of Nazi collaboration and later assassinated in Tel Aviv – they were sent to neutral Switzerland.
Horrifically, 58 members of Mrs Rawson’s extended family did die during the war. Some were taken to Auschwitz, and others to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp and ghetto.
One day the siblings received a letter from their parents to let them know they were safe in Switzerland.
“It was just fantastic to know they were alive because obviously during the war we didn’t know they were alive,” Mrs Rawson said.
“They sent for my brother and me to come and visit them in Switzerland. After seven years, it was absolutely wonderful.
“They met us in Lausanne on the train and took us to Montreux. On the train I sat on my father’s knee. I was 20-years-old, but it was such a wonderful thing.
“My mother was very superstitious. She had some bread threaded on some string and put it round our necks. It was supposed to be for good luck.”
They spent a couple of weeks there before coming back to England in June 1946 and her parents moved to New York, USA, living in the Washington Heights area where Siegfried worked as a stamp seller. But it was not long before tragedy struck again, when he died aged 54 after accidentally falling down an elevator shaft following a visit to his boss.
Mrs Rawson said: “It was terrible. My mother lived for another 40 years and never got over it.”
Willi also moved to New York and had a family and “happy life” before he died 12 years ago.
After a brief time in Southend, the Rawsons had moved to Leeds in January 1948 because Gillie had relatives in the area.
Chapeltown was home to many Jewish people at that time, and the couple first lived at Woodland Mount before moving to Reginald Terrace.
Mrs Rawson said: “It was very hard because we had no background to build on. We had to do everything ourselves.”
Her husband worked as a travelling salesmen of sewing machines, then both parents became menswear representatives for various companies until they retired 23 years ago.
Speaking about choosing to live in Leeds, Mrs Rawson said: “We just stayed. We had enough of moving about.”
Son John, 70, added: “And my dad loved Leeds United. That was a big thing.”
Mr Rawson died in 2007 after suffering heart trouble.
Last Tuesday, Mrs Rawson met Prince Charles at St James’s Palace during a celebration of the Kindertransport anniversary.
Looking back to 80 years ago, Mrs Rawson said: “We think about it, but it doesn’t upset us anymore. It’s been too long.”
And she does not cry.
“They say that it’s happened to people who’ve been in this position. I’ve known of another few people of my age who are exactly the same.”