Ruth Barnett, 83, was born in 1935, in a Germany that was already descending into Nazi tyranny. Her Jewish father was a judge who had been deprived of his post and frogmarched out of his court by the SS in 1933; her non-Jewish mother ran a cinema-advertising business in Berlin. “We had a brilliant future in front of us until the Nazis came to power,” she says.
Barnett’s father was in hiding for much of the next six years. But the fact that he was blacklisted and his life was in danger may have helped his two children – Ruth had a brother, Martin, who was three years older than her – get on the list for a Kindertransport to the UK in February 1939. Though only four years old at the time, she recalls the journey from Berlin. “I thought it was a holiday trip,” she says. Her mother, who had a short-term visa, accompanied the two children, left them with a foster family in England and then disappeared. “Neither my brother nor I remember her saying goodbye,” says Barnett.
Ruth and Martin stayed together throughout the war – “which is why we were able to survive psychologically”, she says. Her arrival in the UK had been sponsored by the Quakers, who kept an eye on her throughout the war, moving her from the first foster mother, who was cruel and beat Ruth for wetting the bed. She ended up on a farm in Sussex, where she stayed after the war ended. “Four years later, when I was 14,” she recalls, “my mother appeared out of nowhere, a total stranger. I didn’t recognise her; she didn’t speak any English; I didn’t speak any German. I was told she had come to take me to Germany; I refused to go.”
Her brother went to Cambridge University to study physics, but Barnett was eventually forced to return to Germany. Her father had survived the war by escaping to Shanghai, and was now back working as a judge in Mainz in post-Nazi West Germany. He pursued legal means to reclaim his daughter, though she only stayed a year before returning to the UK, marrying, working as a teacher and then retraining as a psychotherapist.
Only when she was in her 50s did she learn the full story of the Kindertransport. “I was gobsmacked to learn there were 10,000 of us,” she says. “I realised I had got my confidence back by then with a stable marriage, three teenagers and a career in teaching, and I was ready to face the past. Until then, I just avoided anything to do with the past.”
She says many of the survivors of the Holocaust “never reached a stage of being ready to process what had happened to them, which meant that the transmission of trauma went across to their children”. Her own mother, she says, had been deeply traumatised by the war and refused to talk about it. “If you make that taboo, you can only have a superficial relationship,” says Barnett.
Barnett has written a play, What Price for Justice?, about her family’s story, and says it has modern-day relevance. “It ne to be recognised what happens to a family that is split up in war because it’s happening now all over the world. Donald Trump is making it worse: separating those children and sending the parents back is unconscionable.”
Tomorrow: Bea Green: ‘‘I was bowled over that these non-Jewish people were nice to us.’