By Bethany Dawson
The Second World War was declared on the 1st September 1939. Beatrice Gould and her family arrived in England at 2 am, 2nd September 1939. She sits on the other end of the zoom call – joined by her vocal cat – to speak on her life living in, and escaping from, nazi Germany.
Her family initially planned to get to America, but that journey had to be diverted. “We couldn’t get on a boat. There were too many people around, too many refugees” she says. The inability to reach safety made for a change of direction.
“So we went to Paris where one of my father’s cousins lived. My father went to the British embassy to get permission for us to come to England to get a boat. They said “well, you can have the permit, but be warned that the channel is mined. Your boat may blow up. But my father took the risk.”
It can be hard to understand the thought process behind that risk. But in speaking to Beatrice, who has made a significant impact on the local community by talking about her experience of the Holocaust, she made clear the horrors of nazi Germany.
As a child growing up in Munich, she recounts the playground scenes that no-doubt are a feature in many of our own childhoods.
“[All the children] used to play together. And then one day, one of the children came up to me and said “my mommy said, I mustn’t play with you anymore, you’re a dirty Jew girl”. I was very, very upset. And I went home to my parents, and I was crying. They said, “well, you know, it’s unfortunate, but there are some people that don’t like us, maybe they’re envious of us. But you just have to accept it and play with those children who would play with you?” Well, in the end, none of them wanted to play with me.”
“My childhood street was a very wide road. Hitler built that road wide so that he could march into Austria, and I don’t know whether this was them marching into Austria, but I remember a time when a neighbour who was obviously one of them, took me with the chair to the top of the road. And there were crowds and crowds of people lining both sides of this wide road. And she stood up on a chair and held me up and the army was marching. Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels marching at the head of the army. And everybody was shouting “Sieg Heil”. I remember this so vividly, so vividly”.
The actions of the Nazi Party quickly moved from a sight on Beatrice’s street to extraditing her from her home.
“In November 1938, they came to our front door and said, you’ve got an hour to pack some things, you’re going on a train journey. We were each allowed a suitcase, I took my doll, some clothes, and a book. One hour later they called for us, and they took us to Stadelheim Prison. “There were a lot of my friends there. We just played Hide and Seek and things and ran around, you know, children always try and make the best of it.
“The next morning, we were taken to the railway station and put on a train to Poland And the train went to Poland. And the idea was they were going to set us off. Bear in mind, it was November, it was very cold. They were going to set us off at the Polish border. Anyway, this train stopped at the border. And they asked for one man from each carriage to go out to a meeting. And my father was one of them. And they went up to a meeting and half an hour later he came back. And he said we were going back to Munich.
“That probably saved our lives. Because those people that went into Poland ended up in camps there. And if that hadn’t happened to happen to us, I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you all this. What happened apparently was that the Poles suddenly said “we don’t want any more of your bloody Jews, take them back”.”
It’s after this point that Beatrice and her family began their journey out of Germany. After their safe travel, they arrive in St John’s Wood, North-West London.
She didn’t speak much English when she started school, and she said the other children thought she was a little “strange”, but she wasn’t alone, as one in three Jewish refugees. Excitingly, in parallel to her life in Munich, she had “no problem whatsoever” with antisemitism in London.
She lives in Surrey now, but between her period in London and Surrey, Beatrice had a global adventure and found Jewish communities in her time in Singapore, Gibraltar, Italy, and back in Germany, where she moved for her husband’s work.
We spoke of her time with Mrs. Nissim in Singapore, the Jewish woman whose home you had to go to for Shabbos dinner, and she’d be “very unhappy if she had less than a dozen people at her table”.
Beatrice spoke about Seder nights and breaking fast with her, and the rest of the Jewish community in her city. She told me about meeting the other Jewish women in the markets when she lived in Gibraltar, and of the dinners in Italy.
Not only did these stories develop a sense of nostalgia for a world where in-person friendship and travel was a possibility, but it invoked a sense of unity, especially important after a time where an almost (or at least, intended) world-dominating far-right ideology was working to dissipate the Jewish community. Instead, Beatrice – like many of the Jewish refugees – found her solace, her happiness, in rebuilding her community on a global scale.
Beatrice’s story is a perfect representation of the light in the darkness. The darkness of the events she faced with her family in Germany; lest we forget that is was so recent, and a story that we must continue to listen to ensure the lives of those lost aren’t forgotten and the mistakes aren’t repeated. But the lightness, that she was able to connect with people, the community, the solidarity and the love, is something that we will be able to hold dear to us whatever the world may challenge us with.