Year 9 meet John Fieldsend, Holocaust survivor and Kindertransport child
On January 31, and just a few days after Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, the History Department and Year 9 students bid a welcome return to John Fieldsend, a Holocaust survivor rescued by the Kindertransport programme, who was visiting the Bicester School for a third time.
John, now 86, was born to a Czech mother and a German father, spoke openly about his childhood in Dresden, Germany. He recalled the time Hitler visited the town in 1935 and spoke in the town square. Being a Jewish family, John, his brother, and parents locked themselves into their apartment but they could still hear Hitler on the loudspeakers shouting, ‘Die Juden, die Juden…those terrible Jews’. From then on John’s life began to change. John told the students a chilling story of how, whilst playing with his brother and friends, in the children’s playground sandpit, the other children began to hit and spit John and his brother because they were Jews. John was aged five at the time, his brother aged seven.
As life became more difficult in Germany, John’s parents decided to leave Dresden and drive to John’s grandparents’ house in Czechoslovakia. To avoid arousing any suspicion they had to leave everything behind and travel in just what they were wearing in order to be able to cross the border without arousing suspicion. The family thought they were safe but in 1938 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and, again, Jewish life became very hard with discrimination and persecution. When the Germans arrived in the village where John and his family lived, his parents took the brave decision to send their children to England. John and his brother were about to become part of the Kindertransport, set up by Sir Nicholas Winton. ‘My father said, ’Sit down boys. You’re going on a long journey. We can’t come with you’. As the train was leaving, my mother took her wristwatch off and gave it to me through the window of the train, and simply said, ‘This is for you to remember us.’ John said one of his biggest regrets was throwing the watch away, in a fit of temper when he was 13, having dismantled the watch to see why it wasn‘t working, and then not being able to put it back together again.
This photo, showing John, his brother, father and family dog, was taken on the day they boarded the Kindertransport train bound for England. It was the last time John saw his father. John spoke chillingly about how the children travelled with the blinds down in the carriages so as not to see what was happening in Germany, and how every carriage had two Nazi soldiers to ‘make the journey as unpleasant as possible’. He recalled seeing a seven month year old baby being cared for by her five year old sister on the journey and how he held onto his papers for fear of being removed from the train. He spoke about how one female Jewish teacher was allowed to accompany them on the train but at the Dutch border was made to leave the train by the Nazis. If she had refused the train, and any future trains, would not be allowed to leave Germany. Once the train crossed into Holland women in Dutch national costume, and with chocolate, boarded the train to greet the children- and to raise the blinds. On arrival in England John was fostered by a family in Sheffield, whom he stayed with until his marriage in 1961.
This testimony held Year 9 spell bound and they were able to ask questions about John’s experience of the Kindertransport, his life under the Nazis, and his life in England after World War Two.
Below are some of the comments from Year 9 students.
‘I think the visit was really inspiring and has changed the way I think about the Holocaust as it made it be more about the individual and not just a huge , unimaginable number. Poppy
‘I could speak for all of us and say that John, and his story, is so inspiring for us as the younger generation’. Simran
‘I am Polish, and my family live in Poland, and the World War is an extremely interesting , and personal, topic to me as my family were involved in it. We are Catholic but my family helped Jewish people in our town of Bielsko-Biala. This February half-term I will be going to Auschwitz and John’s talk has really helped me realise the reality of it all’ . Wiktoria
‘Truly an inspiration…just full of immense admiration and gratitude’ Olivia
John concluded his talk by reading a farewell letter, written by his parents in 1942, just days before they were transported to Auschwitz. The Red Cross had received the letter, and the family photo albums, and had tracked John down in England in order to pass them on.
Click here to see John reading the letter
Ms Riches summed up the experience on behalf of the department and students, ‘Once again, it was a great privilege to welcome John back to the Bicester School and to hear him share his story. Spending time with John means coming face to face with living History- as those who experienced the Second World War recede into the past, and out of living memory, it is even more important that when those who survived the Holocaust speak, we, collectively, should listen. Hearing John speak about his experience is humbling as he bears no malice or hatred to those who carried out the persecution of his family. John shows us that love and hope do triumph over evil and hatred’.