Garton, Jeffrey M.
The eldest of three children born in 1923 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Berlin, Garton began his Hebrew religious education very early and learned to use Hebrew with some facility. His father was a successful businessman who owned a factory that made working clothes. Garton describes his early life as very normal. He went to school, played soccer, and enjoyed a rich family life. The family had many friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
Things changed dramatically when Hitler came to power in 1933, when Garton was ten years old. Anti-Semitism became overt. He remembers Nazis parading the streets on the evening of the Sabbath singing anti-Semitic songs, ripping the beards off Jewish men and pulling down their pants, and desecrating synagogues. Garton responded to this deteriorating situation by joining a Zionist youth movement. One day, as the group was embarking on an excursion to Denmark, the Brown Shirts stormed them and seized several of their leaders. Two of them were kept, never to be seen again.
In another not-uncommon incident, an adult Jewish male, whom the family knew, was picked up and sent to a concentration camp. A week later his ashes were sent to his wife. The Garton family was very well aware that it had to get out of Germany. However, there was no legal way out. Garton’s father was born in Poland and in Germany he was stateless and without a passport.
Life became progressively more difficult under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Garton was somewhat insulated as he enrolled in a Jewish Gymnasium in the Tiergarten district. He could continue to attend school. As the Jewish community was denied access to cultural events, it organized its own functions.
At one point, Garton remembers seeing Hitler parading down a Berlin avenue. As he struggled to see the man causing so much trouble for the Jews, a German soldier cleared his way to the front of the crowd so he could get a better view. Garton estimates that he was twenty-five feet from Hitler.
Then, on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht occurred. Garton’s father was picked up and brought to the police station on trumped-up charges. Once released, Garton’s father and uncle made arrangements to be smuggled across the German border into Belgium and were successful in doing so.
In 1939 Garton’s mother heard that the Dutch were giving temporary haven to refugees. She arranged to have her two younger children smuggled over the border into Holland. She packed a bag for each of the children, took them by train to the town where there was a border crossing, and she left them, not knowing whether she would ever see them again. Several days later she received a call from her daughter that they had arrived safely at the camp. The daughter, who was twelve at the time, did not feel safe in Holland and urged her mother to give them permission to go to England on a Kindertransport. She did and they left Holland.
Garton himself wanted to go to Palestine. However, in 1939 the British issued the White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Not being able to pursue his Zionist dream, Garton also went to England on a Kindertransport.
That left Garton’s mother alone in Germany. She eventually smuggled herself across the border and was reunited with her husband. They were hidden and sheltered by Belgians until the end of the war.
In 1943 Garton was drafted into the British army and became a British citizen. During the war he was able to make contact with his parents. After the war in 1945 the other children, too, saw their parents again. Garton’s brother, who was quite young when he went to England and hadn’t seen his parents since 1938, was estranged from them and did not want to stay with them in Belgium. It was only after many visits back and forth that the brother was finally able to stay. Garton’s sister had a boyfriend, whom she wanted to marry and who was a survivor from Czechoslovakia. They eventually married in England, her parents bringing food for the wedding from Belgium, due to the scarcity of food items in England.
Garton remained in the British army until 1947. He had been trained to repair optical instruments on tanks but he never performed this work. He was needed instead for his knowledge of the German language. This is ironic since he developed an aversion to the German language which remains to this day.
Garton emigrated to the United States and not long afterward brought over his parents and brother. His sister and her husband remained in London.
Date: July 22, 1996
Interviewer: Diane Savin
Length: 2 hours
Format: Video recording