Hans Rosenbaum (John Heine Rosen) was born in 1930 in Buer, a rural hilly countryside south of the Wiehen Hills and a suburb of Gelsenkirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He was the son of Solomon (Sallie) Rosenbaum and Erna Heine Rosenbaum and the younger brother of Walter. Sallie came from a small town in Poland, Zablotow and Erna was from Essen, Germany; they married in 1926.
Sallie was in the retail furniture business in Buer (Möbelhaus J. Rosenbaum, Gelsenkirchen-Buer, a small chain originally owned by a cousin). He later on became a partial owner of that store. Sallie never drove a car; Erna drove. They would read the local newspapers, find the names and addresses of engaged couples, call them, make an appointment, bring them to the store, sell them furniture, then take them home again.
In Buer, “we had a regular life. We went to school. My parents conducted their business. There was a synagogue and a rabbi. We used to go there from time to time.” His father, who had been observant, became a little more liberal—“perhaps at the influence of my mother.”
“Things went along fairly well in our family with the exception that the German government’s attitude towards the Jewish population was getting worse and worse.” For example, at some point, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend the general school in their neighborhood, so Hans and Walter were forced to go by streetcar to the Israelischen Volksschule in Gelsenkirchen. A boy who lived in the small hotel behind their home, to show his enthusiasm, would stand on the stone pillars at the end of the driveway and yell “Heil Hitler” in four geographical directions. Also, on occasion, little boys would throw stones at Hans and Walter when they got off the streetcar.
The culmination happened with Kristallnacht, when the government sanctioned storm-troopers to go to Jewish homes, arrest Jewish men, paint Jüde signs in the windows of businesses owned by Jews when they didn’t smash them in the first place, and set fire to many synagogues. On that night, Hans and his parents were in Recklinghausen, the town where the cousin Josef had his other business. “I remember them coming in the middle of the night, smashing glass and photographs in the house. Thinking that my father was Josef Rosenbaum, they arrested him and took him to jail.” In the morning, Hans was taken by streetcar to his maternal grandparents in Essen, where he remembers seeing the synagogue burning. His father, being of Polish nationality, was not supposed to be arrested and somehow his mother managed to secure his release in maybe three days.
Kristallnacht seemed to be the turning point in many areas. By this time, people who lived in Germany were all trying to get away. In John’s opinion, “one of the major problems of the Jewish society in Germany was that they had great feelings for the fact that they were Germans. That was the first thing; being Jewish was secondary in terms of importance.” In his own family, two uncles fought in the German army in World War I, one of whom was killed. The difficulties were due “to the fact that, while Hitler and his people were willing to let the Jewish people go,” albeit with gradually diminishing assets and greater restrictions as the years went by, “the problems were getting in. Countries didn’t want German refugees, particularly in those cases where they had no assets and possibly might have become a burden to the state–putting aside any ideas about anti-semitism.”
“People in England finally got to the point where they felt they should do something. One thing to do was to try to save the children because they were the blameless victims of this political situation.” Committees were formed by leaders of social and religious groups, who then approached the British government and persuaded them to issue an order to allow 10,000 children into England, unaccompanied by their parents with a small deposit by the Jewish community of 50 pounds to keep things in order. Since Jewish people could not negotiate with the Germans, the Quakers were amongst the non-Jewish people who were highly responsible for negotiating with the Germans in Berlin and Austria.
“How my mother heard about this, I don’t know. On or about March 10, 1939, my brother and I came home and were told by our parents that we would be leaving in five days to go and live in another country. I cannot emphasize too strongly the heroism of the parents who sent their children away, feeling, knowing the chances of their ever seeing each other again were very remote. In the five days, there were things going on. I don’t know how my parents did it. I don’t know how any of the parents did it. In the five days, clothing was purchases, photographs were taken, arrangements were made, gifts were purchased because they were under the impression we would end up living with a family in England.”
“The day came and they took us to the station and we said our good-byes. As an 8-year old boy, I didn’t really understand all the things that were happening. Just that I was going away from home to some other place. It must have been excruciatingly difficult for my parents. They took us to the train and the train left and ran across Germany. When we came to the border, there was some nervousness and apprehension when the storm-troopers boarded the train, looked around, and in some cases inspected the luggage.” To the best of his knowledge, the British government said they did not need any documents to enter the country. “We were just a bunch of little kids, each one with a little suitcase, each one with a little tag tied to them, and I suppose some crying and some wondering about what was going to happen next.”
After safely crossing the border, the train stopped in Amsterdam, where their mother’s sister, Tante Lotte, lived. She came on the train and “gave us some comfort and help. I remember suggesting to the Tante that she should come with us. Unfortunately she didn’t; probably because she couldn’t. Her ultimate ending in the Holocaust was like everybody else’s.” [Lotte and her husband were taken to the camps; Erna’s father died in 1939; her mother Emma and sister Hannah were taken to Theresienstadt; Erna and her brother Arthur in New York survived. Sallie’s father had died around 1936; his mother and one of his sisters were killed in the camps in Poland; another sister, her husband, and two daughters moved to Paris; he was taken to the camps and she and the girls were hidden by non-Jews in the countryside; and his brother Max/Menachem went to Palestine in 1937-8, ran a chicken farm, served in the Pioneer Corps, and was taken as a prisoner of war by Germans who parachuted into Greece.]
The train proceeded to the port of Hoek van Holland, where they boarded a ship for the overnight voyage, landing at the Port of Harwich in southern England on March 16, 1939, and then going by train to London’s huge and noisy Victoria Station. Eventually their names were called and they proceeded—“I, probably hanging behind my older brother”—to the car of “a very nice gentleman who came to pick us up. He stopped and bought us some grapes and some chocolates. This pleased us enormously.” John still remembers how much thicker the chocolate in England was relative to that in Germany.
In late 1938 or early 1939, a family by the name of Sainsbury was having a family dinner and heard about what was happening to the Jewish people in Germany. After Kristallnacht, they decided that they would do something to help the children of German Jewish families. They rented a large house in the Putney section of London and fully staffed it. It became the home of 22 boys and girls who came to England with the Kindertransport, including Hans and Walter. Mr. Alan (later Lord Alan) Sainsbury and his wife Babette represented the Sainsbury family, who owned a large grocery chain all over England. They were not Jewish, but years later, Alan Sainsbury disclosed that he thought he had Jewish ancestors in Holland.
“How lucky we were to be in the Sainsbury home because many of the other children didn’t have such good fortune. Needless to say, the idea of people taking in these little Jewish children from another country, who spoke another language, was daunting to many people. Some of the Kindertransport Kids ended up in holiday camps or other group facilities that were closed for the winter. Some of them ended up in Orthodox communities. Many ended up with non-Jewish families. It’s unfortunate that only some of these people pursued Jewish religion and insisted that the children go to synagogue or school.” Some adopted another form of religion. “It was good that their lives were saved, but it was sad that they’d lost their Judaism.”
The first thing the children at the home had to do was learn to speak English. Soon several teachers appeared who had to speak German and English. “They must have been there a week longer than we had, because their knowledge of English wasn’t that great. Nevertheless, it was good enough and we were anxious to learn.” Within three months, they were able to attend the local school. “The Sainsburys were a blessing. They took care of all the costs, some of our emotional needs. They did what they could for the children to make them as comfortable as possible.”
Within the next three months, two other things happened. A young woman from Buer came to visit the boys. When she returned to the Jewish family where she was employed, she was crying and told her employer that “those poor boys will never see their parents again.” Her employer was a big deal on the refugee committee and she started the procedure to get the Rosenbaums out of Germany under the conditions that (a) they had to have a job and (b) the only jobs allowed by the British government were as domestics.
In the meantime, their parents were doing the best they could, along with everyone else, to get out of Germany. Erna’s brother in New York was trying to find someplace for them to go to. In order to do that, he had to prove financial capability so that they would not become a ward of the state. He was not able to satisfy this requirement in the United States, but was able to get a visa for the whole family to go to Chile, which arrived at the same time as the parents’ visa to England.
By this time, they were allowed to take out only household goods. Unfortunately, their container got as far as Holland, then was lost in the German bombing. They each had one suitcase and $5 and Mother carried a small bag with the family jewels—a set of candlesticks and a few other things. They arrived in England on August 26, 1939. “My brother and I didn’t know anything about this, but we were told to come home early from school and we saw our parents.” They both had jobs on a country estate: “my mother as a cook and my father as the butler—my mother was a very good cook, but my father had never been a butler and it was not a very happy experience.”
One week later, England declared war on Germany. The government realized there was a tremendous labor shortage because all the men went into the service and the rule that forced foreign refugees to be domestic servants was rescinded. The Rosenbaums had enough money to rent a furnished room in London. It had a two-burner gas ring in the corner for cooking and a shared bathroom. Mother sewed uniforms for soldiers and Father got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant chain and later was promoted to storekeeper. “That’s what you had to do.”
When the war began, the government decided to get all of the children out of town, anticipating that London would be a target for air bombing. The children were evacuated to Reading. “It was a good thing that my brother and I were together because we managed to keep each other company.” They lived with a very nice non-Jewish family, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Bell. Once when the Bells were away, they even invited the parents to vacation there. “The big break for the parents was that they did not have any financial responsibilities for the children, who were still under the protection of the Sainsburys, who organized with the headmaster of the school to look after us and gave us a few pennies of pocket money every week.”
After a few years, Walter was sent to Guilford where he attended a technical school, while John attended a more academic school. “That’s how we passed the war. We occasionally saw our parents. We would go into London for the weekend. Sometimes we would get up in the middle of the night and go to the air raid shelters. Grown-ups went to work every day not knowing when they came home if their house was still standing.”
The Bells insisted that the boys go to the synagogue for Hebrew lessons. They also met a Jewish couple. So they did have a little bit of Jewish involvement and both had Bar Mitzvahs. John remembers his mother preparing an alcoholic beverage in celebration of the occasion. In the spring, she bought cherries and mixed them in a large glass container with sugar, yeast, and maybe some rubbing alcohol. “By December, the stuff was very good. I do remember eating some of those cherries to the detriment of my ability to stand up.”
“We were grateful that we were alive and whatever had to be done was done.” When the war ended, Hans and Walter returned to London to live with their parents and attend school. His father had lost his job as a manager of a neckwear company, so bought some used furniture at an auction sale, polished it up, placed an ad in the newspaper, and sold the furniture. He was back in business and kept doing this for a number of years. Eventually Walter inherited the business until he also retired, continuing to live in London with his wife, two children, and four grandchildren.
In 1947, although he was qualified to go to university, John decided “to go out and earn some money—to gain some independence so we could go on vacation and take girls to dinner.” He bought some suits and worked for Arthur Offenstadt (later Owen), who ran three companies in a two-room office. Hans took dictation, typed with two fingers, and made deliveries and pick-ups. A few years later, in an effort to improve himself, he found a job in an export company. Over all this time, his uncle from New York came to England regularly for his business of importing musical instruments from Czechoslovakia and Germany. “My mother always had this concept that we were going to go to America some day. My father wasn’t too keen on that idea; he had already emigrated from Poland to Germany and from Germany to England. But I wanted to go to America and I don’t know why. I was enamored with the idea that I was going to strike out on my own.” So, in 1952, his uncle arranged the papers for him.
At first, he worked in his uncle’s office. “When he was away, I managed to run the whole place. When he was there we had some difficulties that didn’t make it quite as perfect a marriage as it might have been.” It was very difficult; he earned $50 a week; $41and change after taxes. He spent $10 to rent a little furnished room with a Jewish lady and “being a good European person, I went downstairs and put $10 in the savings bank.” Some weeks he didn’t make it all the way through on the remaining $21.
Since he was between 18 and 26 and a new resident of the United States, Hans was eligible for the draft. He spent eight weeks in basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey and learned to type with all of his fingers. After 90 days of service, he was eligible for citizenship and, at the same time, changed his name to John Heine Rosen. “I am very proud to be an American.” John served and lived for 1 ½ years in Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York, “which enabled me to enjoy some of the pleasures of New York within the abilities of a GI’s pay.”
When he was discharged in 1956, he didn’t have enough money for college even with the GI Bill, so he got a job as a traveling salesman, first going by bus, then renting a car. His next job was with an advertising company in New York, first as a sales representative, then as a district manager in Detroit. Finally, he started his own advertising agency. “I learned what I was doing and built up a small business—like millions of other people do in America.”
John’s parents remained in England. His father lived to be 87, his mother 95. John retired in 1995 at the age of 65 and now splits his time between Michigan and Florida, playing golf and tennis and sailing. “I’m 80 years old and I’m alive because I was a Kindertransport Kid and because of all those people who helped. It’s impossible to thank all the people—the Sainsburys, the Quakers, the politicians in England who put through the ruling to the House of Commons, and my parents who we did see again, unlike most Kindertransport Kids, and who did everything that any person would do for their children.”
John and Walter kept in touch with Alan Sainsbury and, in 1953, had a reunion with him, the headmaster, and some of the Sainsbury Kids. They thanked them for working so valiantly and “hoped that we would make them proud.”
Date of Interview: 11/8/11
Length of Interview: 58 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran
· Solomon Rosenbaum and Erna Heine engagement/wedding certificate
· Hans Rosenbaum birth certificate
· Letterhead, Möbelhaus J. Rosenbaum, Gelsenkirchen-Buer
· Hans Rosenbaum photo, age 3 ½
· Photo of Hans and Walter before leaving Germany
· Reproduction of a numbered Kindertransport label worn on the child’s clothing
· Photo of the boys at the Sainsbury home (young boy at right behind the dog is Hans)
· Photo of Hans Rosenbaum before leaving England
· Naturalization papers