Welwyn Garden City is 90 years old, and a significant moment in its short history was celebrated during the second national Interfaith Week recently.
Seventy-one years ago some Welwyn Garden City citizens of different faiths and none formed a committee to help Jewish people being persecuted in Germany.
Edgar Reissner, a Jewish refugee and student at King’s College, London, talked with friends Wim van Leer (who owned an engineering factory in the town) and Geoffrey Edwards (a Quaker) about the need for a hostel for Jewish refugees. As a result, a committee was formed, chaired by Captain Reiss, who made a house available in Applecroft Road for use as a hostel. Wim van Leer was asked to travel to Leipzig and recruit Jewish refugees, many from concentration camps, for whom he carried visas for entry to England.
On Tuesday, 23 November 2010, over 50 people gathered in the Friends Meeting House to hear 4 Jews and 1 Quaker tell the story of their lives and friendships during 1939.
Peter Zander was 11 when he came to the Garden City with his parents in 1933 from Berlin. His mother, Anita, joined the committee to help Jewish refugees and was appointed Warden of the hostel in Applecroft Road. Peter was able to read her account of how the hostel was furnished with donations and of how several professionals offered free services to the refugees as well as to recall episodes of his own life as a teenager and young man in Welwyn Garden City.
Sam Ostro, who was 21 when he joined Wim van Leers party of 14 Jewish young men, spoke of his desperate situation in Leipzig, his journey to England and his arrival at the hostel on 15th January 1939. He felt that if the “hostel wasn’t heaven, it must be next door to it.” Freddy Godshaw and Peter Zander were childhood friends in Germany. The Godshaw family came to Welwyn Garden City from Hanover because the Zanders were here. Anita Zander and another Jewish friend sponsored the family who were then granted entry visas. Freddy was just 16 when he arrived with his parents in July 1939. He and his brother stayed very briefly at Applecroft Hostel until his parents found a house to rent.
Ena Wyatt was a young woman and member of “The Ring” Quaker Youth Group. She told the gathering how the members of the youth group befriended the Jewish refugees and included them in their activities. Ena told how she was a member of a party of 25 young Quakers who went to Germany on a peace making quest to befriend young Germans during a Youth Hostel holiday. Three of the refugees in the Applecroft hostel had asked her to visit their parents which she did, taking entry visas for 2 members of one of the families. This couple reached England the day before war was declared. Ena arrived back 2 days before.
Ruth Tuch recalled her memories of Vienna after the annexation of Austria. Although only 4 or 5 years old at the time, she has vivid memories of seeing Hitler drive past in a cavalcade and of seeing her trashed home, although her bedroom was spared because she was asleep there. She brought her doll, Edith, to the storytelling and showed how her mother had put Ruth’s Star of David necklace round her doll’s neck and tucked it under the doll’s clothes to hide it on the long train journey to England. Ruth said she “wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Quakers”. Her parents had been found domestic work through a Quaker scheme and given permits to enter England. Ruth and her mother moved to a refugee hostel in London when her father was interned for a time on the Isle of Man after the outbreak of war. She remembers sleeping in the Underground to be safe from bombing. The hostel was bombed while Ruth and her mother were spending a weekend with friends in Welwyn Garden City. Her mother found lodgings and work in Welwyn Garden City which has been Ruth’s home ever since.
The outbreak of war resulted in Freddy being interned on the Isle of Man “with the intelligentsia of Europe” which he described as one of the most interesting periods of his life. He had his 17th birthday on the island and was released after 4 months. Whilst there, he was visited by a Welwyn Garden Quaker, W.R. Hughes.
Sam was not interned because he was working at Wim van Leer’s factory, General Stampers, doing “essential war work”.
Peter became a conscientious objector and, after a Tribunal and two Appeals was sentenced to 3 months in prison.
The stories we heard were very moving and sad but the story tellers also managed to be humorous. Those who were present felt privileged to be at this event which recalled a time when the citizens of Welwyn Garden City welcomed Jewish refugees to the town. Tea and cakes were served in the synagogue after the meeting.
The event was recorded by the WGC Heritage Trust as part of the 90th Anniversary of WGC.
by Pam Harvey