On Wednesday February 19th 2020, Marion Hill and Darren Harte had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Ostro, who told his life story of his emigration to Welwyn Garden City in 1939.
Sam Ostro was 21 when he was recruited to join Wim van Leers emigration effort from Leipzig. He was one of 14 young Jewish men brought from Germany to Welwyn Garden City on the cusp of the outbreak of war.
Sam spoke of the desperate situation that he and many thousands faced in Leipzig. “There were thousands that wanted to get out, thousands”. To this day, Sam still doesn’t know who picked him to join Wim van Leers party. He recalls one gent by the name of Verna Lezcider who he believes to have worked for Danish bank in having a hand in his emigration but he isn’t certain. Sam told how “there’s a million things in life that happen” and this is one question he doesn’t have the answer to.
Being picked to join Wim van Leers party meant Sam faced a harrowing decision. Emigrate to the safety of Welwyn Garden City and be separated from his mother and older brother, or stay in Leipzig and face Nazi persecution.
“Can you imagine to make such a decision?”
Leaving Leipzig in January 1939, Sam’s party landed in Lowestoft before journeying to Welwyn Garden City on January 15th. Captain Reiss, a Quaker who headed the refugee committee in Welwyn Garden City, had loaned hostel accommodation on Applecroft Road for Wim van Leer’s party of refugees. Sam fondly recalls Margery Bailey’s dancing room being next door to the hostel. He stayed at Applecroft Road for nearly a year until he found alternative accommodation on By The Mount in Welwyn Garden City.
To aid in the integration of German Jewish refugees the German Jewish aid committee in London published a “Book of Advice” with “everyday helpful information”. Marion Hill, the Learning and Access Officer at HALs, reads how the committee advised refugees to “not criticise any Government information”. The book wasn’t Government ordered nor was it instructions on how to act, but rather it was distributed by German Jewish people for German Jewish people advising “how to fit in” in wartime Britain.
After arriving in Welwyn Garden City Sam worked unpaid jobs at Brickwell Nurseys gardening before he found employment at Wim van Leer’s factory, General Stampers. The outbreak of war saw the factory taken over for war work “stamping …the top part of jerry cans and… sheet metal” Sam’s son elaborates. Thousands of German born refugees were interned on the Isle of Man early on in the war, but Sam was never interned because Wim van Leer wrote a letter stating he was doing “essential war work” at General Stampers.
Despite the “very friendly” welcome Sam had received by Welwyn Garden City’s refugee committee and citizens, he was still official classified as a German enemy alien. As such, he received an aliens order certificate of registration as well as having to abide by certain restrictions. Sam’s son informs how his father had “to get permission” to travel away from Welwyn Garden City. Visiting friends in London required Sam to have his book stamped once at Welwyn and then in London to track his movements throughout the country. Surprisingly, Sam even had to receive a stamp to ride a bicycle; “Mission granted for the use of a peddle cycle for the purpose of employment only”.
Under the strictest guidelines to only ride a bicycle for employment purposes, Sam remembers a particularly humorous interaction with a rambling group in Coleman Green. Apparently, after hearing Sam’s German accent the group had rung the police, seemingly having thought a German person had parachuted in “from the sky”. He ended up having to identify himself to authorities but recounts the tale 80 years later with laughter.
Having spent the majority of his life living in the town, when proposed the question of his thoughts of Welwyn Garden City Sam beautifully summarises
“Welwyn Garden City is well salvation to me”.
“People who criticise Welwyn Garden City they haven’t been anywhere, I love the people… all the people improve”.
Sam’s powerful story is one of resilience and testimony to Welwyn Garden City’s diverse history over the past 100 years.