CHANNEL CROSSING TO LIFE
by Brigitte Borgel und Angelika Rieber
For a long time Renata Harris didn't think too much about her past. Only an advertisement from 2011, promoting the unveiling of a monument reminding of the “Kindertransporte” in The Hook of Holland, made her change her mind and think abour her own past. Ever since she returned to Germany for a couple of times in order to talk to students in German schools. She herself had managed to leave Germany in 1939 as a child in a Kindertransport. Her father Alfred Adler also managed to escape to England after his release from Buchenwald. Her mother, Adelheid Adler, however was deported and murdered in 1942. There is a Stumbling Stone reminding of Adelheid Adler since May 2012. Today, the former Frankfurt citizen Renata Harris lives in England and in Austria, her second home.
Renata Harris searches for traces of her childhood
In 2012 Renate Harris came back to Frankfurt for the first time since she left the town on August 26, 1939 as a “guaranteed child” on one of the last Kindertransport trains to England.
She was born on June 26, 1929, the daughter of Adelheid Adler, from a family of jewellers from Upper Silesia, and Alfred Adler, who was general representative in Frankfurt of the B. Bohrmann silverware factory. Her father was arrested at the time of the November pogrom in November 1938 and transported to Buchenwald. Renata’s mother was able to find a sponsor for Alfred in England so that he was released on January 5, 1939 and allowed to emigrate to England in April of that year. His wife wanted to follow him to England but this was not possible as the war began. Adelheid Adler lived and worked in different places in Frankfurt. The last letter to her daughter is dated Good Friday 1942. Then she was deported and murdered.
Father and daughter spent the war years in England. Renata had the 'good fortune' to have a place in a boarding school. She describes these years as very hard for a young girl with no friends or family. Her father was a broken man on his release from Buchenwald and emigration, and he was shaken by the knowledge that he could not bring his wife to England. Renata lived in England during the war and later in Austria and again in England.
She paid visits to Germany as a tour guide but never came to Frankfurt. In 2012 she was invited by the City of Frankfurt to visit her place of birth once again after seventy years. We made the journey with her into a time of happy childhood.
“Renata, what are your feelings on your first visit to Frankfurt after so many years?”
“I had very mixed feelings, coming back here. I remembered the wonderful days of a happy childhood, but I also experienced the fear that I felt in those later years – not to be conspicuous. But I felt comfortable in the group, not alone with my childhood memories and happy because of the generous invitation by Lady Mayor Roth and the city authorities. I felt at home in the city.”
What are the most important memories of your childhood in Frankfurt?
“Mine was a liberal family that celebrated the Jewish and the Christian holidays. My children's nurse was Christian. We often walked in the Taunus hills at weekends and stopped at the guest house of the Meister family, who ran the restaurant known as Fuchstanz. I often sat on uncle Toni's knees, who blew smoke rings for me with his cigar. We spent many happy holidays with the Meister family in Oberreifenberg and I was able to save some photographs from those wonderful weeks. I was very moved when I was again able to visit Fuchstanz and recall those happy memories. I also remember going to the Opera to see 'Hänsel and Gretel' and the zoo which I often visited, and also I remember the Palmengarten where we collected chestnuts for the zoo animals and they gave us 50 pfennigs for them.”
What other memories do you have from your childhood?
“Many things were brought back to me. Sachsenhausen full of apple orchards, where we collected cockchafers in match boxes. Swimming in the river Main, the Christmas market on the Römerberg – we were only allowed to enter the Kaisersaal wearing felt slippers. Eating a sausage near the cathedral, coffee with my grandmother at the Hauptwache, the Salamander shoe shop in the Zeil with its toy elephant for rides. There was an Italian café on the Zeil where you could get ice cream and strawberry cake, and a department store with a restaurant where we ate very good roast hare with potato dumplings.
Near my school, the Philanthropin, an old lady sold apples during the break. When I was late I went to school on my roller skates, which was really not allowed. I left the skates at my mother's hat-maker; she had her shop near the school.
I have just one bad memory and that is of the train station, where I saw my mother for the very last time. We were inseparable, for my father was often away. Standing at the station again was a very painful moment for me.”
What was the most important aspect of your visit to Frankfurt?
“Difficult to say. Not an event but a certain feeling, that I had come home again and was welcomed here. When I look back over the past seventy years I can say that I always felt myself to be a ‘Frankfurter’. And I feel very happy that my father now has a 'Stumbling Stone' in front of our former home in Gervinusstrasse (the house was destroyed during the war) My mother already has one, so now my parents are reunited.”
“From one day to the next you become English”
by Angelika Rieber
Renata Harris had not thought about her own past for many years. “From one day to the next you become English” were her words to the students.
An advertisement in November 2011 started the process of thinking about her own past. The text called on former Kindertransport children who went to England via Hook of Holland. The occasion was the erection of a memorial on behalf of those children. “Channel Crossing to Life” was unveiled in Holland on 30 November 2011 in Holland. “Six children are portrayed, waiting. Next to them are suitcases, a violin case. One boy sits at the side, his arm on his case, looking out across Rotterdam harbour.
The artist is Frank Meisler. He himself was one of the children who were brought to England. Meisler has made four bronze statues. The first was unveiled at Liverpool Street Station in London in 2006, which was where the children arrived. Two other memorials were set up in Danzig and in Berlin, where the transports began. About sixty Kindertransport children came to the ceremony. (German Bundestag 2011)
The memory of the Kindertransport was a very emotional experience for Renata Harris. During the ceremony she was told of the program in which former Frankfurt citizens were invited back to their home town. She rang up and a few days later she received the invitation from the Lady Mayoress, a letter full of warmth and friendliness. A niece was also at work arranging for a “Stumbling Stone” to be placed in front of the house in Gervinusstrasse where her mother lived until 1942, when she was deported.
In May 2012, for the first time Renata Harris returned to the place where she had once lived. She was accompanied by her son Oliver, with whom she had never spoken about her childhood, not wanting to burden him with the horror of what had happened. She stood at the place where the house once stood, deeply moved by the thought of her “wonderful, glorious childhood”.
“You grow up overnight”
A few weeks later, Renata Harris returned to Frankfurt. This time she had been invited by the City of Frankfurt. She sensed the contrast between her experiences in 1939 when she was forced to leave Germany and today. She could feel that she was welcomed with open arms.
She was glad to accept the offer of the “Projekt Jüdisches Leben in Frankfurt” to address a school class but she was uncertain what to say, what was expected of her. The uncertainty melted away during the welcome ceremony in the Jewish Museum. She talked freely with Klaus Hartenfeller, teacher of the class that she would address two days later.
She felt a little like “Daniel in the lion's den” was her opening remark to the class. She survived, like Daniel and was received by interested listeners. Renata Harris spoke of her happy childhood in Frankfurt. She talked about visits to the zoo, the Palmengarten and the many trips to Fuchstanz. Her childhood came to an end when her father was arrested in November 1938.
'You grew up overnight.'
Weeks later, Alfred Adler returned, a broken man. She could hardly recognize him, said Renata Harris. Her father was able to leave for England, thanks to his business connections. His daughter left Frankfurt on August 26, 1939 with the Kindertransport, shortly before World War II broke out, after which no more Kindertransports were possible.
Renata Harris can remember very vividly how her mother brought her to the station. “I'll see you in a few weeks”, said her mother. She hoped that they would be united again, but her mother was unable to leave Frankfurt. She was deported in 1942 and was murdered in Sobibor.
Renata saw her father only on a few occasions. She saw him, a broken man, traumatized by the experiences in a concentration camp, saddened by the death of his wife, the separation from his home and through the social decline caused by his emigration. In 1940 he was arrested as a suspected spy and interned on the Isle of Man. Alfred Adler died in 1954 at the age of 57.
Renata Harris was fortunate enough to attend St. Paul’s School where she received a good education. She forgot her German completely, “because from one day to the next you became English”.
The students asked if she had any contact to other Kindertransport children. She told them that she had virtually no contacts to other Germans and did not know whether they had similar experiences.
The former Frankfurter became a stewardess and tour guide. She travelled the world for many years and experienced much that enriched her life. She advised the students to see the world through open eyes in order to learn. “Go, see the world, feel and then return home,” was her recommendation to the young people.
The school students asked her how she felt when she came to Frankfurt. Renata Harris made it clear with her answer that only with her latest visit she experienced the feeling that she had come back to her own roots. “Now I can say again that I am from Frankfurt.” She was grateful for the opportunity to tell her story to the class of young people. She felt honoured.
The students and their teacher felt a sense of enrichment meeting Renata Harris. They were most impressed by the openness with which she talked to them. “She was impressive; she spoke in a friendly, warm and cheerful way.” “That made her talk so moving”, said Klaus Hartenfeller, the history teacher after the talk. Many students were impressed by her energy and her positive approach to life in spite of her tragic history.
“Frau Harris is an unusual and remarkable woman. In spite of her experiences and the difficulties with which she had to cope she shared a part of her life with us that she had left deep within herself. It's amazing that she has come back to Frankfurt in spite of her experiences.” “It must have needed a lot of courage to come back to Germany”, was the response of one of the students.
It was of great significance that she came from Frankfurt, for the students knew many of the places that she talked about. For one listener it was surprisingly new to hear about the experiences from somebody who was born in Frankfurt. “It showed that a ten-year-old child can accept responsibility very quickly when circumstances require”, said one student. Another said that she was impressed by the positive aspects of her experiences, and was surprised that she had been educated in England at the expense of a sponsor unknown to her.
Another student felt annoyed by the letter sent by the Mayoress. “She was forced to leave when she was a child only to be invited as a special guest. I was annoyed because I thought of the pain and shock that Renata Harris had to live through, separated from her family in a strange country. From one day to the next she had no identity, had lost her childhood, had to live with painful memories and experiences. I feel that it must have been extremely difficult for her.”
“Do you plan to come back to Frankfurt?” was another question after her talk. She plans to stay in contact with the town. Many letters and telephone calls have followed with the people that she has got to know on her visits.
Renata Harris lives in Austria in winter, and I spend my winter vacation in a neighbouring village so that we looked forward in summer to our next meeting in Tirol. She came back to Frankfurt on the occasion of the laying of a “Stumbling Stone” for her father.
In Tirol the 83 year-old is in her element. She manages the office of one of the Ski Schools. She is there almost every day, a bundle of energy, making sure that the visitors are happy. Her husband John smiles with approval at her amazing energy.
Renata Harris, née Adler
Took part in the Visiting Program: 2012, 2013, 2014
1929 in Frankfurt
Alfred Adler, born 1897 in Frankfurt, salesman, arrested in November 1938 and deported to Buchenwald. After his release he managed to emigrate to England, where he died in 1953. His family comes from Thalheim/Württemberg.
Adelheid Adler, née Golisch, born in 1901 in Beuthen, was deported and murdered in1942. There is a Stumbling Stone reminding of her fate.
The family lived in Gervinusstraße 22 in Frankfurt.
Renata Harris attended the Philantropin. Sie escaped to England in 1939 with a “Kindertransport”.
Recording of the conversation with Renata Harris in the Ernst-Reuter-Schule 1 in Frankfurt on June 1, 2012.
Comments of students after the meeting in June 2012
Conversations with Renata Harris in Frankfurt and in Seefeld in May and June 2012 and in January 2013
Angelika Rieber, Lisa Sophie Bechner, Brigitte Borgel, Renata Harris
Deutscher Bundestag: “Erinnern ist Arbeit für Gegenwart und Zukunft”
Brigitte Borgel and Angelika Rieber