‘There were so many kids like me: we didn’t ask questions, we just went’

THE LAST TIME SONJA COWAN saw her mother she was not wrapped deep in a lingering hug in their final goodbye. Nor did her mother plant kiss after kiss on Sonja’s cheeks as they stood on the train platform in Berlin.

Instead, there was just a hurried handshake and a promise they would soon be together again in “the land” of Israel.

“Mum said goodbye. We weren’t allowed to hug and kiss and all that. Just shake hands,” she recalls. “There were so many kids like me. We didn’t ask questions. We just went.”

Then the train pulled away with Sonja and the other Jewish children on board, carrying them into the unknown.

My grandmother’s escape from Nazi Germany is a central thread in our family folklore.

And this month marked 80 years since Sonja fled on the Kindertransport – a mass rescue operation of Jewish children who were evacuated to England in 1938 and 1939.

A few weeks before her 96th birthday this year, Sonja agreed to give a formal interview about her war-time experiences. She had been interviewed years ago by Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation but felt that much had been left unsaid.

Since childhood I have absorbed fragments of my grandmother’s backstory in brief chapters told at family gatherings or during countless sleepovers at her house since I was six months old.

All four of my grandparents were Jewish and had their own remarkable stories of how they emerged from the Holocaust. I always understood the significance of preserving their personal histories.

Now, Sonja is my sole surviving grandparent. But because her mental and physical health have been mostly very good, I slipped into complacency about formally recording her story and asking those questions that don’t come up in casual conversation despite the many hours we have spent together.

So together we decided that three of her grandchildren – myself, my brother Gideon and cousin Kate Gould would conduct the video interview at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.

Our childhoods were surrounded by reminders of her survival, some of which are still scattered about her home.

The framed and artificially coloured photograph of her looking glamorous in British army uniform is so familiar I can easily summon in my mind’s eye her classic Hollywood smile looking off into the distance.

She told us it was a picture of her as an “enemy alien”, which made me laugh when I was a little boy.

Just before the interview, we agreed that if it became too upsetting Sonja would wave a hand at us and we’d pause until she was ready to go on. 

We knew she had an older sister Lotte (after whom my daughter Charlotte is named) who did not survive. Sonja had told us many times that her father died when she was 18 months old, just before he could cradle his youngest daughter Ursula in his arms.

As our interview date loomed, I began asking about her childhood, hoping to shake free new memories before sitting down in front of the camera.

I learned that she joined a Zionist youth movement, spending the months before her sudden escape learning agricultural skills so they would use to sustain a new Jewish state in Palestine.

I cannot remember if she mentioned this before, but I had never imagined her as an idealistic teenager training to build a new world.

Just before the interview, we agreed that if it became too upsetting Sonja would wave a hand at us and we’d pause until she was ready to go on.

AT THE MUSEUM we crowded into a tight office-turned-makeshift recording studio with a black sheet for background. We shuffled our chairs around the camera perched on a tripod.

As she unravelled her earliest memories of her religious family life in Berlin it struck me how she can rouse evocative childhood recollections but is unable to summon other key details and events.

I loved even the most mundane stories about her older sister Lotte. Sonja had said so little about her over the years. Maybe we didn’t ask enough.

Now I want to clutch at my grandmother’s most distant memories as though it will somehow help to know who Lotte was and what she might have become.

Even just the image of the two young girls strolling home from school was compelling.

“There was Lotte and I always walking together. She took care of me and I always remember one thing. She bought a coconut and shared it with me,” Sonja says. “We drank the milk out of it. That’s the only thing I remember of these walks home.”

Sonja had never mentioned any discrimination or harassment on the streets of Berlin because she was Jewish – even though she turned 10 when Adolf Hitler was tightening his grip on Germany.

But as we settle into our interview the ominous signs unfold – Nazis walking the streets and children in Hitler Youth uniforms. Then teachers began disappearing from school.

“There was a Jewish teacher who taught us religion,” Sonja remembers. “What she said, these are her words ‘I’m firstly German, secondly Jewish and because of that they won’t touch me’. She was the first teacher to go.”

About that time Sonja was expelled from her public school and forced to enrol at a Jewish school in another neighbourhood.

Yet that memory does not seem to bother her. Her retelling of that time is mostly matter of fact in tone and she sometimes counters questions with a cheeky one of her own.

When we ask if she was upset about being expelled from school because she was Jewish, Sonja says: “It’s 80 odd years ago, darling. Do you remember all your thoughts?”

But clearly her family had realised they had no future in Germany even though she cannot remember the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, which signalled the horrors to come in the Holocaust.

By Sonja’s reckoning she was away at the time in the country with a Zionist youth movement, preparing for their move to Palestine. Then the armed patrols started. “They were our Jewish boys, patrolling. That’s the only time I found out about Kristallnacht.”

Some of her memories are astonishing to us but Sonja seems to regard them as almost pedestrian as though she is perplexed that we want to know more.

One afternoon she was trying to hitchhike back to her youth movement base when a Nazi officer pulled up beside her on his motorbike. She suspects he mistook her Zionist group uniform for the Hitler youth and offered to drive her home.

One afternoon she was trying to hitchhike back to her youth movement base when a Nazi officer pulled up beside her on his motorbike. She suspects he mistook her Zionist group uniform for the Hitler youth and offered to drive her home. 

“I couldn’t stop him. He wanted to give me a lift and what am I going to do? I was looking for a lift. But it was only for a short ride, holding on to a Nazi,” she says, smiling.

The Kindertransport evacuations had already begun in late 1938. Sonja’s younger sister, Ursula, joined the Kindertransport in May the following year. Ursula lived in a Jewish orphanage for most of her childhood. While she saw her family regularly, her single mother was too poor to keep her at home.

“She lived a different life from us. I think she got the information about the Kindertransport quicker than I did. One day she came home and said: ‘I’m going to England’.”

In August it was Sonja’s turn to leave suddenly. She says youth movement leaders called her name among the children to be sent to England so they could then make their way to Palestine.

“They said ‘go home, pack your bag and get your mum to take you to the station’. And that was it. There wasn’t much talking. I don’t think there was much time to talk. The same day,” she says, her voice trailing off.

Some child survivors of the Kindertransport recall hordes of parents and children crying at the train station as they parted. Others said their parents lied, telling them they were embarking on an adventurous holiday in England.

What courage it must have taken those mothers and fathers to let go of their children with no guarantee of what lay on the other side.

SONJA CAN OFFER ONLY fragments about the journey out of Berlin beyond basic facts. The train took them to Holland where nuns offered cups of hot cocoa before they boarded a ship to England.

We want to know if children were panicked and crying or whether there were trusted adults there to guide and console them. She doesn’t recall much about that trip on the sea, only that she shared a two-bed cabin with another girl.

It seems incredible to us that she wasn’t fretting about what lay ahead, bewildered and paralysed by fear, but no.  “From what I remember I didn’t think. I just followed.”

For the next two years in the UK she moved between child refugee centres but stayed longest at the Whittingehame Farm School for Jewish children in Scotland where she was reunited with her younger sister Ursula for about a year.

But when she turned 18 in 1941, she was told it was time to leave and make her own living. She stayed with other families doing domestic work but hated it so much she decided to join the army, like many other young people her age.

About this time the letters stopped following Sonja from her mother Toni and older sister Lotte. They were transported from Berlin to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland where they were murdered.

Sonja only where they were killed decades after the war when my mother searched through the archives of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel. Because she was born in Germany, Sonja was allowed a limited number of roles in the army so she took a job as a storewoman.

Even today, Sonja talks about her time in the military with a fond smile. There she found dignity. “I was a mensche,” she says, using Yiddish to describe a decent and well-regarded person. “I can’t tell you any more.”

She served for six months in Glasgow, two years in Sterling and another two in Basingstoke.

Rather than desperately search for any surviving relatives after the war, Sonja says she fixed on what lay ahead. Perhaps that was easier because the truth about her mother and sister’s fate would have been too awful to confront. 

When the war ended Sonja headed back to Glasgow where again she lived with a Jewish family. She does not remember discussing the Holocaust with the family who had given her board. But rather than desperately search for any surviving relatives, Sonja says she fixed on what lay ahead.

Perhaps that was easier because the truth about her mother and sister’s fate would have been too awful to confront. “I didn’t know where to start,” she says. “The rumours were going around that people were killed, burned.”

A few months later a young man called Ralph Cowan, who had also been discharged from the British army, knocked at the door wanting to meet the Jewish girl he’d been hearing about. “I was just about to wash my hair. He said: ‘I’ll do it for you…I’m a hairdresser’. And he did wash my hair.”

Sonja’s eyes gleam when she describes being pampered by my grandfather on their first meeting. Ralph’s mother said she would accept Sonja only if she could recite the four questions of Passover in Hebrew. She passed easily and they were married about seven months later.

Tumult, uncertainty and loss had engulfed her childhood but found routine and structure in her adult years. Sonja and Ralph had three daughters but struggled with the unforgiving weather and tough living conditions in working class Glasgow. So they left in 1962.

“One day he said to me ‘you know what? I fancy going to Australia. I didn’t argue. I didn’t know where Australia was. So we went to Australia and here I am.”

We spent more than two hours recording Sonja’s story at the Holocaust Museum, but I still think of more questions almost every day. During the interview Sonja waved her hand to stop just once and then sobbed at the memory of the last time she saw her mother.

I turn to pause the camera so she can regain her composure. It is painful to see her so vulnerable in that moment. But then my cousin Kate springs to her side. And Kate wraps our grandmother in the warm hug owed to the 16-year-old girl on that train platform in Berlin.