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Interview with Dr Bea Lewkowicz, Director of AJR Refugee Voices

80 years ago 10,000 children came to Britain as unaccompanied refugees on the Kindertransport from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia escaping Nazi Europe.


Dr Bea Lewkowicz is a social anthropologist and oral historian.  Director of the AJR Refugee Voices Archive, Dr Lewkowicz has produced many testimony – based films for projects and exhibitions, among them Still in Our Hands: Kinder Life Portraits,a photographic exhibition featuring archival photographs and portraits of former Kindertransportees interviewed by the AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive. 


This exhibition will be on display at the Festival accompanying a film screening and panel discussion . Chaired by Dr Lewkowicz  and with former Kinder, Freddy Kosten and Ruth Barnett, the event will explore how the kinder adapted to life in Britain.




What is the role of the AJR today and how important is it?


The Association of Jewish Refugees provides social and welfare services to Holocaust refugees and survivors nationwide. About 70,000 refugees, including approximately 10,000 children on the Kindertransport, arrived in Great Britain from Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1930s. Founded in 1941 by Jewish refugees from Central Europe, the AJR today extends membership to anyone who fled a Nazi-occupied country as a Jewish refugee or who arrived in Great Britain as a Holocaust survivor. Relatives are also welcome. The AJR is the UK’s largest dedicated funder of programmes and projects which promote teaching and learning about the Holocaust (TLH) in the United Kingdom.



Can you tell me a little about the oral history project and how you came to be involved in it?


In 2002 I co-curated an exhibition called ‘Continental Britons’ which included a video installation with testimonies. One of our visitors noted that watching the testimonies was like ‘walking through history’. Inspired by the impact of the installation, we started the ‘Refugee Voices’ Archive and began filming in 2003. We have so far interviewed 235 people.



What is the importance of oral history in our society and specifically in regards to the Kindertransport?


Oral history makes us understand how people experience major historical events.  Oral history can challenge some of our perceptions and add nuances of lived events which would otherwise be forgotten. Oral History also illustrates how different people are in the way they narrate and in the way they have dealt with traumatic experiences. In terms of the Kindertransport, the many interviews with former ‘Kinder’ show that the age of the child, the specific circumstances of each child after arriving in the Uk, and the survival of other family members, are important factors shaping the later lives of the Kinder.



Tell me about the exhibition ‘Still in our hands’ which is coming to the Festival


This exhibition features portraits of 10 Kinder who were interviewed for the Refugee Voices Testimony Archive of the Association of Jewish Refugees. The fates of the 10,000 Kinder who came to Great Britain fleeing Nazi Europe from 1938 to 1939 were in the hands of many different agencies, governments, voluntary organisations, foster families, and individual sponsors. In the words of one interviewee, the Kinder were ‘thrown around by the tides of history’. Yet, each individual Kind also shaped their own destiny, making his or her way in their personal and professional lives in the UK and elsewhere.

The portraits are intended to demonstrate the connection between then and now – between a world which had not yet been ruptured and a life lived. The Kinder hold their own photos in their hands. They take ownership of the life they lived and the life history they have narrated.



Former Kindertransport Freddy Kosten and Ruth Barnett will be speaking at the event at Dulwich Festival, can you give us a little bit of background about these two speakers?


Ruth was born Ruth Michaelis in 1935 in Berlin, Germany. In 1939, aged four, Ruth and her seven-year-old brother arrived in Britian on the Kindertransport. Over the next ten years, Ruth and her brother lived with three foster families and in a hostel. Ruth’s father, who was Jewish, escaped to Shanghai and her mother, who was not Jewish, remained in Germany in hiding until 1945. Ruth’s mother had taken part in the Rosenstraße protest in Berlin in which around 200 non-Jewish German women who were married to Jewish men demonstrated outside a building where many of their husbands had been interned by the Gestapo. This was the only example of a prominent public protest against the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. In 1949 Ruth was repatriated to Germany against her will on a court order. She could not cope in Germany as this was the second massive loss of home and everything familiar she had experienced and it took place in a country she believed was terrifying. She was back in Britain within a year and visited her parents for school holidays. After leaving university, Ruth married her Jewish boyfriend and converted to Judaism. Ruth was a secondary school teacher for 19 years and a psychotherapist for 28 years. She regularly shares her testimony in schools and colleges.



Freddy Kosten (Manfred Kӧsten) was born 1928 in Vienna. He left for Britain on a Kindertransport on 15 March 1939. He and his sister Claire were taken in by actress Constance Cummings and her playwright husband Benn Levy. Due to their efforts, Freddy’s parents also managed to get out of Austria. He continued his education and studied Mining Geology at Imperial College, leading to an interesting career as an engineering geologist, helping to try to provide water in places such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. Through his work he wanted to give something back to society, appreciating the many opportunities given to him since arriving in the UK.





Why is the message of the Kinder still so relevant in our society today?


The traumatic experience of the Kindertransport continues to be relevant today, in a world  which sees new waves of child migration.  The Kindertransport gave 10,000 children refuge but separated them from their parents. As a society we need to ask ourselves how best to help unaccompanied children today. Many former Kinder like Lord Dubs, are trying to convince the government, to allow more child refugees into the UK. One former Kind was Rabbi Harry Jacobi, who passed away very recently. He said in his message at the end of the interview something very poignant:


‘I hope that we have learnt from History…. and I hope my children and grandchildren have learnt from history. I am very proud, you know, whatever I have achieved, the greatest achievement is always to keep your family together and inspire them’




It must be incredibly moving being involved with such an organisation, do you have a particular fond experience that you can recall?


I feel very privileged that so many people have shared their life stories with me. After one particularly moving interview, the interviewee said to me: ‘Thank you so much. I have told you my story, now I don’t need to tell it again. In that moment I felt very happy that by interviewing her for the Refugee Voices Archive we managed to capture her story and helped her feel that they story is preserved for her family and future generations.



                                                 Former Kinder – Ruth Barnett

The Experience of the Kindertransport – Film Screening & Panel Discussion

Thursday 16ThMay 7.30pm, The Laboratory, Dulwich College

Tickets via the website

£12, conc £10, 18 and under free


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