There’s footage and there are photos of the kinder stepping off the ships at Harwich and onto free British soil for the first time. I imagine the children would have felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation, not speaking English and not knowing where they would be going next. They were fostered by family all over the countries, siblings were often separated, some reported positive experience with the families that cared for them, others were not so happy.
I expect many of them were psychologically affected by the trauma of what they had seen and left behind, and this will have made them a challenge to look after. It must have been difficult for the families who took the kinder in to ensure that they felt safe and comfortable. Some of the children and teenagers were evacuated or relocated several times during the war adding to their sense of instability. Meanwhile representatives of the CBF (Central British Fund for German Jewry, now World Jewish Relief) kept in touch with all the kinder, reporting on their well-being and making recommendations for the improvement of their care.
Those feelings of trepidation were not present for me as I disembarked the ferry, only relief having eventually found my way after getting lost on the wrong staircase.
Before setting off we attended a small reception with the mayor of Harwich and one or two other local dignitaries. The town cryer shouted a welcome and good luck message, the mayor expressed the town’s pride at having been part of the kindertransport story, while Paul Alexander, one of our riders, spoke of how emotional and meaningful it was for him to be here again after 80 years.
After photos (for which the mayor asked to borrow my overtly pro-Europe cap) we set off for London, encouraged by a local trumpeter playing a fanfare / trad jazz mash-up. I have asked the leader of our Sunday morning cycling group to institute a similar arrangement.
It was now approximately 7.30am and our plan was to be at Liverpool Street Station by 4pm for a welcome reception. That gave us plenty of time to ride the 90 miles or so but there were tricky logistical considerations today as well as several miles of slow urban roads so we needed to get a move on.
Following yesterday’s “bonk day” for me and several others, mojos had returned and we flew along, which was a shame in one sense because I didn’t take the opportunity to truly appreciate the Essex countryside which provided, without question, the prettiest scenery of the entire journey. Narrow, high-hedged country lanes, woods, beautiful views and hills featured heavily. That’s right, it wasn’t flat, and other than one time saving stretch on a rather busy “A” road, we meandered our way from point to point between hedgerows to the outskirts of London, rather than ride in straight lines across windy, unprotected plains.
On the other hand this was England, and so a hitherto hardly-used word entered our vocabulary of calls: “hole!” This, of course, accompanied by a hand dropped to the side in order to point out the unfilled death-trap crater in the road.
Also, in contrast to yesterday’s battle against the hurricane that was trying to blow us back to Berlin, this was the perfect sunny and warm day on which to finish our ride. It all felt very good.
The last gathering point was just by Aldgate station from where we were sent off in small groups for the final half a kilometre or so to the finish line at the station. For this part of the journey 92 year old kind, Harry Bibring, joined his son Michael and grandson Lee, both of whom had ridden from Germany, another three-generations crossing the finish line along with the Alexander family.
We were cheered in by friends, family, and several other kinder while curious commuters passed by our cordoned-off area at the third of the Frank Meisler bronze sculptures that had punctuated our journey. We remembered those who had perished in the holocaust, we celebrated those who survived thanks to the extraordinary initiative that our ride commemorated, and we thought of refugees around the world today in similar situations to European Jews of the 1930, who live so precariously between life and death.
Not every child of the kindertransport took the route we made. Trains went from various parts of Europe and indeed not all came to the UK by train at all. Some, like Sir Erich Reich, who, along with others spoke movingly at the ceremony, travelled by boat from Poland.
That gave me my idea for next year’s challenge: Gdynia to Harwich by canoe. Who’s in?
Thanks for reading these blog entries over the past few days. If you’d like to make a donation to World Jewish Relief for the humanitarian work it does here’s a link: https://www.worldjewishrelief.org/nickberlintolondon
And here’s the route graphic for the last stage: https://www.relive.cc/view/g21876562470
Like many cyclists, when I’m in a new place I think about the cycling possibilities, and having ridden point to point for charity in the past, Berlin to London sprung to mind when I visited for the first time in 2016.
I sat on the idea for a while to let it percolate, and in the subsequent weeks realised that the 80th anniversary of the the first kindertransport from Berlin to London was upcoming. Now the idea really appears to have legs, or wheels.
Nonetheless, I really only thought it would be a bunch of my cycling friends and maybe a few others quietly riding though Europe while raising a few quid for charity. My idea was very simple: we would set off on a Sunday morning and reach London by the following Friday afternoon, having followed the route of the railway as closely as was practical.
I took the idea to World Jewish Relief, the charity originally behind the kindertransport programme, and they liked it. I introduced them to the cycle tour guide company, Saddle Skedaddle, with whom I had previously travelled several times, and left it to the two organisations to work out the rest of it.
I had no idea that the idea would be so inspiring, bringing kinder and their descendants from far away to participate, gaining so much media attention, and attracting 42 riders who between them raised over £150,000 for the work WJR does today to help refugees and impoverished people around the world.
More important, perhaps, what began as a simple fundraiser became a way to education thousands of people about the kindertransport story and to remind people that we are currently living in worrying times with a European refugee crisis asking us the same questions as in 1938. Do we offer people safety and freedom, or do we abandon them to an unknown, but probably terrible, fate?
We finished the ride on the day when the American government was being severely criticised for separating children as young as babies from their parents and detaining them in caged areas. Dehumanising people in this way – treating them as if they are unworthy of the dignity that any person is entitled – is how genocides begin. I’m not saying this is the path that America is on, but I am asking us, as is WJR through rides like ours, to be vigilant.
I’m immensely proud of my part in this project but I’m not a completer-finisher and rely on other people to make things happen. Huge thanks are due to all the professionals from Saddle Skedaddle and WJR who made the Berlin to London ride a reality, to everyone who supported us before, during and after the ride by social media and at Friedrichstrasse Station, Harwich and at Liverpool Street Station, to our generous sponsors, and especially to the cyclists with whom it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to ride.