On a bike, ex-child refugee retraces escape from Nazi Germany

Hui Min NEO
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Israeli Paul Alexander is doing the 600-mile (1,000-kilometre) bike journey from Berlin to London

Paul Alexander was just a toddler when his mother handed him to a volunteer nurse on a train leaving Nazi Germany in 1939.

Now 81, the former refugee child on Sunday began retracing that journey to freedom -- but this time by bicycle as part of a commemorative ride to pay tribute to the Kindertransport scheme that saved him and thousands of Jewish children eight decades ago.

"I did this journey 79 years ago when I came out from the hatred of Nazi Germany to the safety in England," he told AFP, adding that "it’s extremely exciting and emotional to do this journey again after such a long time."

"The thought that came to my head is that this is my answer to Hitler, to sort of prove to myself, to show the world and to express my thanks for succeeding in life and being a happy married man with a family."

Alexander is doing the 600-mile (1,000-kilometre) bike journey with his 34-year-old son and 15-year-old grandson.

Besides the trio, 39 other cyclists went on the six-day journey taking them from Friedrichstrasse in Berlin to Liverpool Street in London, via the Netherlands then aboard an overnight ferry to Harwich in England.

Some are descendants of children rescued 80 years ago, while others are cycling in memory of the escapees in the fund-raising ride initiated by the World Jewish Relief, an aid organisation that grew out of the agency that carried out the rescue effort.

"We have organised this ride as a tribute to the amazing life-saving work of our predecessors," said Rafi Cooper, director of communications for the charity, which maintains historical records from the period.

"Tens of thousands of people would not be alive today were it not for their heroism back then."

- A tough decision -

After the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) pogroms on November 9, 1938, a group of Protestant, Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed to then British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to allow in unaccompanied Jewish children.

A rescue effort mobilised swiftly, and the first Kindertransport arrived at Harwich on December 2, 1938, carrying 196 children from a Berlin Jewish orphanage which had been torched by the Nazis on Kristallnacht.

Over 18 months, 10,000 children fleeing persecution in Germany, Austria, Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia, were brought to safety in Britain.

Younger children were placed with families while those above 16 were given help to obtain training and employment.

The last transport left from the Dutch port of Ymuiden on May 14, 1940 -- a day before the Netherlands surrendered.

For many parents, leaving their children with strangers not knowing if they would see each other again was not an easy decision.

- 'Symbolic victory ride' -

Alexander's mother, who suffered two stillbirths previously, had agonised over what to do with her only child.

"Sending a child of one year and eight months away, you'll appreciate, is heartrending," said Alexander.

His son Nadav who himself has a toddler, said: "I can’t imagine myself, how can someone give his baby (away) without knowing if he will ever see him again. It’s incredible. So this is an amazing journey for the three of us."

What they did not know is that both Alexander's parents would soon join him in safety.

His father arrived in England 13 days after him and his mother on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland and launched World War II.

The family was finally reunited for good three years later, having all escaped the Holocaust in which six million Jews were exterminated.

Alexander himself later trained as a lawyer and married an Israeli living in London. They have three children and nine grandchildren and now live in Israel.

The sprightly 81-year-old retired from the bank where he worked as its legal counsel in 2002, but still works today as a notary.

For him, Sunday's journey is "a symbolic victory ride".

"It is a very meaningful and poignant way of celebrating my life. I thought it was poignant to do it with my child and grandson."