My sister and I fled the Nazis as children – 22 of my relatives were killed

Even though I was only eight years old, I was painfully aware that I was different from others.

It started on the playground in Leipzig when I was mocked as a Jew. Then, on the way home from school, I saw copies of the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer with gruesome caricatures depicting people like me as an evil that needed to be eradicated.

My mother, my sister and I – unfortunately my father died when I was younger – heard reports of concentration camps and there was a real atmosphere of fear among the Jews in Germany. Everyone could sense that something bad was about to happen to us.

So when I was awakened in the early hours of October 28, 1938 by Nazi officials banging on the door of our family home, it probably shouldn’t have come as a great shock.

Still, it was terrifying.

Headshot by Martin Kapel

It saddens me to see so much conflict in the world today (Image: Dr. Martin Kapel by Paul Banks, courtesy Holocaust Center North)

As my mother shook me, I rubbed my eyes wondering what had happened and she told me to get dressed quickly. Behind her stood three armed officers in Nazi uniforms barking orders.

Me and my 11 year old sister grabbed some possessions when they made it clear we weren’t coming back. We were then marched to a local police station where we were put on a bus with other Polish Jewish families.

I looked around as we drove and could see everyone fearing the worst as we were hauled off the bus and pushed onto a packed train. There were people of all ages and I remember some carrying babies. As I looked at the fellow passengers, I suddenly realized that among us were sick people and some had been taken from hospital beds.

The sun was up now, and as we passed other stations, my mother realized we were going east. It was already dark when we arrived in a small town on the border between Germany and Poland.

We were ordered off the train and organized into fours by SS officers before they began marching us towards a forest.

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The SS men had torches but we had to walk down an uneven forest path in the dark and some stumbled or fell from time to time. Some collapsed, but the SS men didn’t stop anyone and pushed us on with bayonets.

At that point I was sure I was going to die. I was sure that they took us into the forest to shoot us all.

But they didn’t, and we were to learn later that they carried out orders from the head of the Gestapo to expel some 17,000 Polish Jews who were living in Germany at the time.

When we got to a railway line – which I now know was the border – the SS officers stopped and said they were going no further. They ordered us to keep walking between the rails in the dark and we stumbled on, startled, before crossing plowed fields as we headed towards some lights in the distance.

Eventually we reached a hamlet where someone must have alerted the Polish police because it wasn’t long before they came and took us away. Now we were completely in limbo and rejected by the Polish government.

Martin Kapel holds a book in front of memorabilia from his life

I remember reading history as a kid, and much of it felt abstract and distant (Image: Dr. Martin Kapel by John Steel, courtesy Holocaust Center North)

Thousands spent many months in refugee camps on the border, but I was lucky enough to escape before the Germans invaded Poland and got to Britain on the Kindertransport program.

My sister and I were among about 10,000 rescued children and arrived in Britain in July 1939, just before the start of the war. My mother had managed to get to France, where she survived the war in the Vichy Zone.

I was staying with my sister in Coventry with a foster family where we witnessed the bombing that became known as the Blitz.

Once I can remember two bombs falling less than 50 meters from our house. They blew out all of our windows, along with the front and back doors. Part of the roof was also blown off. I was frozen in fear.

It was a difficult time and I was still a young child, separated from my mother, in a country where initially I couldn’t speak English and no one seemed to speak German. The feeling of isolation was overwhelming and for a while I felt really lost.

Martin Kapel stands in front of memorabilia from the Second World War

Holocaust Remembrance Day should be the wake-up call (Image: Dr. Martin Kapel by John Steel, courtesy Holocaust Center North)

But in my heart I knew I was lucky. I knew that many people didn’t stand a chance and none of my 22 relatives in Poland survived. They were all murdered by the Nazis.

Unfortunately, I was never really reunited with my mother because her wartime experiences affected her and we were never able to live as a family again.

But even though the Nazis tore our family apart, I felt lucky because of the opportunities Britain offered me. After learning English, I thrived in school and got a scholarship to go to high school.

I then studied chemistry at the University of Birmingham and later worked in this industry and then taught at the University of Leeds. My sister got married and started a family and she is still alive today.

When I retired at 65, I was fortunate to learn about the Holocaust Center North—an exhibition and learning center that helps schools and communities learn about the experiences of survivors—and I made many friends with other survivors, who fled Nazi Germany.

Martin Kapel holds a book in front of memorabilia from his life

Keeping history alive is so important (Image: Dr. Martin Kapel by John Steel, courtesy Holocaust Center North)

I’ve also had many discussions with schools and am always encouraged by the young people I meet who ask lots of intelligent questions and have a real hunger to learn.

It saddens me to see so many conflicts in the world today, and the war in Ukraine is another senseless tragedy. Watching the news or reading about war always touches me.

For me, these are not just statistics or a distant story. They are human just like me and you.

And while that’s always annoying, I want others to really think about it, rather than change channels and forget about it. That’s why it’s so important to keep the story alive and to make sure people feel our stories instead of just hearing them.

Holocaust Remembrance Day should be the wake-up call that reminds us what discrimination, racism and hatred can lead to – and that is why history always resonates with the present.

I remember reading history as a kid and a lot of it felt abstract and distant. If young people today see the Holocaust in these terms, it will fade from memory, and that is what I fear most.

Because if that happens, we’ll never learn and keep making the same horrible mistakes.

You can discover more stories like that of Martin Kapel at Holocaust Center North in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

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Justin Scaccy

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