Only recently while looking through my mother’s archive I came across a batch of letters from Paisley, Renfrewshire, dated between 1939 and 1943 addressed variously to Ruth and Raimund.
They were written by two twins, Walter and Clarisse Nathan, living with the Bovey family at 26 Thornly Park, Paisley – not far from Glasgow. They were not names that meant anything to me.
One of the Bovey children was called Mary, who died in 2015 at the age of 94. I found her funeral address in a newsletter of St Cuthbert’s Church, Colinton (on the edge of Edinburgh), and contacted the editor who kindly sent me more information, including some autobiographical details written by Clarisse Nathan (Clarisse Delafield).
The Nathans and the Neumeyers
The parallels with my mother and uncle’s story are remarkable: the Nathans and Neumeyers were close family friends, and the Neumeyers may have lived with them for a period in Munich during 1938–39, although I have no details (Clarisse remembers the Nathan address as Ainmiller Strasse 19). And a detail of Clarisse’s description contains the revelation that the children of both families made the journey to England together.
Their story hints at much of what the Neumeyers would have gone through at the same time, in particular is the process of finding someone in Britain to take in the children, and the journey on the Kindertransport and the children’s life with their new adopted family.
The Boveys’ strong Christian principles are echoed in the letters between the Nathan and Neumeyer children.
Life in Munich under the Nazis
Before the Nazis’ rise to power, the Nathan parents were well off and lived in Munich where the father had his own art gallery, the Ludwigs-Galerie. Walter and Clarisse were born there in 1925; their father died during their childhood.
On 6 November 1938 the children were barred from entering the school after the law for elimination of Jewish children from German state schools was passed on the previous day. The family then realised they would have to emigrate so that the children could continue their education.
Clarisse wrote of the atmosphere in Munich prior to their departure in 1939:
“What was so frightening was the hysterical atmosphere of patriotism and the feeling of limitless success and glory just round the corner. Boys and girls had to belong to the Hitler Youth Movement, a well organised group indoctrinated with the Third Reich idealism. Church affiliation was not encouraged.
On 5 November 1938, the law for the elimination of Jewish children from German State Schools was passed. On that day we were sitting in our classroom but the following day we were not allowed to enter the school. Mother was extremely angry especially when she had to sign a false declaration that it was her wish that our education be terminated. If she had refused to sign this false document she would have been arrested. Mother was utterly convinced now that the only sensible action to take was to emigrate so that we could continue our education.
My brother and I never felt very Jewish, as we had associated with Aryan children at school and church, and yet we were now such outcasts. We were very fearful of visits by the SS. Certain shops allowed Jews restricted entry only to their premises or none at all. However there were brave people around who did not want to bar their Jewish customers and made secret arrangements with Mother.
As I cast my mind back to the New Year of 1939, our house in Munich was in a state of upheaval and the future uncertain as we sought to make arrangements to emigrate.We were among thousands of children in this predicament and were most thankful that Great Britain, as well as the USA, had opened its doors to receive Jewish children. The Inter-Church Committee came into being and compiled lists of willing host families and investigated their suitability to be foster parents.”
How Lily Nathan got her children out of Germany
Lily made huge efforts to find a home for her children, Clarisse and Walter. She gave a temporary home to a Mrs Abney, was also Jewish and living in Munich but on the verge of escaping to her husband in Glasgow. In gratitude Mrs Abney put her in touch with a Quaker woman, Mrs Richardson who knew of the Boveys’ wish to take in a Jewish refugee after an earlier attempt to do so had failed.
Clarisse described the moment when good news came at last:
“Not many more weeks elapsed during this waiting period, before a beautiful handwritten letter from Mr Philip Bovey dropped through our letter box! He wrote with great care to explain the family situation and their willingness to take both Walter and myself into their family.
Of course a lot of formalities had to be sorted out before our emigration could be finalised. Every letter with a Scottish post-mark brought much excitement into our lives and on one occasion a family photo was included with the letter.
We studied the atlas, looked up Glasgow and Paisley and tried hard to learn some more English. These letters had to be written in a ‘low key’, due to the Nazis censoring some of the letters. Daddy Bovey was emphatic about his Christian involvement within their local church and community and was pleased to know of our own Lutheran background. We were Jewish by descent but were being instructed in the Christian faith both at school and at Sunday school. Many formalities and obstacles had to be faced up to by our very brave mother.
Eventually all the official papers were duly completed and at last our names came up to be included in the next “Children’s Transport”, which was due to leave about the middle of May. We were told that there would only be four children leaving from Munich on that unforgettable date, 9 May 1939 at the unearthly hour of midnight.
I have a faint recollection of the actual departure and waving to mother, Alex and some friends. It was an emotional moment intermingled with adventure and a feeling of being very grown up. We were joined by more refugee children as the train travelled north.”
The Kindertransport journey
It was 9 May 1939. That date was the very date Ruth and Raimund Neumeyer, my mother and uncle, left. They were the only Kindertransportees on that train and made the whole journey together.
Clarisse describes that one-way trip to England:
“It was a very long journey. By the time we reached the ferry at the Hook of Holland there were about a hundred of us children, all with name tags around our necks. Daddy Bovey’s mother and his brother, Uncle Arthur, lived in London and were glad to be able to meet us. We were going to spend our first night in Mrs Bovey’s home in Chelsea. Uncle Arthur made a special detour pointing out to us some of the famous places in the capital.
Despite our weariness and minimal English we felt a sense of honour and excitement to be shown some of the famous London sights. The next day, Friday 12 May, we were taken by Uncle Arthur to Euston Railway Station where we boarded the train to Scotland.We were still wearing name tags, the guard on the train was instructed to keep an eye on us but we were quite proud to be travelling on our own.
Our arrival at the Central Station in Glasgow and our first meeting with Mr Bovey and his eldest daughter Mary is a moment that Walter and I will always treasure. It was evening now and we were taken in the Boveys’ car to our new home in Paisley.”
Into the arms of the Boveys
Philip and Phyllis Bovey lived in a semi-detached house in Paisley and had four children – Mary, Anthea, Keith and Denis – and were committed Christians.
In autumn 1938, Mary had learnt from a newspaper report about the persecution of the Jews in Germany and the need of homes for the children of Jewish parents. She pleaded with her parents to adopt a refugee. Philip reminisced in 1977 after being put in touch with Lily Nathan in Munich about taking in the twins:
“I got into correspondence with her. I went to see John Clarke, the Rector of the school, and he was most sympathetic. He was sure he could get the Education Committee to admit the children to school. Soon the reply came: not only did they agree that the children should have places in the school, but that they would be free places. That taught me something I had not realised before: that a Committee could have a heart!
Then we set to to get school clothing made for them, knitwear mostly. I think it was Mother Nathan’s suggestion because I had sent her samples of school colours. Boys’ socks and other garments were knitted to Paisley Grammar School colours in faraway Munich. I always remember this fact with considerable enjoyment, to think that this was going on under the noses of the Nazi authorities.”
Finally the many formalities were completed, including the deposit of a £50 bond for each of the children, which was a lot of money in those days, and Walter and Clarisse could leave for Scotland and their life with the Boveys.
Mary Bovey wrote of the acts of kindness they received from the people in Paisley.
“The doctor and dentist made not charge for visits and the cobbler mended their shoes for free. Later they learned that the dentist’s sister, an English teacher at Paisley Grammar, had paid their pocket money for years.”
Walter said the house was very noisy, with eight people there, but that their beloved adopted parents were very special to them: “Mr Bovey is a very rare person, and much more noble than we deserve”.
Their mother Lily and older brother Helmut came separately to Scotland. Walter wrote in November 1939 that Lily was living only five miles away but because of their status as ‘Enemy Aliens’ he could only visit her with special permission.
Lily, Clarisse, Walter and Alec naturalised as British citizens in 1947 and changed they name from Nathan to Norton.
“Mary certainly had some knowledge of German and Daddy Bovey had also been learning it. Walter and I struggled with our few English words. I have vivid memories of that first evening. We had never heard ‘broken’ German or anyone else from a foreign country trying to speak our native tongue and so found this very peculiar and difficult to understand. Daddy Bovey was certainly taken aback when Walter pronounced quietly in broken English, that it would be better for Daddy to speak English, as we could not understand his broken German. Thankfully no offence was taken and the Boveys chuckled over Walter’s pronouncement.
On the same evening Walter attended a United Nations meeting for young people, called the Nansen Pioneers, at Dr and Mrs Richardsons’ house. They were all keen to meet the newly arrived refugee, and Walter in return was pleased to meet the young Scottish people. He was also eager to meet Mrs Richardson, who was so instrumental in finding our new home in Paisley. I was far too weary to venture out and was excused!
In the next few months we struggled with our new language, asking everyone to speak very slowly.
The exceptional patience of the Bovey family, friends, school teachers and especially of Mr Clarke, the Headmaster of Paisley Grammar School, was instrumental in helping us to learn English and its correct pronunciation. We certainly benefited from this early training and, with the constant corrections of our mistakes, were soon able to converse a little and slowly began to master our new language. Mummy Bovey never tired in her efforts to help us speak correctly. She was very firm with all her children and some words were not allowed within earshot; she did not allow the words ‘kids’ or ‘thanks’, it had to be ‘children’ and always ‘thank you’.”
Breakfast every day began with Philip Bovey leading family prayers, at which all were expected to attend. He would be the first to leave the breakfast table for work as an accountant at the Fairfield shipbuilding yard in Govan. The Nathan children settled into life very well, and were relieved when the plans for removal of all refugee children to North America were abandoned in 1940. The reason for this was ironically tragic: the children’s transport ship, City of Benares, was torpedoed in September of that year.
Walter expressed amazement at Raimund’s descriptions in winter 1941 of air raids in Birmingham as there wasn’t much sign of any war raging in Scotland “Raimund’s dark humour gives a hint of how scary war can be.” Indeed according to Walter their duties in ‘fire watching’ from the church tower were renamed ‘fire sleeping’ as there simply no fires to watch. But Clarisse recalled later “we were all stunned in Paisley when a bomb directly hit a first aid post killing the doctors and nursing staff in attendance.”
After the twins reached Paisley, their mother and older brother Helmut (who renamed himself Alec later) joined them. But other relatives were trapped in Germany and died in Theresienstadt, suffering the same fate as Hans Neumeyer, his sister Irma and Vera’s father Martin, who also perished there.
Walter wrote in December 1941:
“Since ever we came here we have been glad to learn from our guardians in many ways. But why we are so happy and all feel as if we were part of this family is because our parents fear and love God. This holds us all together.”
In December 1939 Walter wrote that his and Clarisse’s love for Ruth and Raimund stemmed from the support the Nathan children had from Vera Neumeyer in Munich.
And on 10 October 1942, he continues in a similar vein in broken English:
“May we keep together in this unity of spirit which was and is, I feel, and perceive as yet more clearly, the real bond between us that being rescued from Germany (that which probably would have proved fatal to us).”
My thanks to Clarisse and her husband Howard and their extended family for allowing me to reproduce these extracts from Clarisse’s account of her story.