Almost 80 years on, Montrealer recalls the Kindertransport and her escape from Nazi Germany

On its 79th anniversary, Montrealer Marianne Gehlsen remembers the Kindertransport and how it changed her life.

Marianne Gehlsen survived the Holocaust after her parents put her on a train to England at age 14

92-year-old Marianne Gehlsen reflects on the 79th anniversary of the Kindertransport, a rescue operation that took her out of Nazi Germany to England just before WW II. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Marianne Gehlsen doesn't like to think about her past, nor does she like to be called a Holocaust survivor.

For years, the 92-year-old Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue resident kept even her own children in the dark about her childhood in Germany.

When she finally decided to tell them about what happened to her and her family when she was 14 years old, she did it in a letter.

"I remember the piano my mother used to play, the wallpaper in my room," she wrote.

"So many wonderful memories for just so few years. It was 1935. But then the storm clouds came and the nightmare began," Gehlsen reads.

Boarding the train to England

That nightmare was Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.

Gehlsen recalls the soldiers marching in the streets and the worry that mounted in the Jewish community of Breslau, where she lived. Even girls she thought were friends turned against her.

"We trooped up the stairs and she turned around to me and she said to me, 'Not you, you Jew. You're a Jew.' I've never forgotten that," she said.

"From then on, it changed."
The Kindertransport memorial statue outside Liverpool Street Station in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Her parents decided to send her to England as part of the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort to get mostly Jewish children out of Nazi Germany and other Eastern European countries.

In 1938, she boarded a train.

"I never knew my parents had planned to put me on the Kindertransport. I'd never heard of it," Gehlsen said.

"My mother told me I was going to England to a nice family and they'd see me in September. That was in January. Of course, it never happened."

This month marks the 79th anniversary of the Kindertransport; it was in June 1938 that the British parliament debated on whether to welcome the children. In all, almost 10,000 people were saved by the rescue effort.

A new life, but trauma follows

Gehlsen says being young and excited by the "adventure" helped her get through her first few months in England.

But months turned into years.

You block it out, what you don't want to remember. You just try to get on.- Marianne Gehlsen

"I kept getting little notes through the Red Cross from [my parents] and then, it stopped," she said.

"And then I realized, I really was alone … It was hard."

Both her parents and older sister died in the Auschwitz concentration camp, along with many of her family members.

But Gehlsen had her own hardships in England. One night, while she was out with friends in Coventry, a bomb hit the pub they were in.

"We were lucky because we were in the shelter.… We were lucky, but it was traumatic," she said.

She also met and got engaged to a tank officer. They planned to marry in August 1944. But a month before the wedding, he was killed fighting in France.
Gehlsen points to a picture of her younger self, from before the Nazi regime came into power. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

'You just try to get on'

Gehlsen says for decades, she repressed thoughts of what she'd been through. She even changed her name from the German "Beate" to Marianne so she could blend in more.

"There were lots of ups and downs, but to try and remember everything; You block it out, what you don't want to remember. You just try to get on," she said.

She would eventually marry a Canadian, move to Montreal and have three children.

But it was only after that marriage ended and she met her current husband that Gehlsen thought of her past again. Her husband encouraged her to find out all she could about her family's history.

"It's such a very, very sad time in history. I think a lot of young people like myself did not, or were not able to, fight for themselves as much as I did," she said.

"I really had this determination."

About the Author

Sarah Leavitt

Journalist

Sarah Leavitt is a journalist with CBC Montreal.