A train was about to depart the main railway station in Munich, Germany, at midnight in June 1939. The passengers were children, many of whom would never see their parents again. These children were Jews, part of a scheme called the Kindertransport that offered an escape route away from Hitler’s Germany and the coming Holocaust. One of the children on the train was 14-year-old Bea Green – and this is her story.
Bea Green was born Maria Beate Siegel in 1925 in the German city of Munich. Her early childhood alongside her older brother Hans Peter was unremarkable enough – and often happy. Her father Michael was a lawyer and her mother an artist, and the family owned a holiday home in the Bavarian countryside. But in 1933 something terrible happened to her father, and it was a harbinger of the horrors that were to come for Jews such as the Siegels in Hitler’s Germany.
In March 1933 – when Bea was just eight years old – her father happened to have a client who had been arrested without a warrant. This was a month after the Nazis had come to power in Germany and was an example of the thuggish lawlessness that was about to descend upon the nation.
The client was Max Uhlfelder, who ran a department store in Munich. Michael Siegel went to a police station hoping to help Uhlfelder in any way he could. But when he got there, he was sent to a room that turned out to be full of Nazis. In fact, they were members of the S.A., Hitler’s brutal paramilitaries.
And the Nazi thugs wasted no time in tearing into Siegel, giving him a brutal beating and bursting one of his eardrums in the process. But simply subjecting Siegel to this arbitrary onslaught of violence wasn’t enough to satisfy them.
Next the gloating thugs made a crude billboard that they hung around his neck. The sign read, “Ich bin Jude aber ich will mich nie mehr bei der Polizei Beschweren.” That translates as, “I am a Jew, and I will never complain to the police.”
And Siegel’s tormentors then paraded the man barefoot through the streets with this notice slung around his neck. By sheer chance, there was a freelance photographer among the crowd who took the photograph that you see here. It was widely published in the U.S. and elsewhere at the time, and it came to be an iconic representation of Nazi inhumanity.
Years later, Bea recalled the incident. She was at home in the family apartment, when she heard the door bang. Bea popped into the hallway only to see her father’s blood-stained coat hanging on a peg. Rushing to his bedroom, she saw him grabbing a sheet, trying to hide his wounds from her.
And things were only to get worse. Discriminatory laws against Jews were introduced time and again throughout the 1930s. For example, in 1935 Jews were stripped on their German citizenship – even people who had only one Jewish grandparent. The following year Jews were banned from working in a number of professions. That Germany was no place to be if you were Jewish was terrifyingly apparent.
One especially sinister turning point in the lives of German Jews was the event known as Kristallnacht or “the Night of Broken Glass.” This outbreak of violence occurred in November 1938 and resulted in the destruction of Jewish businesses and the burning of synagogues.
While the forces of law and order turned a blind eye – or in some cases even participated in the atrocities – at least 91 Jews were murdered and 30,000 others were sent to concentration camps. And all of this happened with the implicit approval of sinister Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Bea Siegel’s parents decided that something had to be done. So, they made plans to evacuate Bea and her brother Hans, who was four years older. Hans was first to leave Germany for London in March 1939, followed three months later by his 14-year-old sister. Bea is shown on the right of this photo, which was taken on the train that shuttled her away from Munich. She escaped under the Kindertransport scheme designed to rescue Jewish children from the clutches of the Nazis.
Years later, Bea recalled that at first this solo train journey across Europe, departing from Munich in the dead of night, filled her with excitement. But as the train was departing, Bea noticed that her mother was weeping. And it was then that the 14-year-old realized how alone she really was.
Bea’s journey finally ended at Liverpool Street Station in London, where she was met by the daughter of Mrs Williams, the woman who had agreed to take her in. She went on to attend a school in London and still recalls one particularly upsetting episode. Leafing through a copy of Picture Post magazine at the school one day, for the first time Bea saw the photo of her dad being paraded through the streets of Munich by the Nazis.
Unsurprisingly, Bea was reduced to tears by the image. Her teacher then took her to see the school’s principal, explaining the situation. But the principal said that the photograph could not be of her father, and that it was merely a piece of propaganda. Many people, even during the war, could not believe the depths of brutality that the Nazis were capable of.
Nonetheless, Bea’s early experiences in England were largely positive. Mrs Williams died, but her son and his wife took over as Bea’s guardians, and she went to live in a fine country house near the English city of Winchester. In an interview with The Richmond Magazine, Bea recalled, “I thought that all English people lived like that! How was I to judge? I learned all about fly fishing and shooting and training gundogs, none of which ever really came in handy!”
Fortunately, Bea’s parents also managed to escape Germany, but not until 1940 when they succeeded in emigrating to Peru. They managed to catch the Trans-Siberian Express train from Berlin, which took them across Russia to Japan. They were fortunate that Hitler and Stalin were still allies at this point, as their journey would have been impossible after the Nazis attacked the Soviets in 1941. From Japan they sailed to San Francisco and finally on to Peru.
In her interview with The Richmond Magazine, Bea remembered those terrible times in Germany. “It’s not for me to forgive,” she said. “I told a rabbi that once. You cannot forgive the unforgivable. People talk about bitterness, but actually I find it quite cheery to call them sh*tty b*stards. Yes!”
And remembering her father’s words after his ordeal at the hands of those Nazi brutes in 1933, she used the same phrase again. “Dad said, ‘From the moment they attacked me, I thought: I will outlast you all.’ He did, too. He was 96 when he died – but most of those sh*tty b*stards froze to death in the Russian snow.” And who could begrudge Bea, in her 90th year during this interview, an occasional profanity?
In January 2017 Bea, now 92, enjoyed a very special moment. She visited Hampton School on the edge of London, where her grandson Ben is a student, and gave a talk about her experiences in Nazi Germany. Ben was 14 then – the very age Bea was when she escaped from Germany. Bea told the BBC, “In spite of Hitler, we’re here – three generations. It’s a sort of miracle.”