Oral History Interview - Mrs Blanca Stern

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Video File


Oral History Interview - Mrs Blanca Stern

Production date

June 2016


Digital file (.mp3)


Filmed oral history interview with Mrs Blanca Stern, born 1930 in Vienna, Austria. In this interview she discusses how she escaped Nazi occupied Austria through the Kindertransport.

This interview was recorded as part of a project exploring the Jewish History of Stamford Hill, 1930s-1950s.


00:00:16 Hello, my name is Blanca Stern, I was born Schreiber and I was born in Vienna in 1930

00:06:55 Why did you come to London?

I was born in Vienna Austria and we lived a very nice peaceful community life there. In 1938 Hitler took over Austria and things were not so good for us Yidden (Jews), so lots of people lost their livelihood and some were eventually taken to concentration camps and there were some trying to get out, so Dr Schonfeld from London organised a Kindertransport, that he is now famous for, and he managed to get 250 children whose parents were eager to send them away to London and then the immigration of the parents would fall that much easier. So my siblings and myself joined this transport… They arrived in December when it was Chanuka (The Festival of Lights), it was actually the fifth night of Chanuka when we met them at the railway station. My father took us there and my father bentched (Blessed) us and we got off the train. It was a very long and bitter cold journey. It was snowing a lot of the way and in middle of nowhere we got stuck in the snow, the train got stuck in the snow, and our whole journey took very much longer than it should have. So the next night of Chanuka we were still on the train unfortunately. There was one of the big boys, they called them the big boys, who had a Menorah (a sacred, 7 branch Candelabra) with him and he lit it and we all stood in the corridor and heard him light the sixth night of Chanuka… and the train went on and on and on right through Germany and when we came to the border we were all very frightened, what are the German officials going to say? What are they going to do? Because they were quite unpredictable, but they were quite nice and passed us on. They just asked whether we had any money and I had with me my little handbag, which I’ve still kept, and a one Deutsch Mark coin in it and I was very frightened to say that I have but I was afterwards very frightened what I would do. What if they are going to ask and what if they are going to search and then find it and this was a terrifying thing, but they just passed on and only now am I able to… with it as nobody would have cared about one single Deutsch Mark. We arrived in Holland and were received by a little reception with people who were prepared to take us, and at that time it was Friday and we were preparing to settle down for Shabbos and suddenly we were told we have to go. We have to pack our things together, take our suitcases and board the boat to England because the next lot of refugees were coming and there was no room and we were told to catch this boat. We were told… The Rabonim Paskened (The Rabbis Ruled) that we were allowed to go on Shabbos. There was crying going on and everybody cried, we didn’t want to go on Shabbos but we had no choice, we were just herded along and we got on to the boats and it was very stormy weather and the boat tossed and turned and jumped and we thought this is it and this our punishment for travelling on Shabbos. Nearly everybody was seasick and the journey from the port of Holland across the Channel should have taken six hours in those days and it took ten hours because of the stormy weather. Eventually we arrived and it was in middle of Shabbos and again we had no choice but to disembark and from there we were put onto a train to London, to Liverpool Street station. Actually in Liverpool station there is a...

00:10:32 By the time we arrived in Liverpool Street Station Shabbos was nearly over and then we did wait to get to our destination. As soon as Shabbos was out Rav Schonfeld organised taxis to bring us into town and he divided up the children among places that were available to him. One was his school, the building of the Secondary school, 109 Stamford Hill, now Lubavitch school is there and 86 Amhurst Park, which is now Belz Cheder, not Belz Cheder sorry, Getters Cheder and us; more or less the youngest bunch, about 40 of us, he took to his house which means his mother’s house – he was still living at home with his mother and younger brother, his brother wasn’t there at the time. We arrived at Rabbi Schonfeld’s House, 35 Lordship Park, which is actually the house I am still living in now. He put couple of beds in every single room, it was a large double fronted house, he put a couple of beds in every room – downstairs, upstairs, in the dining room, the lounge, the library, every room upstairs. Even the rooms that were occupied by the domestic staff beforehand, when they were children, when Rav Schonfeld was a child. We were very afraid of the open fires, in those days nobody had, well most people didn’t have central heating, though public buildings did have though most private houses didn’t have central heating, in fact they were open fireplaces. Nowadays people still have these decorative fireplaces if they want to look very posh… but in those days there were open coal fires and we were very scared because at home we used to heat with enclosed stoves, also with coal, but it was enclosed. But we got used to all these things and settled down as well as best we could in Rav Schonfeld’s house.

00:19:04 This house, 35 Lordship Park, where I first arrived in this country has very rich history. At the time, actually the owners before Rabbi Shlomo Schonfeld’s father, Rav Avigdor Schonfeld founder of the Adass Yisrael Shul (synagogue) here in Stamford Hill, actually the only Adass Yisrael in London. Before them the owner was a relative of mine, that’s what I discovered later – family Lutsa. But later when war broke out family Schonfeld moved away from here, they were in the country for some of the time at least and they never came back here to live. The house was left empty during the war but it was still owned by the Schonfeld family and many communal things would go on here. For example if anyone from the community was bombed out, that means they had nowhere to be temporarily, so they could come into 35 Lordship Park temporarily until their house was put right again. Or, there were many weddings in this house, there were many chasunahs (weddings) in this house. They were very small, just with the close community, the friends and family did the cooking, the catering and everybody took part, we lived in a very small community and everybody was happy with the chosson and kallah (bride and groom) and they were also happy with whatever they had. There were many couples who got married here who had no parents and they set up house together and carried on life as it should be. There were eventually… Oh there were other… Besides the Adass Shul which was situated on Green Lanes there were also several smaller Batei Midrashim (synagogues). One of the Shotzer Rebbe, the Shotzer Rebbe’s son-in-law had another one. There was the Triske Rebbe in Dunsmure Road. There was of our kind of Adass based community… oh yeah there were, there were… Rabbi Pinter had a little Shtiebel (synagogue) then and a few others… I don’t remember the names of them. There was kosher shops in… Grodzinski was already open then, they proudly displayed how long they’ve existed. So they were already in Dunsmure Road. Otherwise Dunsmure Road was devoid of any Yiddishe (Jewish) shops. The main shopping of the area was along Stamford Hill , oh yes, there was Breuer and Spitzer – The grocery in Manor Road at the time…

What do you have to say about Breuer and Spitzer?

Actually it was first Mr Breuer on Manor Road and his cousin, two brothers Spitzer on green Lanes. Later on they merged and the shop became Breuer and Spitzer. Later, much later, they opened another branch in Dunsmure Road and closed the one in Manor but they still have their stock there, their stores there. They actually, in Manor Road they used to have two shops next to each other. One used to be regular shop and the other one was only used for Pesach (Passover). One was the Pesach shop and this is what… their family had this tradition and I remember a relation of mine who had a grocery shop in Vienna, he also had an extra shop for Pesach. Then there was no Kosher fish shop, there was no Kosher greengrocer, so we were able to buy our things wherever we wanted and just had to be careful with whatever we got. There was no butcher which we could use, which we would use in London so they… Kedassia Shechita (Jewish Slaughter) was started in…Hertfordshire, but that’s going off the point…

Here in 35 Lordship Park there was also our Shul, which is now at 69 Lordship Road, it started off at 35 Lordship Park. It actually started at 65 Lordship Road and then at 35 Lordship Park. So there was on edouble room, was the main Shul and the conservatory/Succah was the ladies’ shul. We also had Beis Yaakov classes here because whoever was here went to non-Jewish schools and so we had Hebrew studies, we had, 2 or 3 times a week after school and the whole of Sunday morning. We had extra classes in Torah, Dinim, Sedrah, Dik Duk, whatever… I think in those classes we learnt as much as nowadays in a full day school, in like academically speaking… We were just very small groups, very mixed age groups because there was not much staff and there was not much room.

00:20:45 Eventually, after the war, this house had got some bomb damage, as there had been a bomb two doors away, that house was rebuilt, but this house the damage was repaired and Rebbetzin Schonfeld put it up for sale. In 1952, I was just married, I got married in summer 1951, and we were looking for a house. A suitable house, in a suitable position. We heard this was up for sale and my husband bought this house, to everybody’s satisfaction, because we were happy to be here and I was especially happy to be back in my very first home here and also because the structure of the house is very similar to where I got married in Heathland Road. So we bought it at that time in 1952 and been living here ever since.

00:33:15 Can you please tell us what your education was like?

When I first came I was in a hostel that sent us to the nearest local school, not to the Jewish school, although it was a Frum (Orthodox) hostel but they were somehow in disagreement with Rabbi Schonfeld. So I went to Northwold school, which is an ordinary state school, elementary school. Compulsory education at that time was from the age of 5 to 14 and it was quite usual for young people of 14 to leave school and go to work. Or they went through other courses to fit them for work. So my first school was in Northwold Road and this was until the outbreak of war on September 1939. When war was imminent all the schools had to be evacuated, that means out of London, into the country – all schools. And so it would mean me also being... out of our community, out of the country with a totally strange culture and so Boruch Hashem (thank G-d) I got permission to join the Jewish school, JSS – the Jewish secondary school, Rabbi Schonfeld’s school with Dr. Judith Grunfeld as the headmistress and Dr. grunfeld gave me permission to join and reluctantly the matron of my hostel let me go. Just two days before… a few days before when war looked imminent we had to… we were given gas masks, all of us, every person, and our school – now my school was the Jewish secondary school, we had to go to school although it was in the summer holidays, we had to go to school every day and wait for orders to evacuate. On one of these days, on a Wednesday, Boruch Hashem my parents arrived, and we got the message my parents arrived from Vienna, but we weren’t allowed to leave school until after everybody was dismissed. Then on Friday the order came to evacuate and we, the bulk of the school went to Shefford in Bedfordshire and a lot of us in the surrounding villages. I got to Stockfold, five miles from Shefford. Total strangers, it was quite miserable there but at least school was organised, it occupied the local conservative hall and liberal hall that was kindly lent to our school and we had lessons there and we had our dinners there. And the people we stayed with, we were billeted with, that’s how it was called, were given to understand that we eat Kosher and we are not allowed to eat meat – that was the main thing. Everything else was doubtful. The school remained there for the duration of the war but I eventually moved in closer to Shefford and I was more miserable than ever. One day I had to go into London for an eye test and I refused to go back. But now I was home with my parents and, not both my parents because my father was interned, all men who were German citizens were interned, that means they were in camps surrounded by barbed wire on the Isle of Man and they were quite comfortable, they were allowed to walk in the grounds and they set up a kosher kitchen and our Heimishe (Orthodox) men, what did they do? They sat and learnt. They were eventually allowed Seforim (Jewish study books) and they spent their days and some of their nights learning. This way many young men, or even older men, who hadn’t had much chance to do real learning Torah joined them and they remained Chavrusas (study partners) even when they were released, when they came home, for years and years they would learn together. In this way one of the Berochos (blessings) of this internment camp is that many young men who would never had had a chance to really sit and learn, started to do so. My father had 2 or 3 people for a few years, for the rest of his healthy life.
Eventually he was released for essential work, as it was called, and he would work at the time in a factory, he was actually a diamond socher, merchant, but for this time, for leaving the camp he had to do physical work.

The Jewish school was still away, so I went again to the nearest local school, a different one on Stoke Newington High Street and in the evening, as I said before, in the evening we learnt in Beis Yaakov.
When the bombing became quite bad our family moved away to Pletchley, Buckinghamshire and then I went to another school. It was actually not the local school, it was a school that was also evacuated from somewhere else in London. This went on for a while and then we came back when it was quieter and I went to yet another school on Stoke Newington Church Street. And from there many of us were moved to another, newly founded school which is now Montefiore Court, was called Montefiore House, and it was a small elementary school. But we didn’t learn very much there and had very few Heimishe company, I had my cousin there, but not very much more. So we had nothing socially to do in school. Eventually I manged to get a scholarship, instead of the usual age 11, nowadays there are also some major ones to get into a higher school/secondary school I think, but post war many children missed this test at age 11, so I was given another chance at age 13 and I was chosen to be able to go to a secondary school free. In those days you had to pay unless you had a scholarship, which meant you passed the test very well and you were able to go free. That was the best school I was in, we called it… Place, it was a Clapton Secondary school. I was there for the next 2 years, the next three years, with interruptions. I was able to, I was happily learning in an ordinary type of education again carrying on with Beis Yaakov classes in the evening.

At age 16 I left school, I had missed a whole year and had not gone in for the school certificate, it was called in those days but I was happy to leave because Rabbi Dunner started the Beis Yaakov Seminary. And I was one of the founder members of the Beis Yaakov seminary and at that time the Beis Yaakov house was in Manor Road and we had our classes there too. Then from… position in Leicester, they moved it to Allerton Road and we had classes there. Eventually the sem managed to get a house in Woodbery Down. So that’s my education for these years of sem.

00:37:45 So how was the rations during…?

Being that all borders were closed during the war, there was no import/export of food or anything else and also all industry had to be concentrated on the war effort. There wasn’t a shortage of food actually, but the government rationed the essential foods like butter, margarine, sugar, tea, eggs... eggs actually, everybody had a ration book and coupons were torn out of the ration book or marked in the ration book every week as there wasn’t so much of everything. There was plenty to keep everybody well-nourished without any excesses of course, so in those days there was no obesity problem and on the other hand there was no starvation either.
We were able to… The English being great tea drinkers, we were able to swap tea coupons for essentials that we needed more lets say eggs – it came to Shabbos, Yom Tov, baking, we needed more eggs than usual or we needed more sugar, more marge… And eggs were, because they are sometimes more plentiful than other times, it was a week by week. Sometimes we got one egg a person, sometimes two, sometimes four – it was quite irregular, but there was always something.
Whenever there was a shipment of oranges or bananas children would be priority, children or people who really needed it badly. But nobody complained because we were all in this together. And also nobody had any grudge against anyone else, there was very little anti-Semitism because, as I said, we were all in it together and everybody cared for everybody else as well as themselves.
Later on they rationed bread as well, but again it was enough to keep everybody happy.
Oh, I was talking about eggs… When there was a shortage of eggs there was a new product called egg powder and this came in powder form, a yellow powder in little boxes and that could be mixed with water and made into fried eggs or scrambled eggs rather or used for baking. So everybody was, we were quite happy to see that go afterwards when eggs were again plentiful.
Clothes were also rationed, there were coupons. You could buy clothes or buy material and sew them, all through these coupons. And everybody just did with what they had and every managed to dress decently and to feed themselves decently.

00:39:16 What do you say about the fashion of the clothing then?

Yes, the fashion was different – there weren’t any flared skirts, or very long clothing, coats and jackets and things. Everything was much more economical and also people could, as its called, make do and mend. You could take a material of two different things and patch them up together and that became a fashion.

Later on, when all this rations was finished after the war, there was a new look, it was called The New Look and it was very flarey and flouncy, just as a relief.
Also there was the slogan Dig for Victory, we would have gardens and everybody was encouraged, not forced, but encouraged, to grow vegetables and herbs so that they wouldn’t be dependent, could be dependent on anyone else.

00:40:45 So, how big was the Yiddishe community and where did you live?
I don’t remember the figures… No, about was it… Where did you live, like what area?

Uh, yes. Well this… What is now called broadly Stamford Hill, it was around the real Stamford Hill there were lots of Jewish people but the main concentration of religious Jewish people was around this area from lets say, from Bethune Road up to Green Lanes. No, further than Green lanes – right up to Highbury New Park. Because that was not so far from the Adas on the end of Clissold Park on Green Lanes. We lived very closely in the community although the Jewish population was quite large already. We had already moved a lot from the East End where there used to be the most, but there were many now in Stamford Hill, around Stamford Hill.

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