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Martin Kapel

Born in Germany to Polish parents, Martin and his family were forcibly expelled from Germany by the Nazis. Martin came to the UK on a Kindertransport with his sister.

Martin was born in Leipzig, Germany in June 1930. As the son of Polish immigrants living in Germany, he was a Polish citizen by the nationality laws of both Germany and Poland. Martin and his elder sister, Elfriede, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and their grandparents were Hasidic Jews. The family lived in the working-class area of Leipzig and were not well off, particularly after Martin’s father died when he was five years old.

In 1938, Nazi laws prohibited Jewish children from attending German schools, which meant that Martin had to attend a Jewish school. It was very overcrowded and he recalled a sense of fear and nervousness amongst the staff and pupils. Martin also remembered seeing and hearing a lot of Nazi propaganda:

“And the headmaster stood there with the big swastika flag behind him and he made a speech, which was full of Nazi propaganda, and then the children were expected to raise their arms in the Nazi salute and sing… the German national anthem.”

In October 1938, the Polenaktion began. Over the course of 28 and 29 October, approximately 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship living in Germany were deported to Poland in relative secret, meaning that Polish authorities were largely unaware. Martin, his mother and sister were awoken early one morning to Nazis knocking at their door, ordering them to dress quickly. They were taken to a train station and, along with many other local Jewish people, were put onto a locked train; the SS threatened to shoot anyone who tried to leave.

“Immediately a policeman came on board and he said, I can remember his form of words, ‘If anyone tries to escape’, as he put it, ‘use will be made of the firearms.’”

Eventually the train stopped at a small railway station and everyone was ordered off. They were marched in rows past a small town and into the forest towards a railway line. There, the SS announced they would accompany them no further, but that they were to follow the railway in between the tracks.

Martin and the rest of the prisoners walked for hours in the dark. Martin remembered people struggling to walk through the forest at night, as there were many small children, elderly and sick people. Many fell over and some were trampled by others. Eventually they came to a small Polish hamlet, and after a few hours, the Polish police arrived. Martin’s family realised they were now in Poland.

“Polish soldiers…had known nothing of our coming, it was all done secretly so far as they were concerned. They did try to force some people back into Germany but not us.”

Initially, Martin and his family were held in Zbąszyń transit camp, but soon relocated to stay with relatives in Krakow. Although they had been forcibly expelled from Germany, the Polish government considered them illegal immigrants. They were also told to remain in the Jewish quarter of the city due to high levels of antisemitism in Poland.

The family spent eight months in Krakow before moving to stay with family in a small shtetl (village) called Brzesko in June 1939. His relatives lived a completely Hasidic way of life where they focused on religious observance and study. Martin remembered that they all lived in one large, primitive wooden cottage, with no gas, running water, or flushing toilet. Nevertheless, he felt extremely privileged to have been able to experience this way of life, as it was completely eradicated by the Holocaust.

Given that Martin and his sister were victims of the Polenaktion, this allowed Martin’s mother to obtain places for Martin and his sister on a Kindertransport to Britain. From Krakow, Martin and Elfriede travelled by train to Warsaw to the port of Gdynia on 25 August 1939. They boarded a ship to England and were met in London by their new foster-mother. They all travelled to Coventry by train.

Martin was very anxious and scared about leaving his mother at just eight years old to travel to a new country. He was unable to speak English and had to contend with the cultural differences of being from an Orthodox Jewish household and joining a nominally Christian English working-class family. Martin struggled with these changes, which caused a division between him and his sister.

Coventry, which was an important industrial hub for the war effort, was a strategic target for the German Luftwaffe. On 14 November 1940, Coventry experienced its most severe air raid of the war. Martin and his foster family had to hide in a small cupboard under the stairs where he remembers being frightened of the vicious family dog. The house lost its doors and windows during the raid, as well as suffering structural damage.

“For a child it was very frightening especially since I couldn’t speak English and the people around me couldn’t speak either German or Yiddish and so I found myself repeatedly in situations which were puzzling and which I couldn’t handle in any way because I couldn’t talk to anybody.”

With the help of very supportive teachers, Martin was able to learn English at the local school. He eventually attended grammar school, where he won a council scholarship to university to study chemistry. He gained a PhD in chemistry and became a lecturer at the University of Leeds for thirty-five years. He retired and wrote two books about mathematics and thermodynamics.

Martin’s mother was able to escape from Poland to France and survived the war. Although they reunited after the war, they were unable to rebuild their relationship. None of his relatives from Poland survived the Holocaust. Martin’s sister, Elfriede, married and had children, grandchildren and a great grandchild.

After Martin’s retirement, he rediscovered Judaism and became a member of the Leeds Masorti Jewish community. He helped to lead services until his health declined. Martin joined the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, becoming a trustee and an active speaker on its behalf. Martin supports the education of young people to ensure that genocide is prevented from happening again:

“I think what they have to learn is not to take at face value things that are said loudly and repeatedly but ask oneself whether these things are true or not.”

Martin was awarded a BEM in 2023 for his services for Holocaust education.

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