A Christmas Chat with Martin Kapel
University of Huddersfield History student Beth Purslow writes about Martin’s childhood experiences at Christmas, and what they can show us about our own difficult year.
The past year has been difficult and challenging for a lot of people, and many are looking forward to escaping from reality slightly with the holidays. Just like all of you, Martin has had a very different year, having been shielding in his home for most of the year, unable to go to his regular café at lunchtime which he would do every week, and he celebrated his 90th Birthday with a socially distanced afternoon tea. People are certainly looking forward to the end of the year in hopes that next year will be better. I spoke to Martin about another time in his life where he had to deal with a different and unfamiliar way of life.
Kindertransport: An Unfamiliar Country
Even though this has been a hard year for many around the world, we must remember that this is not the only year where life has been tough for people around the festive period. Within Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1940, many Jewish children left their families on the Kindertransport in hopes for a safer life in Great Britain. Martin was in Poland at the time and Polish children were not included in the Kindertransport as it was aimed at the countries under German control. However, due to Martin and his family being expelled from Germany in the Polenaktion he, at the age of 9, and his sister were allowed to begin their journey to the United Kingdom, alone and without their mother.
The government had made it compulsory that any child coming to Great Britain had to be housed with foster parents, many of whom were not Jewish themselves. Martin Kapel arrived in England on the 18th July 1939, one of thousands of children who arrived in England on the Kindertransport, and was housed with foster parents in Coventry who were hard of hearing. Martin could only speak German and Yiddish and was unable to communicate with other children or adults, there was also a cultural difference and the English culture seemed very alien to him. Imagine being alone in a completely new environment far from your home and being unable to understand anything that was being said around you at such a very young age.
Coventry: Terror in the Blitz
Martin talks about how the bombing of Coventry on the evening of the 14th November 1940 was the biggest air raid they have experienced as it lasted 11 hours. The electricity was blown out and therefore no one knew when the German bombers were gone. This experience for 10-year-old Martin was made worse due to his foster parents’ dog, who Martin remembers as having a vicious temper. Every time a bomb dropped near the house he would growl causing Martin to be terrified that the dog would attack them. It was not very easy for Martin to get away from the dog either, as throughout the air raid everyone in the house sheltered in the pantry under the stairs. Imagine the fear of being blown up from the German bombs at the same time as being petrified of being attacked by a dog.
Martin’s foster house was damaged that night and the family had to move out in order to fix the damage. The gas, electricity and water lines were also damaged, meaning water had to come to Coventry in vans and everyone would collect the water in jugs. This affected the holidays of the 1940s as many families lost their homes completely and had to live in shelters. The Blitz also affected education, as Martin’s school holiday for Christmas was longer than it was supposed to be because of the war time activities. We can see parallels with this year, as Covid-19 interrupted the education system and children had about 6 months out of school compared to the normal Easter and 6 week summer holiday.
A Jewish Child Celebrating Christmas
During the wartime conditions, Christmas was very different as there was limited food due to rationing and everyone had to observe blackout rules where they had to make sure their lights were not on so as to not help to guide German bombers. This is similar to how this year has been, with supermarkets limiting certain items of shopping per customer and how we have all had work together to adhere to social distancing rules and wearing masks in order for us to keep not just ourselves but others safe. Martin recalls his years celebrating a holiday he would never have celebrated due to Christmas being a Christian holiday and not a Jewish one, by saying that there was a holiday atmosphere around Christmas time as they were on their school holidays and his foster dad had time off work. His sister and himself got presents from their foster family and Martin said: “I still felt that I was Jewish, I was on holiday from school, but my faith was still Jewish”. He celebrated the holiday due to his foster parents being Christian. His foster parents did not celebrate the Jewish festivities such as Hannukah because in his neighbourhood people were not as aware of how other religions celebrate their festivities.
What can this teach us?
Although there are similarities to be made between how Christmas was affected by the Blitz, rationing and of course family being away fighting for the country, and the effects Covid-19 has had on everyone within 2020, they happened in very different times to one another. We must all remember that there have been tough and difficult times that have occurred in the country in the past and we have always found a way to get through. Martin’s story is an example of living through some of the toughest times a child could live through, as he was torn from his family and placed in a new family in a new country that has a completely different language and culture to what he was used to. In addition to this, he had to go through frightening experiences like the Blitz, when he came to England in order to be safe. Martin celebrated Christmas even though it is not within his own faith but because it was his foster parents’ faith. He still retained his Jewish identity, and celebrating other religious festivals did not make him feel any less Jewish.
Beth Purslow – 21/12/20
To learn more about Martin’s story click here.