Escape from Nazi Germany
Heinz Skyte was born in Germany. His family fled the Nazis and came to Britain where they were interned as ‘enemy aliens’.
“The Nazis celebrated their coming to power by torchlight processions… I remember them coming past with their torches singing antisemitic songs.”
Heinz spent his early life in Fürth, a small town near Nuremberg. His family ran a textile business and Heinz attended a traditional German grammar school. Heinz remembers the Nazi rise to power, but recalls the general view being that it was a passing phase that wouldn’t last. By 1935 Heinz was one of only 3 Jewish boys left at his school. He remembers a Hitler Youth leader telling them, “We don’t want Jews here”, however they remained at the school with the support of non-Nazi school friends.
In 1935 his older brother Frank had to leave the country as his relationship with a non-Jewish girl was reported to the Gestapo. It was clear that Frank was in danger so the family arranged for him to ‘disappear’. He went first to Switzerland before receiving a permit to travel to England.
In 1938 Heinz was living in Hamburg studying, when on 9th November the pogrom known as Kristallnacht took place. The assassination of a German diplomat in Paris became the excuse for a night of violence against the Jewish population. Heinz was woken by a phone call from his mother at 4am telling him “Father’s gone away”, which was code for “he’s been arrested”, and told Heinz to go for a walk immediately.
Heinz spent the next 16 hours walking the streets, and saw synagogues burning and groups of Jews being rounded up and marched through the streets. His mother’s advice of going for a walk saved Heinz from being arrested. His father was sent to Dachau concentration camp for 6 weeks, an experience that changed him for life.
“And my father quite frankly was never the same person again that he had been before… He lived for another 20 years afterwards but he never spoke about it.”
After Kristallnacht it was clear that the family needed to leave. However, due to immigration laws there were few options available. Frank, now living in Leeds, secured Heinz a trainee post at a clothing factory and Heinz left for England in February 1939. The first thing Heinz did when he arrived in Leeds was to take a tram to Elland Road stadium to watch Leeds United draw 1-1 with Everton, prompting a lifelong passion for Leeds United.
Heinz settled into his new job and the brothers worked hard to secure their parents a way out of Germany. They finally secured them visas and they arrived in England on 27th August 1939, just 4 days before war broke out. The family was reunited in Leeds.
On the outbreak of war any Germans living in England immediately came under suspicion despite their circumstances. The British Government categorised them as either ‘Enemy Aliens’ or ‘Friendly Aliens’ according to the threat they were thought to pose. In Leeds all Germans, including Jewish refugees, were Category B Enemy Aliens.
In May 1940 Heinz and his family were arrested and interned. They were taken to an internment camp on the Isle of Man where Heinz was employed in the camp office due to his language skills. Heinz and Frank were later sent to a camp in Canada on a converted troop ship which had no beds and appalling conditions. When they arrived in Canada they discovered the guards had been told that they were German parachutists, so they were treated badly. Heinz and Frank remained in Canada until August 1942 when they were allowed to return to England. Heinz understood the reasoning behind his internment but remembered a sense of resentment.
“In Germany we were kicked out because we were Jews, here we were interned because we were Germans.”
Life in Britain
During the war Heinz worked in engineering, working towards the war effort. Heinz met Thea on his return to England and they later married. Thea was also a Jewish refugee, who had come to England with the Kindertransport. After the war they were naturalised as British citizens in 1947 – an important moment for them both. Heinz worked for the Jewish Welfare Board and in 1976 he was awarded an MBE in recognition of a lifetime of dedication to community work.
“Everybody thought the Holocaust was unique, which it was at the time, although it wasn’t the first, and everybody said “never again”, but it’s still happening.”
Sadly, Heinz passed away in 2019 and is very much missed by his family, friends and the Centre.
To learn more about Heinz’s story visit The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre. For more information click here