Escape through Norway
“Mine isn’t a horror story. Mine’s happy, mine’s a happy story.”
Leisel was born Leisel Meier in Hildesheim, Germany in 1935. She has few recollections of her early life there. Leisel left Germany at the age of 4 in 1939, before war broke out. She travelled through Norway to escape to safety in England, arriving in January 1940.
It was many years before Leisel was able to piece together the full story of her flight and make sense of her memories. Leisel’s mother had left Germany on her own. She had secured a job as a domestic servant in Hull, but under the terms imposed by the British government, she was unable to take Leisel with her. The young Leisel was left behind, either in a children’s home or with friends. Her mother’s employers in Hull tried desperately to find a way of getting Leisel out of Germany. An arrangement to travel through Holland fell through, but one of the Hull family’s contacts was married to a Norwegian and arranged for Leisel to come out on a Nansen passport. This was an internationally recognised travel document issued to stateless refugees, designed by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1922. The four-year-old Leisel travelled through Germany, Sweden and eventually Norway where she stayed with a Norwegian family, the Alfsens.
Leisel lost contact with the Alfsens until the 1980s when her Norwegian-speaking employer in Leeds found out about her story and traced the family for her. Leisel immediately wrote to them and soon received a reply, saying that she had been the topic of conversation for over 40 years and inviting her to visit. Leisel developed a warm friendship with Eileen and Finn Alfsen and visited them many times with her husband Terry.
The Alfsens helped Leisel piece together her story. They described watching her leave Norway, heading to Newcastle on a ship from Bergen harbour, and watching her walk up the gangplank on her own with her doll and pram.
Once Leisel arrived in England she was reunited with her mother. However, her mother worked as a domestic servant and was not allowed to have a child with her. Leisel was placed in Leeds with foster parents Jack and Mary Wynne. She was very happy with the Wynnes and lived with them until she married Terry. She did stay in touch with her mother and they often spent the school holidays together, though they never lived together again.
While Leisel’s story ultimately has a happy ending, she did lose most of her family to the Holocaust. She never knew her father: he was beaten up in the street when Leisel was just 18 months old and later died in a concentration camp. She knows very little about her grandparents and other family members. Parts of the story have been filled in by a cousin in America, who has told her that some of her cousins were killed in Auschwitz and another aunt and uncle committed suicide on the train that was transporting them from Riga.
Leisel believes strongly in the importance of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive in order to encourage young people to accept each other as equals. She still lives in Leeds and is an active member of the HSFA.