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Portrait of Martin Kapel (c) Paul Banks

Martin Kapel

Expelled from Germany

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Martin was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1930.  As the son of Polish parents, Martin was legally classed as a Polish citizen by the nationality laws of both Poland and Germany.

Martin was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household. His grandparents on both sides were Hasidic Jews. The family did not live in the Jewish area of Leipzig; instead, they lived in a working-class area of the city. They were not well off, particularly after Martin’s father died when he was five years old.

Martin remembers the impact of anti-Jewish legislation during the 1930s and particularly recalls seeing and hearing Nazi propaganda. The main change for him came in 1938 when Jewish children were no longer allowed to go to non-Jewish schools. Martin had to leave his primary school and instead go to a Jewish school, which was a long way from his home and very overcrowded as it had had to take children from all over the city. He recalls the atmosphere of fear and nervousness among both staff and pupils and the difficulty of the long journey to school.

One morning in 1938 Martin, his mother and sister were asleep in their beds when there was a knock at the door. When his mother answered it, Nazis walked in and told the family to dress quickly and get ready to leave. They were only allowed to take what they could grab on the spur of the moment. They were taken to a railway station to join a large crowd of people. Everyone was put on board a train, with no idea where they were going. A short distance into the journey some of the passengers realised they were locked in and could not open the train door from the inside. SS men and German police on the platform threatened to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

Eventually, after dark, the train arrived at a small railway station and everyone was ordered to get off. The prisoners were formed into rows, with an SS man at the end of each row, and marched off past a small town and into a forest. Martin describes the wide range of people – young children, elderly people, those carrying babies and those who had been taken from hospital beds – and the difficulty of marching through the forest at night.

The column of people was stopped beside a railway line. They were told that the SS men would go no further but that they should continue and walk along the railway line between the rails. They walked for hours in the dark along the railway line, with a number of people tripping and being trampled by those behind who couldn’t see where they were going. Eventually, they saw some lights to their left and walked across a ploughed field to a small hamlet. After a few hours, some Polish police and soldiers arrived and they realised that they were in Poland.  The expulsion had been carried out in secret by the Germans so the Polish authorities had no idea that it was happening. The incident became known as the ‘Polenaktion’.

Martin and his mother and sister managed to get away and eventually made their way to some relations in Krakow. The Polish authorities considered them to be illegal immigrants even though they had been expelled from Germany by force. Martin also recalls the high level of resentment and anti-Semitism in Poland that meant they had to stay within the Jewish area of Krakow.

After eight months in Krakow Martin and his family went to stay with other relatives in a small village (shtetl) called Brzesko. His relatives there lived a completely Hasidic way of life. The village was extremely poor with no gas or water supply. Martin feels privileged to have experienced this way of life in Poland, as it was completely extinguished by the Holocaust.

Martin’s mother managed to get Martin and his sister a place on the Kindertransport that was arranged for those children who had been involved in the forced expulsion from Germany. They travelled to England and went to live with foster parents in Coventry.

Martin describes being anxious and very much afraid of making a journey into the unknown without his mother at the age of eight. He was unable to speak English and the people around him did not speak either German or Yiddish so he was unable to talk to people. He also had to contend with the cultural differences between a boy from an Orthodox Jewish household and English working class people who had a completely different set of values. Martin stayed with his sister but they both reacted differently to the extent that they could hardly communicate with each other which added to the difficulty of settling into an unfamiliar environment.

On 14 November 1940 Coventry experienced its biggest air raid of the war. Martin and his foster family hid in a small pantry under the stairs, where he and his sister were very frightened by his foster-parents’ aggressive and dangerous dog. The house lost its doors and windows during the raid and suffered structural damage. Following each air raid, there was no gas, electricity or water for several weeks and a danger of typhoid fever due to leaking water and sewage pipes.

Martin’s mother escaped Poland on a temporary visa to France. She was able to survive, but after the trauma that Martin had experienced, he was not subsequently able to rebuild his relationship with her. Of his relatives in Poland, none survived. Martin’s family page in the Leeds Book of Remembrance lists 22 people.

Videos (12)

Martin's story: Leipzig (05:40)

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Martin's story: school days (05:13)

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Martin's story: persecution (03:11)

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Martin's story: Polenaktion (06:57)

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Martin's story: Zbaszyn (03:35)

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Martin's story: shtetl life (03:33)

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Martin's story: a vanished way of life (05:37)

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Martin's story: Kindertransport (05:46)

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Martin's story: arriving in England (09:08)

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Martin's story: bombing of Coventry (07:59)

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Martin's story: legacy (03:08)

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Martin's story: impact (04:33)

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