95-year-old Warren Kramer, pictured above in his youth with his parents and grandparents, spends the colder half of each year in Memphis with his daughter, Adina Samberg, and her family, living in New York City with his other daughter Evelyn Moskowitz for the spring and summer months.
Jewish Community Partners recently had the privilege to sit with Warren and his friends in the Senior Lunch Bunch, who gather on weekdays at the Memphis Jewish Community Center for the Memphis Jewish Federation-funded Scheidt-Hohenberg Hot Meal Program.
With Federation’s Yom HaShoah Commemoration coming up on May 2, we wanted to talk with Warren before he left Memphis for New York, to hear first-hand his story that begins with escaping the Holocaust by way of the Kindertransport. Here is his story in his words.
I was born in Nuremberg, Germany June 9, 1924. Luckily, I got out on the Kindertransport, to England five weeks before the war. When I got to England, I didn’t know where to go. I had two years of high school English and I had a pocket dictionary. Any word I didn’t know I would look up.
There was a refugee committee representative at the railroad station who called a cab from a cabstand, put a tag on me, and told the driver “take this boy to this address. The lady there will pay his fare.”
I didn’t know the people, a Jewish family. I was 15. This was five weeks before the war and two days before Germany invaded Poland. Soon, all the schools were evacuated from London. They expected bombing. So all the schools closed, and I was evacuated again.
It was English kids too, not just refugees. So, we went to the countryside, didn’t know where we were going, on a train. They took about a million and a half children that day. All the cities, big cities, a big operation. The train station was full of parents and kids, like summer camp.
We ended up in a place called Ealy, fifteen miles from Cambridge. They took us around the little town of 10,000. No Jews living there. When I got to the house, I remember it was a Friday, I said right away to the lady of the house: “I want you to know I’m Jewish.” I knew nobody was Jewish living there. She said: “As long as you believe in God, I have no problem.” Wonderful people.
They were very poor. They were very kind. So, they were my family. After the war we stayed in touch. My wife and I visited their children, because the parents passed away. But they took care of me. One of their daughters wrote my parents a letter. She said she considered me like their brother. I was accepted in the family. I stayed in England 8 years, without my parents.
I learned printing at the school there, and when I learned that I liked that, it became my occupation. I got a job in Cambridge, for two years I worked in the printing press. First I commuted by train, a twenty minute train ride. Then I wanted to take some night classes in Cambridge so I moved there, staying with a man and wife. That was okay, but my English family was still back in Ealy. So, sometimes weekends I would go and spend with them. That was my family.
Then after working two years I joined the British Army, in 1943. I was 19 years old. As I was still a German citizen, the British Army did not make us citizens. They did not send me out of England, because I was a danger, I was still a German citizen.
I was in the English Army four years. For two years, I worked in vehicle maintenance. When they came from the factory they were stored in a big park, 2,000 vehicles, all kinds of makes. They would requisition fifteen of these trucks, they needed this or that. Before they went out, my job was to change the oil, check the tires.
In October, we had to go around and drain the water from the radiators, so they wouldn’t freeze. Some of the taps had rusted and water wouldn’t come out, so we had to poke a wire. And then in the spring, we had to fill them up again. I did that for two years.
Then for two years I worked in the office and did the payroll. Three hundred men I had to pay every week in cash. It felt good to contribute to the war effort. That’s all I wanted to do.
The war ended in 1945 but we weren’t discharged at the same time. They went according to two criteria; age and service. The older ones got out first, and the ones who served the longest got out. I had to stay two more years. In the meantime the war ended, my parents were released and they wanted to come to America.
My parents had been sent to Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) which wasn’t an extermination camp. It was like a work camp. My grandmother went with them and she was too old to work and was sent to Auschwitz. My father worked in the office, my mother in the kitchen.
When they were released, there were 37 survivors from Nuremberg in that camp. A friend of mine that was there got himself to Nuremberg where we used to live and he arranged for a Jewish nursing home there to be made into apartments for those survivors. My parents lived there for about a year. They had their own apartment, their home. It was not bad, but it wasn’t great.
My father had an interesting job in the American Zone for an organization that was called Denazification. Any German that wanted to work for the Americans, they investigated their background to see how bad they were and if they were bad they were rejected because the Americans didn’t want them.
Meanwhile, somebody from headquarters came to inspect my books and said I was doing a good job and asked if I would consider staying in the army. I applied for British citizenship, but never heard anything and forgot about it. All of a sudden they said: “We want you in London about your citizenship.” I didn’t want it anymore.
I got there, and met five or six guys, all officers sitting and dressed properly, very official. And I wanted to tell them before they started that I don’t want it anymore, I want to go to America. So I said: “May I say something?”
“You speak when we tell you to speak!” That’s the army. Okay, whatever. So they went through the whole thing and they said: “Do you promise to stay in the country with all your possessions for at least six months” and I said no. “We worked so hard. We invested in your background for months,” and everything. They really got mad.
I was in touch with my parents who had come to America already, and when I was discharged from the army in 1947, I went to America. New York.
The British government had a policy. Any non-citizen who serves in the military, they arrange free transportation to any country they want to go to. Not only was it free, it was arranged. I got a letter I have to report to a boat near London in uniform. Upstairs was first class, downstairs we slept in hammocks. There were a lot of Canadians, going back home. This boat went to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It took five days. A British Army officer came on board and handed me a railroad ticket to New York. Arranged, paid for, and everything.
I reunited with my family in New York, and as my parents were talking to me they thought I was still 15, because of the years that had passed. As we’re talking, I say “I’m not 15 anymore.”
So, we live there for seven years and then at age 30 I get married and my wife and I live in New York. I got a job in printing in New York. Incidentally, because of working in Cambridge for two years, I get a pension from them. A government pension. I still get it, with a cost of living increase. Not that much.
I live in Memphis only six months out of the year. Eight or nine years ago I started coming to Memphis for six months. I like the JCC very much here. The lunches, the people. In New York, completely different. No JCC I go to. But, I like in New York getting around by public transportation. Visit my friends. I don’t have that in Memphis. Here, they don’t walk. They walk to the car here.