Children spoke of being inspired after a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor came to tell the moving story of how she left her family behind and fled Nazi persecution.
Gabriele Keenaghan visited St Alphonsus Catholic Primary School in North Ormesby, Middlesbrough, where her granddaughter Emily Smith teaches, ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day (Monday January 27).
Born in Vienna in 1926, the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Gabriele was brought up by her grandmother after her mother died when she was young.
Labelled as a “mischling” by the Nazis after the Anschluss on March 1928, when Austria was annexed by Hitler’s Germany, she was sent to a Jewish school and forced to wear a yellow Star of David at all times.
The infamous Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) – on the eve of Gabriele’s 12th birthday – saw windows smashed in synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses.
Fearing for Gabriele’s life, her grandmother reluctantly made plans for her to join 150 other children on a Kindertransport train to England in April 1929.
“In my mind I can still see my grandmother on the platform and every time I talk about it I get emotional,” said Gabriele.
“There were 150 children on the train and the Nazis were there with lists of people and we all had labels around our necks.
“The Nazis told the adults there had to be no emotional scenes – even though people were putting their children and grandchildren on the trains to they didn’t know where, not knowing whether they’d ever see them again.”
At the end of a 1,000-mile journey she stood alone on another platform in London’s Liverpool Street Station, before being met by a female member of the Catholic Committee for Refugees.
Gabriele spoke no English but quickly learned the language at a school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame in Ashford, Kent. After the war she trained as a teacher at Wynyard Hall and met and married a young flight sergeant. She was also reunited with her grandmother, who died in 1974.
Teaching is in the family DNA. Gabriele became a headteacher in Wallsend, her daughter, Pat, was headteacher of Sacred Heart Secondary School, in Redcar, and Emily started her teaching career at St Alphonsus in 2015.
“I don’t think I can put into words how proud of her I am,” said Emily. “It’s Holocaust Memorial Day later this month and we thought it would be good for her to talk to the key stage two children because they study that era within the history curriculum. We also have quite a few refugees in our school and it means a lot to them to hear this kind of story.”
Gabriele brought the British Empire Medal she was received from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in November for services to education to show the St Alphonsus children.
One of the pupils, Evangelina, said: “It was amazing, it means a lot that she’s been through so much but she’s still here making people smile and telling her story.”
“It was really inspiring,” added Lexi.
Gabriele said she loved speaking to the children.
“Their faces show surprise because they’ve never heard a story like this but they really listen and absorb it and have the intention that it will never happen in their lifetimes,” she said.
“Don’t forget that even since the Holocaust there have been many more genocides, so I’m not sure human beings have learned. We need to repeat the message until young people are aware that this kind of behaviour is never acceptable.”