Wall of Memories
May their memories be for a blessing
In memory of Walter Hirsch and his parents.
Dedicated by his children Mandy Leigh and Andrew Hirsch
Walter Hirsch escaped to England on almost the last Kindertransport to leave Germany, on 23 August 1939 – two months before his bar mitzvah. His parents were not so fortunate.
Born in October 1926 in the village of Niedermittlau in Hessen, Walter had spent a happy and carefree early childhood. His parents Bella (née Levi) and Alfred Hirsch were a close and devout couple, raising their children Walter and his older sister Margot in a religious but inclusive environment.
Bella’s family were from Gladenbach, but she moved to Niedermittlau on marrying Alfred, whose family had a manufacturing butcher’s business supplying kosher meat products throughout Frankfurt and beyond. There were only three Jewish families in the village and no synagogue, so the family walked five miles across fields to the nearest shul every week, until it was no longer allowed.
Alfred had fought for Germany in World War I, was president of the Jewish community in Niedermittlau and its surrounding villages and had a keen sense of civic duty. As the only person in the village to have a car, he would always drive anyone who was sick to the nearest hospital, happy to be called on day or night to do so. He respected his neighbours and believed they respected him.
However with the rise of Hitler and Nazism from 1933, things began to change for the family. They were forced to close their business, and Walter and Margot were no longer allowed to attend the local school but instead were sent away to a Jewish boarding school in Frankfurt, 25 miles away – Walter hated it.
Then one Friday night when Walter and Margot were home, having dinner with their parents and grandparents, a mob gathered outside and smashed every single window of the house. That was 1938 – Walter was just 11 years old. His parents knew they had to try and leave.
Alfred applied for a visa to England and the family looked set to leave together as he had secured a job with a Jewish butcher in the UK. But shortly before they were due to go, the family’s sponsor had second thoughts and withdrew the offer. After that it was too late for Walter’s parents to leave.
In desperation they decided they had to send their children away to safety. Bella’s older brother Herman and one of her sisters, Hilde, had already left and settled in New York so it was decided Margot first, and then Walter would be sent to America to live with them. However, Hirsch was a common name in Germany and there was a mix-up with the papers so another Margot Hirsch was sent to America, while Walter’s sister was mistakenly sent to England where they had no family. Not wanting to separate the brother and sister, Bella and Alfred decided Walter should go there too and with war fast approaching, managed to get their 12-year-old son on one of the last Kindertransports of 1939.
The last memory Walter had of his mother was at Frankfurt Bahnhof, where she ran alongside the train as it departed, calling to him to always wear his hat and scarf as it was cold in England.
Walter’s escape had been sponsored by members of the Jewish community in Newcastle and Walter was taken in by the Rakusen family there – to whom he was always grateful – and where he lived until he was able to volunteer for the British army in 1944. As a teenager stationed in Germany as the war came to a close, he believed he would be reunited with his parents who he thought had been kept imprisoned in a camp. Tragically in 1945, as the war ended, he finally learned of their fate.
They had been forced out of the village and into a tiny flat in Frankfurt where they somehow survived until 1943–44, before being deported to Auschwitz. According to records at Yad Vashem, it appears they were murdered there as soon as they arrived. Walter’s aunts Therese and Irma also perished in concentration camps, along with his young cousins who were cruelly separated from their parents and sent to other camps.
Walter returned to England after his army service and married our mother, Dot (née Benson) in London, where we were born. They had 35 devoted years together during which he set up a furniture business, but after Dot’s death in 1987, he moved to Manchester where he later remarried and became a much valued and respected member of Jackson’s Row synagogue, living happily with his second wife Shirley, until his death from Covid 19 in April 2020, aged 93. By then he had seen his family’s legacy live on through his four adored grandsons and two great grandchildren. That meant the world to him.
When Walter was 72 he decided to return to Germany to say kaddish at the graves of his two grandparents who had died before the war. We went with him and it was a traumatic experience for us all. When we drove past Frankfurt station, Walter hid his head in his hands, unable to look at the site where he last saw his mother. That trip had a profound effect on us all and was the inspiration for this memorial. It cemented our abiding determination to keep the memory of our father, our grandparents, our great aunts and uncles, cousins and great-grandparents alive. We will never forget them.