This is a story of refugees. Refugees who escaped segregation, isolation, persecution, hatred, violence and extreme danger from many in their home country.
The time is the late 1930s. Whilst politicians tried to foster good relations with Nazi Germany the fate of the Jews in Germany and countries under their control was becoming increasingly desperate. Antisemitic people, policies and laws targeted the Jewish way of life and their religion. State ‘sponsored’ terrorism allowed the destruction of Jewish property, homes, businesses and Synagogues in Germany. Antisemitism increased in other countries including Czechoslovakia.
In both Germany and Czechoslovakia many Jews realised things were not going to improve. Whilst nobody could foresee the genocide which was to follow, many concentrated their efforts on saving their children from oppression. A few of these children came to east Lancashire and Burnley. They were saved from almost certain death. Their parents and immediate families were not.
In Burnley, the refugees gravitated to one person and her family, Ruby Maud Mackay. Others helped but Ruby was the focus.
Who was Ruby Mackay?
The Mackay family came from Scotland via Wales to settle in Burnley Wood. Ruby was born in 1895 and was headmistress at Burnley’s open air school. Just why she attended the Cambridge summer school of 1938 is not clear but it could be she went there influenced by a former and current teacher of Burnley High School she had attended as a girl. Previous principals of BHS Misses LJ Wood and DD Howard were former students of Newnham College, Cambridge.
It was here Ruby met the Pereles family. What followed was a story of hope, salvation and tragedy.
The Pereles family
Ruby was introduced to Rudolf Pereles, at the summer school in 1938, by Florence (‘Faffy’) Livingstone who was a contemporary of Martha Pereles at Newnham. Rudolf was a doctor of pharmacy and husband to Martha. The couple had three children Philip (born 1917) Fritz (b 1924) and Edward (b 1927) and lived in Czechoslovakia. The family was determined to send Edward (and Fritz if the chance came) to England.
A flurry of letters followed following an increase in Nazi influence in Czechoslovakia. Martha and Rudolf wrote to Ruby 10 April 1939,
“We are deeply touched of your kind letter and invitation. You are so good to us that we cannot find words to express our thanks. We should be very happy and consoled if our little boy could stay with such good people…”
Their anguish is fully shown when thy suggest Ruby contact Nicholas Winton. This was duly done. Nicholas’ heroic efforts have been documented at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum.
Ruby had to guarantee a bond of £50 but was only able to take Edward. He was number 397 on the Winton Kindertransport.
Edward was met in London by Ruby, family and Faffy in May 1939.
Martha wrote 12 May 1939,
Last night Edi left and though parting is hard I feel…that he will find refuge with the best and kindest people I have ever heard of… I know you will be to my child like the best of mothers…I hope Edi will not give you any troubles in being shy or homesick…
There is one new suit among his things, which is still too large and one dark blue one (with waistcoat) which I had no time to try on.
So, Edward arrived with a few clothes. He brought his violin.
Edward thrived living with Ruby, her widowed sister Margaret and Margaret’s son John. The two young boys became great friends and in 1941 they helped raise money to ‘buy’ Burnley’s Spitfire. Edward became ‘one of the family.’
Ruby continued to support Edward as he grew. Despite the challenges he faced, Edward was successful academically and married Kathleen. The couple had a daughter but tragically Edward died of cancer in 1957. He was 29. Following his death, Edward’s family kept in touch with ‘Auntie’ Ruby and her sister.
Edward’s violin survived, and although damaged can be played. Writing a few weeks after his arrival Martha wrote,
His letters are full of ‘the happiest day of my life, what a wonderful day I had’ and so on. He is especially happy that he can play the violin…He loves music and is very delighted and thankful that he is allowed to play and is helped in it.
Ruby’s family became a haven for other Jewish refugees.
Ilse was born in Germany in 1920. A circuitous route took her through Holland then London, several family friends and finally to Burnley. Her job, as a ‘domestic’ in a private school along with new friend Steffi, was not a happy one. Just how Ilse met Ruby and her family is not known. However, it might be that her friend Purcell Smith who came from Burnley Wood (where Ruby lived) was the cause. Despite the unpleasantness of her work, she found solace and happiness with the Mackay’s. Her mum Meta wrote from Germany when things were getting desperate to Ruby in 1939,
You are already well known to us by our Ilse and we read with great pleasure and gratitude in the letters from her that you have shown to our daughter so many proofs of kindness and love…After all the troubles we have suffered since November 38 (ie Kristallnacht – Night of Broken Glass) we are very touched by the fact that you and other people in your town were so friendly and so full of kindness to our child.
Ilse’s innocence was apparent in her short time in Burnley but her experiences were all part of her ‘growing up’. She spent time in London, Blackpool (under the wing of the Bramley Smith family, also from Burnley) north Lancashire and Worthing. She never forgot the kindness shown by Burnley folk. She wrote to Ruby’s sister in 1939,
Having arrived Worthing safe and sound I feel to thank you 100 times for all your kindness which I never forget…I forgot to pay the porter at the station. I looked out of the train when it left and saw you were paying. Excuse please my fault.
Ilse emigrated to Australia where she married her German sweetheart who had also escaped the Nazis. She died in 1983.
Stephanie (‘Steffi’) was Ilse’s best pal in Burnley. She endured the harshness of work that Ilse did but also found friendship with the Mackay’s. Little is known about her early life except she was of German origin. She became a naturalised UK citizen and married late in life. Steffi died in Colchester in 2000.
Herbert and Gunter visited Ruby but did not live in Burnley. They were possibly from an evacuee home at Grindleton. The kindness and sacrifice Ruby showed was clear,
Would you believe us if we told you that we are not always able to eat because of the thought that we are no longer able to bring up our child…We offer to you our heartiest and most profound thanks for your love and goodness and we do hope that they will still look after the boy in the future.
Tamara and Lotti
All we have is a vague memory of Tamara and a postcard written in German by Lotti to Dora Mitchell. A friend of Ruby’s, Dora was a native of Burnley who had moved to Morecambe.
Edward was treated to several holidays in Morcambe by Dora Mitchell.
Florence Amina Frances Livingstone (Faffy)
Florence was, by all accounts, a formidable person. She was Martha’s friend from university who helped Belgian refugees during the First World War and was a committed socialist. Florence tried to raise money to help Fritz Pereles escape. Unsuccessful in this she helped with the Dorking Refuge Committee. She was present to meet Edward when he arrived and met him again in Sheffield after the war.
Neville was the judicial recorder (judge) in Burnley 1935-1956. He was Jewish, serving with distinction on several national committees, and spoke out about the fate of the European Jews. However, no direct link has been made with the Mackay family but is reasonable to assume he knew them.
What happened to the families under the Nazis?
The Pereles family
- Rudolf deported Brno (Czechoslovakia) to Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto 1942 then to Auschwitz, murdered, age 60
- Martha deported Brno to Terezin 1942 died there, age 42
- Philip deported Brno to Terezin 1942 then to Piaski ghetto died there, age 25
- Lorle, wife to Philip deported Brno to Terezin 1942 then to Piaski ghetto died there, age 18
- Fritz deported Brno to Terezín 1942 then 1944 to Auschwitz, Dachau 1945 later to Flossenbürg died there, age 21
The Gimnicher family
- Salomon and Meta, father and mother to Ilse and Max Rudi, brother to Ilse, deported to Izbica ghetto died there, age 49 and 14
- Other family members included Albert, Josef, Sara and Helene who were deported to various ghettos. None survived.
Herbert Schlesinger/Gunter_and families
זאַלץ און ברויט זאָלסטו עסן און דעם אמת ניט פאַרגעסן *
*eat bread and salt and don’t forget the truth
With thanks to Beryl Horrocks (nee Mackay), Linda Dawson, Jude Pereles, Lancashire County Council’s Red Rose Collections https://redrosecollections.lancashire.gov.uk/ Wiener Holocaust Library Home – The Wiener Holocaust Library, Leo Baeck Institute Home – Leo Baeck Institute (lbi.org) Francis Cave, Rabbi David Paley, Steve Glover, Judith Glover.
Listen to Edward’s daughter playing music. The music is east European Jewish. Edward’s favourites included Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas and the Bach violin concertos.