“It’s thanks to the British Government that I’m still here,” says 90-year-old Steven Mendelsson, who fled Nazi Germany as a child. “Otherwise I would be dead in the gas chambers like so many of my family.”
Steven was just 12 when he boarded the Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany during the nine months prior to the Second World War.
With his father already prisoner in a concentration camp, Steven and his younger brother left their mother behind in April 1939 to start a new life in England.
Now, 77 years later, Steven is among 10 Holocaust survivors to be filmed for a ground-breaking new project.
The National Holocaust Centre’s Forever Project will be a permanent 3D interactive survivor testimony installation – the first of its kind in Europe.
Ahead of the project’s unveiling this Autumn, Steven, of Fulwood, Sheffield, has shared his experiences of the harrowing time.
I had lots of friends who were German and one day they decided not to speak to me any moreSteven Mendelsson
When the Nazis came to power on January 30, 1933, Steven said things did not change overnight. In fact, he said, it took a few years before he and his Jewish friends noticed any difference.
It was not until the Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936 that Steven started to sense change.
“I had lots of friends who were German and one day they decided not to speak to me anymore,” he said.
“When I asked them what was going on, they said their fathers had forbidden them from speaking to Jewish children. That shattered my self confidence, it was a terrible thing to be told by your friends.
“Two weeks after that, they expelled all Jewish children from the schools.”
Steven said the hatred against Jews began to gather momentum fast after this point, with unprovoked attacks becoming a way of life for him.
“It was a terrible time,” he said. “We were attacked by other children for no other reason than being Jewish.
“I remember being beat up pretty badly at times, going home with some painful injuries. But there was no help available to us, nobody we could turn to, nobody there to stand up for us.
“We were second class citizens. What made it worse was that we didn’t fully understand why.”
In April 1939, Steven went to Breslav railway station, which is now part of Poland, to board a train to England.
He said: “One morning in early April, 1939, my brother and I went to the railway station and joined a group of around 18 other Jewish children.
“We travelled right across Germany, through Holland, and eventually made our way to a hostel in Margate, Kent.
“My mother was faced with a very difficult decision whether to send us to England.
“Our father was already in a concentration camp and she was looking after us alone. We were all she had.
“But it is lucky that she did decide to send us.”
Steven said his father was eventually released from the concentration camp as he had fought for Germany in World War One.
His mother and father both managed to flee Nazi Germany – avoiding the deadly gas chambers.
“Sadly, a lot of my friends and family were not so lucky,” said Steven.
“It’s thanks to the British Government that I’m still here. Otherwise I would be dead in the gas chambers like so many of my family too.”
Steven remembers the ‘huge culture shock’ of passing the slums of London’s East End as he arrived in England.
However, despite missing his family, Steven said he felt accepted for the first time in a long time in England.
“The children at the school we went to were brilliant,” he said. “We couldn’t speak any English, and they definitely couldn’t speak German, but they taught us all the words we needed to know – the swear words.”
Steven was evacuated from Margate to Staffordshire as the Germans launched air raids on England.
He studied at the University of London and came to Sheffield in 1970 to work as a steel firm consultant.
He married wife Hilary, a radiographer from South Africa, in 1962 and they went on to have a daughter and two sons.
Steven, who has five grandchildren, said: “I’ve lived in Sheffield ever since I first came and I really love the city. I’m proud to call Sheffield my home and consider myself an honorary Yorkshireman.”
Steven said he began volunteering at the National Holocaust Centre around 15 years ago.
In that time, nearly half a million children have been able to meet and hear from survivors like him at the centre over the last 20 years.
But sadly the survivors will not be around to deliver their lessons in person forever.
That’s where The Forever Project comes in. Long into the future, it will enable audiences to view survivor testimony in 3D, and then interact by asking questions.
Advanced software will match these with the most relevant pre-recorded answers, from a bank of more than 1,000, for each survivor.
* The Forever Project, which opens on October 30, is through to the finals of this year’s National Lottery Awards, which will be decided by public vote.
Steven and other survivors are encouraging people to get behind the project by voting at either Lottery Good Causes Awards or 0844 836 9672.