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Suzie: the girl who changed our lives

PUBLISHED: 13:55 02 May 2012

GRATEFUL: Ann Chadwick is full of admiration for British families who took in refugee children such as Suzie. 'I think the expectation of the sacrifice of my parents and people like them was amazing'

GRATEFUL: Ann Chadwick is full of admiration for British families who took in refugee children such as Suzie. 'I think the expectation of the sacrifice of my parents and people like them was amazing'

Archant

Suzie Spitzer’s parents sent their precious five-year-old to live with strangers in East Anglia in order to escape the Nazis. Her English ‘sister’ is now telling the whole story. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

SOMETIME in the first half of 1939, as the world sped towards war, a traumatised Jewish girl called Suzanne Spitzer stepped off a train in East Anglia. Not long before, perhaps around the time of her fifth birthday, she’d let go of her mother’s hand for the very last time, left occupied Prague and travelled across Europe. She was among the youngest of the children to dodge the evil tide of Nazism thanks to the emergency evacuation initiative known as Kindertransport. She knew no-one in England and didn’t speak the language. But Suzie enjoyed good fortune when she was welcomed into the home of the Chadwicks as if she were their flesh and blood. She would change their lives.

Childhood sweethearts Winifred and Aubrey Chadwick had gone on to become teachers. They married in 1936 and daughter Ann was born the following year.

By the middle of 1939, Aubrey was working in a school, while his wife was at home with the youngster. Winifred heard a radio broadcast urging families to take in Jewish children who, with their parents, were being moved out of Austria and the border areas of what is now the Czech Republic because of Hitler’s onward march. The couple talked about it and agreed they could care for a child. They didn’t realise her stay would be far from short. The refugees’ plight was witnessed by English stockbroker Sir Nicholas Winton, who decided something had to be done to save the children.

With the help of others, the man who had gone on a two-week ski-ing holiday brought back (over time) 669 children. They travelled across Europe by rail and found host families in Britain – many in East Anglia.

It was on one of these trains that Suzie arrived.

Suzanne was born in May, 1934 – the only daughter of Hansi and Dr (Marcus) Leo Spitzer, a lawyer. They lived in Vienna, but the Germans requisitioned their house and they had to move in with relatives in Moravia, eastern Czechoslovakia.

Ann Chadwick says the subsequent decision to send their only child abroad must have been “gut-wrenching”. For little Ann – at two years old too young to remember Suzie’s arrival – the Austrian quickly became a playmate: a sister in all but name.

The refugee was shown love and understanding by her new family. With mum’s background as a teacher, “I know she would have been very inventive in helping Suzie learn to communicate. She would have made life fun for Sue; she would have made treats too,” Ann says in her book Suzie, The Little Girl Who Changed Our Lives. “I have early photographs of us having tea in the garden. Two little girls, two small chairs in the garden and a plate of sandwiches. This ‘picnic’ would have been waited for with excitement by us.” Of course, children being children, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Ann acknowledges her warm-hearted parents’ commitment must have been at a cost – financially in terms of clothes and so on, and personally in learning to reassure a little girl plucked from the world she knew.

Then there were the normal squabbles. “Their energy resources must have been taxed to the full in trying to pacify Sue, sort out my jealous outbursts and find a way through the language barrier.” The girls sometimes fought like tigers. Suzie was “a well built, stocky five year old who could mow down a two year old with an elbow or two to get what she wanted.”

Neither youngster, used to being an only child, was going to give way lightly! “We did fight too. As we grew, we almost enjoyed our physical tussles. We pulled each other’s hair out in handfuls but we collaborated to fight with other children too.”

Ann adds: “So our alliance was already strong and we somehow overcame the language barrier.” They became close. “I have a really sad postcard which Sue received from her Father dated 29 July 1939. . . It reads:

My dear Suserle [little Suzie],

In order that you do not forget anything, Mama and I are sending you this picture. I am so glad that you are so brave and that you know so much English. But you must not forget your German. If you do I shall be unable to have a conversation with you if I can visit you. I send you many greetings and kisses,

Your Papa

The picture was a beautiful photograph of Suzie with her parents.

As the newly-enlarged English family gelled, further change was not far away. Dad enlisted in the RAF and was trained as a wireless operator/mechanic. When he was sent to Cranwell in Lincolnshire as an instructor, his wife and the girls moved to nearby Fulbeck and he was able to “live out”. Then, when he was posted away, the rest of the family lived in Downham Market with Nanna. Their home in Cambridge was taken over by the RAF.

“Mum was teaching in a village school in the Fens so we set off each day for a windy ride, me on my fairy-cycle and Sue on the front seat of Mum’s bike,” recalls Ann, who has lived in Ipswich for about 40 years. “We had been firmly wrapped up with brown paper secured with a nappy pin before our coats were put on and I still remember the stiffness and the rattle as we moved around.” Suzie, she says, was still adjusting after two years with the family. But she took the Chadwick surname when she enrolled at school and was calling Winifred and Aubrey Mum and Dad.

Eventually the family was allowed back to the house in Cambridge. “We both watched the first ‘doodlebug’, or rather listened to it, as it made a strange whistling drone and we knew that when it stopped making a noise it was going to dive-bomb someone,” writes Ann. “I’m not sure that we ever felt that it might be marked out for us. Had Hitler known we were sheltering a Jewish child, he might well have redirected it!”

As time went on, the girls from different sides of Europe had a lot of fun together. “Sue had a nickname for me, the origins of which are now strictly non-P.C. She used to call me Nig, stemming from the time when I did not manage to wash my neck to my Mother’s satisfaction and was warned that if I wasn’t more thorough I’d turn into someone with a black skin. Sue latched on to this and I enjoyed being Nig. No one else used that name.” They were bookworms who read by the landing light when they should have been sleeping, devouring stories such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers boarding school series.

By 1947 Dad was back teaching woodwork and Suzie remained part of the family. The Chadwicks had another daughter, Rosemary, and the girls argued over who was going to push the pram. Suzie was asked to be godmother. Ann doesn’t remember why, but Suzie went away to boarding school in Hastings. “Looked at now, I quake at the transition that child had to make. She left home, changed her name, grasped something of her origins and left a new baby sister.”

And what of Suzie’s origins? Many, many years later – using records from abroad and other documents – Ann pieced together some of the Spitzer background. It seemed Suzie’s parents had put some physical distance between themselves in 1939 – a protective “divorce” of convenience – as lawyers, and people associating with them, were despised by the Nazis. Leo fled to Paris. He wrote the following year to the Chadwicks, explaining he had been admitted to the French army as a “Prestataire” – an auxiliary soldier. By very early 1944, however, he was in Frontstalag 111 at Drancy – an internment camp 12km outside Paris. Thousands of people went from there to the death camps in Poland.

Hansi, Suzie’s mother, spent the early part of the war in Moravia with sister Trudi and brother-in-law Paul. Then in late May, 1942, she was taken from Czechoslovakia to Poland.

Rather than steal all Ann’s thunder, we’ll say no more about the fate of the older Spitzers. Details of what the author has managed to piece together are in her book.

For the Chadwicks, and Suzie, the end of the war didn’t bring permanent stability. In 1950, Leo Spitzer’s brother Ernst – who lived in the Argentine with his wife – asked that their niece leave Britain and live with them.

The move “broke all our hearts”. Ann writes: “She was just rising 16 and had spent 11 years in our family and had not had any contact with them at all. I don’t think she even knew of their existence. But out of the blue, as far as we children were concerned, Sue was brought back from boarding school and prepared for departure to yet another family, yet another culture and language and yet more major loss.” She adds: “I can still remember the effect of the day of her departure on my parents – they both wept and wept. I had never seen them so devastated.” Suzie “celebrated” her 16th birthday on the ship taking her, again, into the unknown. The young woman wasn’t great at telling her English family much about how life in South America, Ann admits, but after about a year she went to live in the spare room at an Anglican vicarage. The priest was chaplain to the British hospital in Buenos Aires and found her a job as a nursing assistant.

Suzie returned to the Chadwicks in 1953 and, having found her vocation, applied to Hillingdon Hospital to train. But there was more upheaval, as Aubrey landed a role with the Colonial Service . . . in the Fiji Islands, as assistant director of further education.

Sue opted to stay in England and finish her training. By the autumn of 1954, when the Chadwicks left, she had grown to be “a brilliant nurse and deeply caring young woman”.

Not that she was perfect . . . “Sue seemed almost accident prone; this was partly due to her poor co-ordination but also to her ‘devil may care’ attitude. The best thing was that she could always laugh at herself . . .”

Ann decided her own future lay in medical social work and got a place at Cardiff University. Sue, meanwhile, was seized by wanderlust and worked in countries such as Canada, South Africa and Fiji. “In her adult life she called herself ‘the wandering Jew’ as she moved around the world, nursing on every Continent. But the roots of that wandering must have had their source in . . . [those] early uprootings.”

Suzie was a night sister at a hospital in Fuji before switching to a specialist tuberculosis unit. “She somehow always preferred night duty, saying it was the best time to talk to the patients.” Ann says: “The Fijians are a very happy-go-lucky race and their temperament was similar to Suzie’s. If there was a party somewhere she would be there, having great fun. She could not sing in tune but that did not deter her and only in the last year have I found a tape of her joining in with friends and making a ‘dreadful row’, as Mum would call it . . .”

After graduating, Ann worked at Cardiff Royal Infirmary and soon Suzie joined as a night sister. In the mid-1960s both women changed jobs and developed their lives, chatting on the phone and occasionally seeing one another. Ann says her love for her “sister” “was still very solid”, though Suzi could ruffle feathers! The nurse had a habit, for instance, of ringing at all hours when she’d returned from a trip, expecting to be picked up from some distant railway station.

When Aubrey and Winifred came back to England in the early 1970s, he became deputy area education officer for northern Suffolk, based in Lowestoft. Ann soon followed to East Anglia, getting a job teaching subjects such as social work and bereavement counselling at Suffolk College in Ipswich. She worked there until 1986.

Suzie, meanwhile, settled down with a man called John. And there – again so we don’t spoil things for anyone buying Ann’s book – we’ll leave the life of the Austrian refugee.

Later, Ann felt a responsibility – “almost an obligation” – to take a greater interest in the Holocaust and piece together the story of the Spitzers. She remembers watching a 1988 edition of That’s Life that featured the work of Sir Nicholas Winton.

Ann began to wonder how Suzie’s escape to safety had been arranged, “still never thinking that it could have been Sir Nicholas Winton who had actually brought her”.

In 2003 she wrote to the Jewish Refugee Committee in London and learned it was “the British Schindler” who had indeed rescued Suzie.

Late in 2008, a man called Mike Levy – a Fellow in Holocaust Education with the Imperial War Museum – tracked down the Chadwicks to Suffolk. He wanted to tell the story of Sir Nicholas at Cambridge Holocaust Memorial Day. Mike invited Aubrey and Ann to tell Suzie’s story there. Now that story is available in print. Ann feels it’s crucial to keep memories alive: “Keep building the bigger picture of the Jewish nation from which she [Sue] originated and the unspeakable horrors which befell them.” Ann’s father is now 98 and still in Lowestoft – a hero of his time, she feels. Not only did he and his wife give a non-English-speaking girl a sense of security, they also had to give the Government £50 – a sum that equates to more than £2,000 today! “To ask a young couple, who were 23 and had me, aged two, to part with £50, and then to keep someone else’s child for an indefinite period . . . if you put that to a member of the general public today, they’d say you were mad!” Ann tells ealife.

Of course, the unsought “payback” was an extra richness to life. In this odd way, a dictator’s evil madness spawned so much joy for so many people:

“I feel this obligation to help people understand that the wider effects of the Holocaust are still rumbling on – with my sister [Rosemary] and her late husband fostering children, for instance. The repercussions are a direct outworking of Suzi’s coming.” She’s excited about that pebble-in-the-pond effect. Just recently, for instance, there’s been an invitation to talk to pupils at her former school. “These wider circles are evolving, and that excites me.”

Meet Ann, hear the story and buy the book

ANN Chadwick is giving a talk at the Ipswich Buttermarket branch of Waterstones on Thursday, May 3. She will also sign copies at the end. There will be wine and nibbles from 5.30pm, with the talk starting at 6pm. Entry is free, but tickets are required. They’re available from members of staff. Further details: 01473 289044.

Ann will also be signing copies in the store between 11am and 1.30pm on Saturday, May 5.

Suzie, The Little Girl Who Changed Our Lives (ISBN 978-1-4477-4696-6) is published by Keystage Arts and Heritage Company at £7, via www.lulu.com. More details: www.keystage-company.co.uk

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