A moment that changed me: meeting the Holocaust survivors who made me a better person

Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria arrive in Britain on Kindertransport in July 1939: ‘I will never forget saying goodbye at the station,’ says Ingrid Wuga. Photograph: Stephenson/Getty Images

The Guardian – In the summer of 2011, I was sent to interview a Jewish couple at their home in Giffnock, just south of Glasgow. Henry and Ingrid Wuga: Holocaust survivors in their late 80s who had come to the UK on the Kindertransport when they were 15 and 14. It was a midweek evening when I pitched up at their flat in a mid-century block so immaculately preserved, the wood panelling so glossy, that it felt like walking into the past. Which, in some ways, it was. They wheeled a 1960s tea trolley into the room, arranged with little bowls of Japanese rice crackers on doilies and a bottle of mineral water encased in a basket. Both were beautifully dressed; Henry in a bright red tie and gleaming tie pin, Ingrid with pearls at her throat and ears. The walls were covered with framed photos of skiing holidays with their two daughters and four grandsons, the menu from their wedding day in Glasgow more than 50 years earlier, and, in the hallway, a map of Nuremberg where the Nazi party staged its rallies, Hitler ordered the passing of the Nuremberg laws, and Henry grew up.

They had already told their story once that day to a group of teachers in Ayr but they told it again, with grace, generosity and the occasional jolt of black humour. “One thing I always say that Hitler did for me is this,” Ingrid said with a mischievous smile. “Without him I would never have met Henry.” And they laughed. By the end of the evening, in the company of these two wonderful people, I was changed. “An immediate rapport created a lasting friendship,” Henry wrote to me, when I explained I wanted to write about him and Ingrid for this series. “You are welcome to write what you feel about our close connection. Has it really been so important to you? Amazing … we are delighted. Please feel free to go ahead.”

Henry and Ingrid Wuga with Chitra Ramaswamy’s baby

Henry left Nuremberg in May 1939 after his mother managed to secure him a place on the Kindertransport. “It was a lottery,” he said. “You would have 100 children in a town wanting to go and there was only room for 30. There must have been tremendous trauma for parents. ‘Why can’t you take my child?’ You can only imagine.” He told me about children as young as six howling in the carriages and, the following day after arriving in London, the shock of boarding the Royal Scotsman from Euston to Glasgow. “The waiters with white gloves serving hot chocolate in silver teapots,” he sighed. “I will never forget it.”

Two months later Ingrid left Dortmund. “I will never forget saying goodbye at the station,” she told me. “You wave goodbye until you can’t – until the train is so far away you can’t see your parents any more. It’s just horrific.” In London she was touched by the kindness of a gentleman who took her to a Lyon’s Corner House and pressed a penny into her hand for the toilet. She recalled the Christadelphian family who sponsored her and whose only son had died. “[The mother] told me she saw my picture and thought it was nice but they would rather have had a boy. I felt very unwanted. Certain things you forget, but I never forgot that.”

We talked about their daughters and grandchildren, their passion for skiing, their lifelong support of Blesma (The Limbless British Ex-Servicemen’s Association), for which Henry was awarded an MBE in 1999, and how they met at a Jewish club in Glasgow when they were 18. And then, at the end of the evening, they invited me to come back another time, for dinner.

Henry and Ingrid Wuga with Chitra Ramaswamy

That dinner has turned into many more. We sometimes meet at their Giffnock flat, where Henry cooks elegant dinners (always ceremonially wheeled into the room on that tea trolley) and Ingrid, who until recently insisted on picking me up from the station, might share her recipe for lebkuchen. They have met my parents and my partner, and I have got to know their children. When my son was born in the summer of 2013 the first visit we made when he was five days old was to see the Wugas. “Good to see you and that lovely BOY,” Henry emailed afterwards. “It’s been a long time since we held babies in our arms.” They came to the Edinburgh launch of Expecting, my first book, on the bus from Glasgow (of course they charmed the driver into dropping them off on Princes Street right outside Waterstone’s), and sat in the front row, beaming and asking embarrassing questions as if they were family. Which, as I proudly explained to the audience, they are: my adopted Jewish grandparents.

During August we meet at the Edinburgh International Festival, which the Wugas have attended every single year since its inception in 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” in the aftermath of the second world war. Once at a Schubert concert, Ingrid explained during the interval that, although she knew all the words to the German songs, she did not sing them because it was too upsetting. “It makes me think of the other country,” she whispered. Every time I meet them their kindness – to me, to one another, to everyone – blows me away. At an Edinburgh restaurant, one of their festival haunts, I remember Henry pulling the waiter aside, pressing a banknote into his hand, and asking him to buy a beer for everyone in the kitchen.

Henry and Ingrid are in their early 90s now. They have stopped skiing, much to their children’s relief (and mine), they still go out more than most people half their age, and continue to tell their stories in hope and defiance. It must drain them, though they never say so, and Ingrid admits she needs a stiff drink afterwards, but still they keep talking. Their capacity for remembering is inexhaustible, their humanity intoxicating and their willingness to see the good in the world unshakeable. They are people who have responded to the most unthinkable hatred with an unwavering love of life. This is how they’ve changed me: I want to be more like them, which I suppose is what it really means to be inspired by someone. The world is a better place because the Wugas are in it. And in dark times, knowing they exist gives me hope.

Originally published HERE