The little boy who escaped from hell

Aged only ten, Stefan was sent to Scotland as Nazi terror took hold. Here he tells his harrowing story.

IT'S the late 1930s, in Breslau, Germany, and two youngsters are squabbling in the doorway of the tenement building where their families live.

Stefan Brienitzer, a lively boy, with blond, curly hair, starts to shout at the other child. Seventy years on, Steven Brent – he Anglicised his name at the age of 20 – doesn't remember what sparked the childish row, but he will never forget what happened next.

His mother stormed out of the family's flat and without explanation slapped him in full view of everyone else on the street.

At the time, he was mystified, more hurt by his mother's uncharacteristic actions, than the slap itself. It would be years later before he would understand.

Steven, now 79, laughs as he recalls the story at his home in Haddington, East Lothian, with his wife Angela, who is also 79.

"It's the only time I ever remember being hit by my mother," he says. "It was because I had quarrelled with this boy who was the son of the concierge, who was a Nazi. Who knows what the consequences might have been?"

The couple's jovial nature masks a terrible story, sadly all too common for children born to Jewish parents in Nazi Germany.

Steven was one of 10,000 of the lucky ones who fled to Britain in the months before the outbreak of war thanks to the Kindertransport project. Their story – and how many of them stayed at the Whittingehame Estate in East Lothian – is being retold in a new exhibition as part of the Haddington Festival later this month.

In 1939, the ten-year-old Stefan was waved off from Breslau station by his parents on his way to refuge in Scotland. He never saw them again – they were murdered in Auschwitz. "I have hated trains ever since," he says.

Young Stefan arrived in Edinburgh on July 5, 1939, lugging a huge case which his mother had stuffed full of goodies, but on the journey he lost his first watch, which his parents had given him as a leaving present. Steven's father, Gunther, was an insurance manager until he was "rooted out" by the Nazis because he was Jewish and had to eke out a living as a private language tutor. In those dark days, Steven thinks he himself got away with a little more because of his childish Aryan looks.

"I could go out because of my blond hair and could even get into the 'verboten' (forbidden to Jews) picture houses. I didn't go often because we couldn't afford it after my father lost his job, but I was never challenged."

Steven recalls walking through Breslau in the aftermath of the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, when Nazis brutally destroyed Jewish property and killed 91 Jews. "There were big stars of David painted on the shops and windows broken."

As a young boy in Edinburgh, his life was more privileged, after a family friend, the bookmaker Tom McGregor, took him into his Portobello home. On his first night, the bewildered schoolboy, who hadn't a word of English, was able to phone his parents, but was so upset he was sick.

"That was July, the war started in September and I never got to speak to them again," says Steven sadly.

Along with the McGregors' similarly aged daughter Ellen, Steven was evacuated to Buckie that summer, but she was so homesick they returned after only three weeks. After some home schooling, Steven attended Portobello Junior School and later earned a place at George Heriot's.

There he got on well with the other students, but recalls one anti-Semitic teacher.

"In fifth year I had a double free period and went to pick up my bottle of milk. He saw me and said: 'We don't want any of your Jewish tricks here.'" On leaving school Steven worked at the Munrospun knitwear factory in Restalrig as a trainee sales rep, where he met his future wife Angela. After they married they had three children.

One day the factory manager gave him a promotion, but added: "Can you not change your name to something I can pronounce and spell? I thought what a good idea. There was an actor called George Brent and I thought that will do."

A warm man with a keen sense of humour, Steven tells his story with a jollity that often seems at odds with the reality behind it.

Steven recalls his elder half-brother Louis coming from France and telling him his parents had not survived, but there are some things he still won't talk about. "It was horrific," is all he will say.

In 1959, by which time he had moved to Haddington and had a grocer shop, he travelled to Israel where he was reunited with his sister Hanna – who had been sent to Palestine during the war – and Ernst, his other half brother.

"I hadn't seen Hanna since Germany. It was emotional meeting her and strange to see her."

Hanna gave him an album, which contained the first pictures he had seen of himself as a boy. "Look at my blond curls," he exclaims, holding out the album.

One of Steven's Israeli nieces did a PhD on the Jews of Breslau and went to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem where she found a thank-you note in Steven's mother's handwriting.

It was written to a half-Jewish girl, a year older than Steven, who had helped his parents with their luggage on to the train to Auschwitz during some of the last round-ups in late 1942-early '43.

"My mother gave her a message to keep at the railway station at Breslau. She was one of the last people to see my mother, getting on the train to the camp. That was one of my lowest points when I saw that note years later.

"My mother knew there was no return. They all knew by then."

All Steven's instincts steer him away from dwelling on the past, but he is determined it should not be forgotten.

He says: "It should always be remembered what happened, and what no doubt will happen again."

&#149 "Balfour's Bairns" exhibition will be in Jackson's shop in High Street, Haddington, during the Haddington Festival, May 25-31.

JEWISH YOUNGSTERS LEARNED LIFE SKILLS IN EAST LOTHIAN

AROUND 10,000 Jewish youths fled Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Britain under the Kindertransport humanitarian scheme between 1938 and 1939. Britain had agreed to allow an unspecified number of under-17s into the country in response to the Nazis' growing anti-semitism.

The last sealed train left Germany on September 1, 1939, just days before war broke out. When the children arrived in the UK, some were taken in by foster families, some went to orphanages and some worked on farms.

Whittingehame Farm School was set up at the East Lothian estate of former prime minister AJ Balfour, whose Balfour Declaration, was a statement of British support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Around 160 Jewish refugee children aged 13-17 lived there between 1939 and 1941, being schooled and learning skills such as forestry and looking after poultry that would be useful to them in Palestine.

Newly discovered photographs to be shown in the Balfour's Bairns exhibition, organised by East Lothian historian Jack Tully Jackson , will show that they had their own Scout group and their own newspaper.