INT: Today is the 26 February 2015 and I’m here to interview Karola Regent, good afternoon Karola. Could I begin by asking you when you born and where were you born?
KR: I was born in Düsseldorf on the 5 December 1925.
INT: And what was your name at birth?
KR: Well, my surname was Zürndorfer.
INT: You came from a Jewish family, can you tell us a bit about your family before you came to the UK, before everything changed?
KR: Well, it wasn’t a strict Jewish family at all, my father was a publisher and had many friends, Christian friends and so on. We weren’t strict, we weren’t kosher, it was a very happy childhood we had.
INT: And what sort of things did you do at the weekends? What were your interests at the time?
KR: Well, when I was young, like that, my father used to take us for lovely walks up on the hills every Sunday, when mummy cooked a dinner and we played. In those days, we still played on the street a game called Völkerball, a whole crowd of us used to, there were very few cars. And skipping and on the street we used to mark, what do you call it?
KR: Hopscotch, yes, hopscotch and skipping and roller skating and later ice skating.
INT: And were your friends Jewish and Christian?
KR: Oh, well, I think they were all Christian around us.
INT: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
KR: Yes, a younger sister Lotte, who is about three and a half years younger.
INT: And tell us a little bit about your schooling, you went to school in Düsseldorf?
KR: No, the first four years I went to where we lived in Gerresheim, which is a suburb of Düsseldorf, I had a lovely time, an awfully nice teacher, I think there were 50 of us in the class you see.
INT: 50, my goodness.
KR: I know, but somehow that’s how, you know, we were all divided up into sections inside and very, very nice teacher who was … even when the Nazis came and things were difficult she sort of stuck by us. And she sort of protected us in the mornings when everybody had to stand up in class and say ‘Heil Hitler’. She said you needn’t do it and was very protective of me.
INT: Were you the only Jewish girl in the class?
KR: I don’t remember, I think probably, yes.
INT: And what at the end of your primary education, could you join the rest and go on to the secondary school?
KR: Well, that’s the thing I couldn’t do, I had to go to the Jewish school.
INT: And was that close to where you lived or did you have to travel?
KR: No, it wasn’t, we lived in a suburb and I had to go by tram to that school.
INT: Did you find that very disturbing at the time or were you quite happy to move onto the Jewish school?
KR: Well, you see I finished my four years, so I had to have a change anyway, so, no, you know, it wasn’t a big deal.
PR: You had to change trams in the middle of Düsseldorf.
PR: You had to change trams in the middle of the city.
KR: Yes, that was quite a thing because I was still fairly young and I had to go and change trams to get to the Jewish school.
INT: So you would have been about eight when the Nazis came to power, were you aware as young as that of life changing for you?
KR: When did they come to power, in 30 …
KR: Three, how old was I in 33, 25
PR: [Laughter] Eight.
KR: Eight, yes.
INT: Do you remember things changing at that point?
KR: Oh, yes, indeed.
INT: What do you remember?
KR: Well, I remember that the SA [Sturmabteilung or Brownshirts, the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi party]. It used to be on a Sunday morning march through the street and people always stood and watched and so on and [shouted] Heil Hitler and all that. And the young people of my own age, they joined in singing and it was all very jolly, but I mean, for them. So I usually, we kept out of the way when they marched through.
I don’t remember a great deal of unpleasantness except, yes, at a certain time. They never did anything specific but I remember one occasion when I was coming back from a walk or something I wanted to go into our house and all the young boys and girls or something, the ones who fell under the spell of Nazism were sitting on the steps leading to our front door. And I didn’t really know what to do, but I stood just opposite on the pavement and didn’t do anything for a while and then another person who lived in the house upstairs was going in so I quickly joined him and went in through the door. I mean, they never did anything, but there was always this threat you know and a feeling of no longer being part of things.
INT: And how did your parents react?
KR: To what?
INT: To the changing situation?
KR Well, I mean, my father was very good, he used to travel to Düsseldorf and visit people and see how they were and so on and that was a fortunate thing. My mother, my sister and me, we’d gone for a walk and we were coming back and we saw the cars outside, the Nazi car. And so we didn’t go, we went back to some friends and waited until they had gone, which was a good thing. My father was away visiting, helping people, so I don’t what they had come for, whether to arrest us or what, anyway, they didn’t come back.
PR: Did the children play with you as they always had done?
PR: Did the children play with you as they always had done?
KR: No, because they came under the influence of some young people who were very strong Nazis. My special friend, she sometimes when the coast was clear, used to come, but my father said she shouldn’t because for her sake.
INT: So did you find a lot of the time you were playing with your sister?
KR: Yes, well yes, we had good games, yes, we had lots of games we played. Yes, I played with my sister and also when I went to the Jewish school, you see, I made friends and then had a bit of contact with other children.
INT: Did your father, was he able to keep his job ? What happened to him and his business?
KR: No, obviously he, I mean, they were very good and loyal, but he left because it would have endangered them if he had gone on.
INT: Endangered his staff, the people who worked for him?
KR: The firm he worked for, yes, but he did sort of still do work, but not with them you see.
PR: There was a sympathiser, wasn’t there? Have you told me before that someone found him work of a different sort, much less interesting than he had done, so this is how he managed to survive. But they had to give up and you told me that they had to give up jewellery and watches and all sorts of things like that.
KR: Oh, G-d, yes. Yes, there came an edict that the Jews had to give up all their jewellery and take it along, but we’d given some of the very nicest family jewels to some friends, Christian friends and the girls they travelled to England and France and so on, so some of the things were taken out.
INT: That’s interesting. And what happened at the time of Kristallnacht in 1938, was your family affected then?
INT: What happened?
KR: Oh, it was terrible. I’ll read you a few lines, I’ve written it down here.
INT: This is from your book called The 9th of November?
KR: Yes. It must have been 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning when suddenly I was ripped out of my sleep by the sound of smashing crockery and glass, on and on it went. At first I thought I must be dreaming still, but now it sounded as though the china cupboard had been hurled down with everything in it exploding. It was coming from the kitchen. I don’t what I thought, burglars, earthquake. Lotte, she too was awake and both of us were out of our beds, out of our room flying into our parent’s room a few doors along the passage. But it was no longer a haven, my father in his nightshirt stood speechless beside the bed, he was on his way to fetch us, my mother was sitting up, her black hair streaming over her shoulders, her eyes wide with fear. She gathered us into the bed with calming sounds. Seconds later there burst into our room, a hoard of violent monsters, their faces contorted into raving mouths of hatred. Some red, some pale, all screaming and shouting, eyes rolling, teeth bared, wild hands flaying, jackboots kicking. They were wielding axes, sledgehammers, stones and knives, they rushed about the room, smashing, throwing, trampling, it seemed to me that they were hundreds of them bursting through the door, though I believe there only about a dozen. A chair hurled into the wardrobe mirror, glass flying everywhere. Crouching in bed I saw a monster with a knife blade shining, screaming towards a painting on daddy’s side of the bed. It was a valuable painting, a very beautiful landscape in which my father took great joy. Around me there was terrible noise, confusion, but suddenly all my attention became fixed, my whole being became focused on my father’s pathetic figure in his nightshirt moving towards the painting as if to shield it. Not that, not that, I heard him plead and then just as in a nightmare in which everything is happening in slow motion and which one is paralysed and helpless at the crucial moment. I saw one Nazi pick up a large marble slab from the smashed dressing table top and he raised it high above his head. In that split second as he threw it across the room with all his might at my gesticulating father, I had a moment of vision of him being smashed to the ground. But my father had ducked instinctively and retreated to the bedside watching now speechless as another Nazi dug his knife blade deep into the canvas slashing and hacking it as though he wanted to fill the staunchly painted sumac oak. Well, now fear became a living thing, fear for the life and safety of my parents who represented my own safety. It was like drowning. I sat numbed and in shock watching without sound as axes flew into screaming wood of chests and wardrobes. The one who had hurled the marble slab hardly stayed to watch the result, but frothing at the mouth he found new sport in splintering doors, window frames and driving his axe into the wall and floor boards.
INT: That must have been so traumatic an experience for you? And what happened after when it was all over?
KR: Well there was another little bit, which was rather touching, you know we were paralysed, but then they came to side of our bed a small man, outwardly the same brown shirt, leather belt, jackboots, but he had a face, not a distorted mask and he had human eyes that saw our fear. He bent low and whispered ‘children don’t look, don’t look children, hide your eyes, I’m sorry, I had to do it.’ And somehow he drew the fanatic hoard of raving animals from our room and drew them away smashing and slashing in other rooms. Quite suddenly our room was empty and we were all still alive. No one moved, the sounds continued a while and then there was silence, though my mind still it heard the noise, but there was silence complete and sudden with only the broken furniture groaning and settling into place. We listened to the silence for a long time not daring to breathe, expecting them to return any minute to kill us, but they did not return.