September 13, 2021
Lucky the cat
Author: Rosyln Sugarman, Head Curator, Sydney Jewish Museum
It was most probably the destruction of the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, on the eve of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, that triggered Beate Hammett (nee Beer) parents’ decision to send her, for safety, with the Kindertransport (children’s transport) to England. Nine-year-old Beate and her mother had watched the smoking ruins of the synagogue, which had been the jewel in the crown of her father’s work as Chief Architect for the Jewish community in Berlin.
Her parents knew to which English family she would be sent. Beate’s mother even corresponded, rather formally in her limited English, with her future foster-mother. On 19 April 1939, Beate was sent by train and then ship on an uncertain journey into another life. She describes,
“For this purpose, my mother had purchased a new suitcase, which she carefully filled with new clothes, two silver cutlery sets bearing our family’s initials – the extent of the permitted valuables – and a small album of photographs. Folded in tissue-paper, lay a blue party-frock, lovingly smocked by my mother, which had very big hems and pleats in the sleeves for future growth, in order to spare my foster-parents as much cost as possible for the upbringing of her daughter.”
From Hamburg, the children boarded the American liner S.S. Manhattan, which took them to Southampton and from there to London, where they were shepherded into a hall at Liverpool Street Station, to be collected by foster-parents or sent to orphanages. Beate recalls that the shock of separation, the strangeness and sudden enforced independence suddenly hit home, and “previously unshed tears gathered in storms.”
She was expected to call her foster-parents mummy and daddy and take on their surname. The intention was to make her feel one of the family, though it was confusing for her as in the early days, before correspondence with her parents stopped, as she was still writing, in German, to ‘Mutti’ and ‘Vati’.
Beate was delighted to discover the household had two tabby-cats. One cat had not been de-sexed and produced a litter of kittens. The first kitten after her arrival was given to her.
“As it was black, except for its white paws, and black cats are said to bring good fortune, I called it Lucky. Lucky was also one of the first English words I learned.”
After the war, she found out that her mother had died of cancer in 1941 and that her father had died in Theresienstadt in May 1944. Through relatives in Australia the opportunity to migrate came her way, and in October 1947, 18-year-old Beate left for Australia.
Her reflections of her time in England echo the experiences of many Kindertransport children: assimilation into unfamiliar families with unknown customs, transformation of pre-war identities and separation from their loved ones. Kindertransport children undertook their own struggles to fit in and rebuild their lives.