Jewish war refugee meet at the Camden Centre in London. When members of the Association of Jewish Refugees meet up at the Camden Centre in Tunbridge Wells, the stories they swap are often the stuff of nightmares.
"People need to talk," said Weald of Kent branch co-ordinator Max Dickson, of Cambridge Street. "Most of us are around 80 years old now, but we still want to speak about the things we have experienced."
As a child of the kindertransport, the desperate drive to get Jewish children out of Germany as Hitler’s Nazi government tightened its hold, Max himself is deeply aware of the importance of sharing memories of this kind, however painful they may be.
"My wife Jane and I invited people to our house for the first local branch meeting a few years ago, and 22 turned up. Since then, we have met every two months at the Camden Centre."
Next month, members will join the dwindling number of former children of the kindertransport to celebrate the 70th anniversary of one of the most dramatic rescues of the second world war era. The meeting will take place in front of the Liverpool Station where is the Kindertransport statue (FOTO). Max, who is a reflexologist, was born in 1926 in a small market town in East Germany, the youngest son of a tailor and a midwife.
He recalled: "My parents had it all worked out. My oldest brother Robert was already training to be a rabbi in Berlin when the war broke out, the middle one Herbert would work on the land and I was destined to become a doctor."
On a November night in 1938 – forever to be remembered as Kristallnacht – the dream, already under threat from the anti-semitism flooding through the country, was shattered for good. "There was a knock at the door in the early hours of the morning, and three or four soldiers came in with firemen’s axes," said Max. "They just chopped everything to bits, we couldn’t understand why they were doing it. Then they told my father to get dressed, and marched him off with the other Jewish men to be taken to a concentration camp."
That scene was repeated across Germany that night as Jewish homes and businesses were systematically destroyed.
For the Dobriner family – Max was told to change his name when he left Germany – that night spelled the end of the life they had known. The following summer, he was given the last place on a boat to England and, in July 1939, he found himself alone in a strange country.
"It was difficult. I was 13, but I had only been away from my home town once before and I had no knowledge of English. If I shut my eyes, I can see myself saying goodbye to my mother, trying not to cry. I didn’t want to go, but she said it was only for a few months. I think the adults knew the truth, but even as a child, you have a sense of foreboding."
He carried with him a rucksack containing two changes of clothes, plus a small case into which his mother had put family photographs and papers, plus a picture of the local synagogue where he had worshipped all his life. That case, plus its contents, now forms part of the archive at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
He was never to see his parents again, although it was not until after the war that he knew they had died in the Warsaw ghetto. His oldest brother Robert had also been killed but, against all the odds, Herbert had survived Auschwitz and the two were reunited in Denmark in 1945.
"That first night we shed a lot of tears," said Max who, after many months of fruitless searching for news, was by that time at breaking point.
He said: "I had joined the British commandos as soon as I was old enough, but when the war was over, I had to make up my mind about one thing: was I going to hate everybody? I found it was much easier to love them, to hang on to what is important and put certain things away." By 1949, Max was happily married to Nancy, a Sussex farmer’s daughter, and the couple had five children, eventually followed by nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His dream of a new family had come true.
After his wife died, Max married international violinist Jane Pamment, part of a long-established Tunbridge Wells family, and moved to the town. These days, retaining the buoyant spirit which has kept him afloat during a life with more than its share of tragedy, he, too, is well known in the town. But, he says quietly, "I am still a foreigner with a British passport." For information on the Association of Jewish Refugees, contact Max Dickson on 01892 541026 or visit www.ajr.co.uk