Familiar tale of flight from oppression

Susanna Pearson at the opening of the new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum
Susanna Pearson at the opening of the new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum
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As the world watches news coverage of the current refugee crisis with horror and disbelief, for Susanna Pearson, it’s an all too familiar sight.

For the 87-year-old great-grandmother, it has haunting echoes of her own past as a child refugee escaping from Nazi-occupied Prague at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Susanna Pearson with her father, in Prague, before she was brought to Sheffield, by Nicholas Winton MBE, in 1939 ahead of the outbreak of World War II

Susanna Pearson with her father, in Prague, before she was brought to Sheffield, by Nicholas Winton MBE, in 1939 ahead of the outbreak of World War II

Susanna was just 11 when the late Nicholas Winton MBE helped her board a train bound for England - leaving behind her mother and father, who she would never see again.

She came to live with a family in Sheffield, which - 74 years on - she calls home.

In 1946, she married Harry Pearson and went on to have three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“I love Sheffield,” says Susanna. “For me, it is a City of Sanctuary and I think the people here are trying to do their best for current asylum seekers.

There is this hatred around in the world right now and it’s very difficult to separate what happened back then from what’s happening now

“There is this hatred around in the world right now and it’s very difficult to separate what happened back then from what’s happening now. I find the images and stories on the news really resonate with me and I’m pleased that Sheffield is driven to help, as so many places are, with collections heading for Calais.

“We have lots of pockets of good people out there trying to get involved and provide help and relief.”

Susanna was one of 669 Jewish children saved by humanitarian Winton in the summer of 1939.

Thanks to the monetary guarantees he obtained and the homes he arranged in Britain for them, children were permitted to leave their families behind and make the journey to a new country in order to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Many of their parents went on to perish in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.

Susanna Pearson with her mother, in Prague, before she was brought to Sheffield, by Nicholas Winton MBE, in 1939 ahead of the outbreak of World War II

Susanna Pearson with her mother, in Prague, before she was brought to Sheffield, by Nicholas Winton MBE, in 1939 ahead of the outbreak of World War II

Susanna, who lives with her husband in Nether Edge, said: “The rest of the world had closed its doors to refugees by that time but Nicholas Winton fought for every one of us.”

So, how was life for a pre-teen refugee, arriving all alone in a brand new city?

“It was a different life, certainly,” Susanna said.

“But by then, the war was beginning, so the city was suddenly a different place for everybody, so we all had that in common. I was working in an office in the steelworks by 14 and then began children’s nursing at 16. I met my husband, a marine, at 16. Next year, we will have been married for 70 years.

One of many sad children who were permitted to leave their country and families behind to escape the horrors of the Holocaust

One of many sad children who were permitted to leave their country and families behind to escape the horrors of the Holocaust

“When the war ended, I tried again to find out what had become of my family, as so many refugees did, but it was pure chaos, you can only imagine. The chaos that is going on now is nothing like the chaos that went on in the aftermath of the Second World War. I eventually received a letter from my father, which had been written years before in 1941, and found out that he and my mum had been deported to Lodz ghetto, in Poland.

“My father died there a year later. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my mum, whether she perished there too or was sent to an extermination camp. It’s something I’m still trying to find out – it’s a difficult thing to let go.”

Susanna’s tale, and the stories of others like her, are being told as part of a new exhibition at The Imperial War Museum in Manchester - ‘Mixing It: The Changing Faces of Wartime Britain.’

The exhibition is based on research by the University of Huddersfield, as part of a curatorial partnership with IWM.

It reveals the forgotten histories of those who came to Britain during the Second World War.

They include the stories of technicians from the West Indies, Italian Prisoners of War, child refugees and Polish airmen, all told through a revealing collection of oral histories and archive images.

Hero Nicholas Winton, who died this summer aged 106

Hero Nicholas Winton, who died this summer aged 106

Diane Lees, IWM Director-General, said: “British society today has been shaped by the Second World War, including the ethnic and national diversity of the nation. Unveiling new research by the University of Huddersfield as part of a special curatorial partnership with IWM, this new display sheds light on some of the little remembered stories from the Second World War.”

Susanna, who worked as a teacher at Park Hill in Sheffield for many years until her retirement, adds: “I do think we should be learning lessons from our past.

“I’ve spent the last 30 years talking in schools and the Holocaust centre in Nottinghamshire, alongside many other people, in an effort to make sure that certain things that happened in our history are never forgotten.”

n ‘Mixing It: The Changing Faces of Britain’ exhibition opened at the weekend and will run to September 2016.

n ‘Visit Imperial War Museum for details.

Child refugees arrive safely in Southampton

Child refugees arrive safely in Southampton

Child refugees arrive safely in Southampton

Child refugees arrive safely in Southampton