Remembering Rudi Wessely

Rudolf Wessely.  Born Vienna 4th Feb 1925,  died St Dunstan’s, Brighton,  Dec 22nd 2013

On Monday December 2nd commuters into Liverpool St station must have been bemused to see numerous people dressed in 1930s clothing,  shepherding large groups of spectators all wearing numbered labels . It was a re enactment of the 75th anniversary of the first Kindertransport of Jewish children escaping Nazi Germany.  My father, Rudi Wessely, was too ill to attend, but was on the last trainload of children, this time from Prague,  to reach Liverpool St and safety, on August 23rd 1939.  He was 13.

After a few days staying in an East End brothel, he made his way up to Kingston on Hull,  where he went to live with an Anglican liberal family, who were offering a home to an unknown Jewish child  (and paid the £50 bond to guarantee that the child did not become a burden on the State).   In 1940 his parents back in Prague were deported to Terezin.  Contact was sporadic and then ceased.

Rudi joined the Royal Navy in late 1943, where he worked in signals interception, part of a small group of fluent German speakers, including the late Ralph Milliband.  He saw action including D Day on HMS Tartar, and also served on the French ship La Combattante.

After being demobbed he tried to trace his family, but soon learned from the Red Cross that his parents were dead– his mother murdered at Auschwitz and his father executed in the Small Fortress at Terezin.  Much later and with the aid of Esther Rantzen we would discover that in fact they had been briefly reunited for their final journey to Auschwitz.

Rudi returned to Hull and took British citizenship.  He attended  University College, Hull and then trained as  a teacher.   His first job was at Ecclesfield Grammar in Sheffield, where he met Wendy, a young maths teacher who was also a talented violinist and a founder member of the National Youth Orchestra.  They married in 1952, and I was born in 1956.

My father stayed in teaching and teacher training for the rest of his professional life. He was also very involved in charitable work,  mainly the Abbeyfield Society,  setting up homes  for the elderly. In the late 70s he joined the national committee of the Abbeyfield, and there met Nicholas Winton.  They worked alongside each other for several years, until one day the conversation turned to the past.  My father talked about his Prague childhood, and Nicolas revealed that he had been in Prague before the war.   Doing what, asked Rudi.  “I was running a scheme to get Jewish children into Britain”.  My father was sceptical, and it was not until later when Nicolas produced a sheet of paper with my father’s photo and Prague address, that he was convinced that this was not an elaborate leg pull.  Nick had never before met any of the children he had saved, and now he wanted to meet more.  And so with the aid of Robert Maxwell, the Daily Mirror, and an episode of That’s Life, the story emerged.

Rudi was a quiet shy but incredibly kind man, devoted to my mother and latterly his grandsons.  His early experiences made him a natural pessimist,  but who believed in the importance of public service and tolerance.   In later life he coped stoically with the progressive loss of his sight. The death of my mother three years ago however left him lonely.  His last charitable act was to organise a concert to raise funds for St Luke’s, the Sheffield hospice in which Wendy had died.  After that he had to leave the house he had lived in for the previous 60 years, and reunited with his long forgotten service roots, he moved to Blind Veterans UK, where he died peacefully.

Simon Wessely

Obituaries – The Guardian

ROARNEWS March 2020: 75 years since the Holocaust, the descendants live to tell the tale.