27 March 2023
Recording of the week: Peter Rickenback on being a fugitive in Europe
The British Library recently launched a new online learning resource, Voices of the Holocaust, as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The new website features a curated selection of audio clips, pulled mainly from four collections of oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors held at the British Library’s sound archive. Alongside the interview extracts, the resource features biographies of the interviewees as well as historical context provided through themes and articles.
Many audio clips featured in the new Voices of the Holocaust learning resource speak to how difficult it was to escape Nazi-occupied countries and find a new home. In an interview with Herbert Levy, Peter Rickenback speaks about leaving Nazi Germany and spending several years travelling Europe and beyond, bouncing from job to job to evade immigration authorities returning him to Nazi Germany as an illegal immigrant.
Until 1941, official Nazi policy was to encourage Jewish people to emigrate, but they made it incredibly difficult and dangerous to do so. Throughout the 1930s, the Nazis enacted over 400 antisemitic laws that systematically impoverished and restricted the lives of Jewish people. The ‘Decree on the Registration of Jewish Property’ forced them to surrender their property to the state, and the ‘Reich Flight Tax’ taxed them heavily for attempting to emigrate. Numerous laws also prevented Jewish people from earning a living: in 1933 they were excluded from government roles, in 1936 Jewish teachers were banned from schools, and in 1938 the ‘Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life’ closed all Jewish-owned businesses. On top of this, other countries’ immigration policies were unforgiving. For a visa, some required immigrants to secure a sponsor, pay hefty fees, and queue up on a daily basis to retrieve multiple documents, all under threat of public harassment and abuse.
In the mid-1930s, Peter Rickenback’s family struggled financially under the conditions in Nazi Germany, and were not able to emigrate together. He was able to leave on his own after being offered a hotel catering job in Sweden on a training permit. After his permit expired, Peter and his family exhausted all of their resources keeping him out of Germany for several years. His father helped him to get a work permit for France where he had a series of hotel jobs. Whilst there, he met two English men who offered him a job and permanent residence in Britain. In this clip, he talks about his attempt to get to Britain and take up this opportunity.
Above: Peter Rickenback. Photo copyright © USC Shoah Foundation.
As he describes, the laws changed before he arrived in Folkestone, making his paperwork insufficient and requiring him to return and apply for a visa. This sent him back to Boulogne, where he was warned he would be in danger, and from there he fled to Paris and then to the Netherlands with a forged work permit. After police caught up with him, Peter got a job on a boat to West Africa, which eventually returned to Hamburg. Once there, it was too dangerous for Peter to get off the boat, but the Gestapo gave permission for Peter’s family to board for an hour, where he was able to meet with his parents one last time. He was forcibly returned to the Netherlands, and during his time there, his father helped him to get an affidavit for entry into the United States. Peter appealed to the Jewish Aid Committee to get a transit visa to Britain, and received some help from his employer to pay for it. He arrived in Britain two weeks before the start of the war, and settled there. His sister was able to get to Britain on a domestic work permit, but his parents stayed in Germany and did not survive.
Peter’s story is one of many that reveal just how difficult it was for Jewish people to escape the Nazi regime for good. This collection item is featured in the new Voices of the Holocaust online resource, which includes 87 clips from oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees, contextual articles, and biographies of the interviewees.
This week's post comes from Georgia Dack, Web Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.