Holocaust survivor honoured by Sheffield Hallam University for sharing her compelling story
Holocaust survivor Dorothy Fleming has a powerful story to tell - not simply of survival but of courage, positivity and inspiration.
Until the age of 11, she was happily raised in Vienna, Austria, in a loving Jewish family, with father, Erich, mother Hanna, and little sister, Lisi.
She spent her mornings at school and the afternoons doing homework, having piano, gymnastics and dance lessons - and, more importantly, English lessons.
But in 1938 when Germany announced a union with Austria everything changed for Dorothy.
She said: “The first thing that happened after the Anschluss was that the teacher told us those of us in class who were Jewish to go and sit at the back of the room, facing the wall.
“Then she told the other girls not to speak to us or play with us because we were Jewish, and therefore bad and had to be left alone.
“Up until then, no particular attention had been paid to people’s religion and this sudden separation was not only hurtful but also hard to understand.”
In late 1938, Dorothy remembers changes at home, in atmosphere more than anything else.
Her father’s two shops had been taken over by the Nazis so his livelihood had come to an end.
“Where there had been noise and laughter, there was now silence,” she said.
“Where there had been smiles, there were now grim faces. And where there had been talk of all kinds of exciting and interesting events, there was now only talk of permits and visas, who had got away, and what desperate measures people were taking.
“I can clearly recall talk of people committing suicide in their total failure to find anywhere to escape to.”
It was in these desperate times that Dorothy’s parents heard about Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort in which 10,000 unaccompanied children, mostly Jewish, come to the UK from their homes in Nazi-occupied Europe, and signed her up.
“The result of their brave decision was, of course, that my life was saved, but my parents always steadfastly maintained that they were neither courageous nor brave to send me away because they ‘knew’ that it would be all right in the end,” she said.
“Of course they could not have know that, but they must have had to believe it in order to take this vital step.”
Dorothy was taken in by the Hall family, from Leeds, who, after seeing a picture of the pair, decided to give a home to her four-year-old sister, Lisi, too.
Dorothy, now 89, said: “I’d been away from home on a number of occasions before. I was very independent and old for my age, and I was really anxious to see England, the country I’d been learning about.”
On January 10, 1939, Dorothy and Lisi, with one permitted piece of luggage each, said goodbye to their parents at the Western railway station in Vienna and set off to England.
She said: “Our parents saw us into the compartment and said ‘bye bye, we’ll see you; be good girls and we’ll soon be together again’. “Some of the departures we saw were agonising. Some parents even snatched their little ones back at the last moment, they just could not bear to part with them.”
Dorothy quickly settled into life with the Hall family in Chapeltown, Leeds, with their golden retriever, Buster, but for Lisi, who had never been away from her parents before and spoke no English, the change took a little more time.
Dorothy said: “For me, being in Leeds was great. Theo and Tilly were the kindest and most thoughtful foster parents one could possibly want.”
The family were lucky; 95 per cent of the children who came to the UK never saw their parents again, but Dorothy’s parents escaped Austria.
Dorothy left the Halls in July 1939 and joined her parents in London.
Later, due to fears about bombing, Dorothy went to stay with her aunt and uncle in Cardiff.
After members of the family were dispersed around the country – Lisi was evacuated to four different locations and Erich was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ behind barbed wire on the Isle of Man – they were eventually all reunited.
The hard time continued for Dorothy - at 16, she too became an ‘enemy alien’ which meant she had to report to police, especially if she had to travel anywhere.
“I was hurt by this because by then I felt completely English, and nobody meeting me for the first time ever guessed I had come from abroad,” she said.
Life eventually got better for Dorothy. She passed her 11+ exam, went on to grammar school and trained to become a teacher.
She married Otto, a doctor and also a Holocaust survivor, and moved to Yorkshire in 1951. In 1960 she set up a Jewish kindergarten in Sheffield.
She went on to study psychology at the University of Sheffield and became a lecturer at Sheffield City Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, between 1971 and 1988.
June 1989 became a turning point for Dorothy - the 50th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
She was reunited with more than 1,200 people in London, all of whom has been rescued and brought to the UK. She shared her story with them and left with the urge to share more.
Since 1989, Dorothy has given more than 400 talks and interviews as a Holocaust survivor.
She has brought her compelling story to thousands of people, many in the Sheffield region.
Dorothy was recently recognised for her work by Sheffield Hallam University with an honorary doctorate.
After the ceremony, she said: “It’s a tremendous feeling to have received this honour from Sheffield Hallam - it is a fantastic university.
“It was a huge surprise when I was first informed about the honorary doctorate and a very happy one.
“To have my family at the ceremony, who all live great distances from Sheffield, was the icing on the cake.
“It was also a great privilege to receive this honour in the city of Sheffield.
“I’ve been very fond of this city for a long time and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”