Greengrocer, taxi owner, jazz dancer and Kindertransport survivor
Born: July 27, 1932; Died: November 26, 2013.
LEO Metzstein, who has died in Glasgow aged 81, was one of the last Jewish children allowed by Hitler to leave Germany by train in the run-up to the Second World War, while the Nazi leader was already hatching plans to rid himself of their parents and grandparents.
The latter, of course, were also put on trains - to the concentration camps and gas chambers. Metzstein, six at the time, later considered himself fortunate to have avoided the Holocaust by getting on one of the last Kindertransport (Child Transport) trains with his big sister Jenny, 11, and going on to lead a peaceful life in the Glasgow area.
It was here that he started as an upholsterer, ran a fruit and veg store and a taxi fleet, became a local legendary amateur jazz dancer and, most importantly in his view, a speaker to Scottish schoolchildren about the significance of the Holocaust. In all, some 10,000 Jewish children were put on trains to be adopted by foster families, mostly in the UK. Metzstein's father had died before the war, his mother survived but his grandparents and several aunts and uncles in Poland died in concentration camps.
His 11-year-old brother Isi, Jenny's twin, was put on the ocean liner SS George Washington from Hamburg after their mother thought it safer to split the family up. Isi made it to Scotland separately and alone, later to become one of Scotland's greatest architects. (He died last year in Glasgow). The oldest sibling, Josef, had fled Germany to London even before the Kindertransport, having attracted the attention of the Nazis for his involvement in Jewish defence groups against Nazi violence. Their mother Rachel and Leo's sister Lee also eventually made it to Glasgow, where mother and all five children were finally reunited towards the end of the war.
Leo Metzstein was born in the Mitte district of Berlin, not far from the Brandenburg Gate, on July 27, 1932, youngest of five children of Central European Jewish parents who had moved from Poland in the 1920s with no inkling of what lay ahead under Hitler. The family were largely brought up by their mother Rachel after their father Efraim died in 1933.
Earlier this year, at events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport, Leo recalled: "We, like millions of others, were living in Germany under this dreadful umbrella of fear. My poor mother had to protect us, five of us, on her own." In the words of Leo's brother Isi not long before he died: "It wasn't necessary for a German to be a member of the Nazi party to go up to a Jew and pull his beard. They just did it. It was like kicking a dog. They did it as a kind of hobby."
Things reached their pre-Holocaust peak on the infamous Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) of November 9, 1938, when synagogues, Jewish businesses, homes and schools were ransacked or burn down and more than 90 Jews murdered. Jewish parents, fearing the worst for themselves, looked to the UK-sponsored Kindertransport scheme to save their children.
Leo recalled walking through Berlin in July 1939 with his sisters Jenny and Lee and their mother to a railway station in Berlin. "To this day, that is my most painful memory," he said. "Jenny and I joined hands and we walked down the platform and that was it. I was crying, my sister was crying and my mother was crying. They didn't know if they would ever see me again or if I would see them again. We had never even been on a train."
On July 20, 1939, Leo and Jenny, still hand in hand, arrived at London's Liverpool Street Station and finally arrived in Scotland. After living first with the Whyte family in Kilmarnock and a Jewish children's hostel in Skelmorlie, he was reunited with his mother and siblings late in the war and they settled in St. George's Cross, Glasgow.
Leo went to Battlefield and Anderston schools but left early to train as an upholsterer. Having met his first wife, Patricia Woolfson, he worked in the textile industry in Finnieston and a plant nursery in Carluke before setting up a fruit & veg shop in Battlefield.
He later worked as a warehouse manager for Emreco and Pringle, in Barrhead and Pollokshields, where he met his second wife, Marjorie. Throughout his days (and nights) in Glasgow, he became a local legend as a jazz dancer, a kind of pre-disco John Travolta, notably at the Plaza off Pollokshaws Road. "He had natural rhythm," his son Jonathan told The Herald. "Taxi drivers would recognise him as the jazz dancer at the Plaza."
In 1983, he met Margaret Lindsay, who would remain his partner for the rest of his life, retiring to Ferniegair outside Hamilton where they ran a courier and taxi fleet and local media dubbed him "the Taxi Tsar of Hamilton." He was president of the Hamilton Bowling Club, an active member of the South Lanarkshire Labour Party and a keen fan of Hamilton Accies. He also became a driving force behind the South Lanarkshire Holocaust Memorial, speaking to schoolchildren about his experiences and the dangers of anti-semitism and extremism. Earlier this year, he was invited by Prince Charles to St. James's Palace in London to mark the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
Metzstein always insisted that, although born in Germany, with the potential hostility that could have caused during his schooldays: "I'm Scottish. I'm absolutely Scottish and very proud of it as well. It's a wonderful country and the people who took me in, they saved my life. If it wasn't for them I'd be a wee packet of bones."
Leo Metzstein, who died in Glasgow, is survived by his partner of 30 years, Margaret Lindsay (a former teacher at Craighead special needs school in Hamilton), by his children Frank, Sarah and Jonathan from two marriages, four stepchildren, 10 grandchildren and his sister Jenny in New York. As well as Isi, his brother Josef, his sister Lee and their mother Rachel predeceased him.
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