Henry Foner remembers as a young boy singing in the school choir for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when she visited the south of Wales.
On Tuesday, he gets to meet her great-grandson, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who will be in Jerusalem on the first official state visit to Israel by a member of the British royal family.
Foner, 86, was among some 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, then-Czechoslovakia and Poland who found refuge in the United Kingdom during World War II. They came on the Kindertransport, an organized rescue operation carried out during the nine months that preceded the outbreak of the war in 1939.
“It’s really something for a refugee kid like me to be able to meet people like this,” Foner, a grandfather of eight, tells Haaretz. “I am actually quite excited.”
The meeting will take place at Yad Vashem, where Foner will be joined by Paul Alexander, another Jewish child who fled Germany on the Kindertransport and later immigrated to Israel.
Henry Foner was born as Heinz Lichtwitz on June 12, 1932, to an affluent family that owned a printing press in Berlin. An only child, he lost his mother Ilse to suicide when he was 5 years old. In late 1938, soon after Kristallnacht, his father Max informed him he would be leaving Germany for safety in Britain, and urged him to pray for the welfare of the family that had agreed to take him in. “I did so every night,” Foner recounts.
He was six years old when he boarded the train out of Nazi Germany to life in a new land. Though he has no recollection of saying goodbye at the station to his father, whom he would never see again, Foner remembers the ride itself quite vividly.
“After some hours, the doors swung open, Gestapo troops entered, shouting and screaming at us all, and they did body searches to see if we had any valuables on us," he recounts. "Then the train moved on for another few hundred miles. The doors opened again, and it was another world. We had reached Holland, and there were these ladies there in white uniforms dishing out hotdogs and mustard.”
Little Heinz knew nobody traveling with him, though many years later he discovered that a distant cousin, who was only 3 at the time and ended up staying in Britain, was on the same train. The train arrived in London on February 3, 1939, and from there he was placed on another train, along with about 30 other children, bound for the coastal city of Swansea in Wales.
Upon arriving at his final destination, he was put into the care of Morris and Winifred Foner, a Jewish couple in their mid-fifties who had no children of their own and would end up caring for him until he was old enough to leave home. He spoke no English at the time and they spoke no German, making communication between them virtually impossible initially.
“I was told that I didn’t eat for a few days,” he says.
But he picked up the new language quickly – so quickly, in fact, that when his father called him from Germany on June 12 to wish him a happy seventh birthday, he could no longer communicate in his mother tongue. “I couldn’t understand my own father,” says Foner, “and as a parent now, I can just imagine how he must have felt.”
Soon after he settled into his new home, he changed his name. “It was obvious that war was coming and it wasn’t a good idea to run around in Britain with a name like Heinz Lichtwitz,” he says.
After he graduated high school, Foner served in the British army in Egypt and Sudan. He then completed his studies in chemistry at the University of Leeds, where he also received his doctorate. On a Zionist youth movement trip to the Holy Land, he met an Israeli woman, fell in love and brought her back to Britain, where they were married. In 1968, they picked themselves up and, along with their three children, moved to Israel.
“During the Six-Day War [the preceding year], when it really looked like there would be no Israel anymore, we decided to stop talking about being Zionists and actually do something,” he explains.
They settled in Jerusalem, where Foner was employed as an analytical and environmental chemist at the Geological Survey until his retirement, and later as a volunteer. After he was married, the Foners presented him with numerous items his father and other relatives had managed to send him before the war broke out. They included a stash of postcards, written in English and German.
Many years later, these postcards would be turned into an illustrated book titled “Postcards to a Little Boy.” Published by Yad Vashem in 2013, the book has been translated into English, Hebrew and German.
Foner presented a copy to Britain's then-Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit to Yad Vashem in 2014, and Prince William should expect one as well.
Only after the war did Foner learn that his father had been murdered in Auschwitz in December 1942. He received the news from his grandmother, who was sent to Theresienstadt and survived the war. His father’s two brothers also survived. His Uncle Walter had fled to France before the war and his Uncle Ludwig, who was married to a non-Jewish German woman, remained in Berlin, where he worked as a forger of passports and other documents for the underground.
Ludwig Lichtwitz is one of the main protagonists in “The Invisibles,” a docu-drama released last year about a group of young Jews who survived the Holocaust in Berlin. Despite the many years that have passed, Foner says he still has “sentiments about the royal family and about Britain.”
He proceeds to clarify himself: “The Britain I knew. It’s a different place now.”