Last surviving pupil from Dalston’s uber strict German Orphanage? John Tomaszewski, 94, shares his memories
- Credit: Patrick Wiegand
Emma Bartholomew hears from John Tomaszewski, 94, who is possibly the last remaining survivor who lived in Dalston’s German Orphanage. He recounts how it was closed down by the British government after a teacher was rumbled recruiting boy scouts for the Hitler Youth Movement
Frederick John Tomaszewski was just two when he went to live in Dalston’s German Orphanage with his two siblings.
Some 92 years on however, he has no idea how his mother died or how with his Polish nationality he came to be living in the institution set up for Germans.
The orphanage – which once stood on the site of Norfolk House in Cecilia Road – was founded in 1879 to celebrate Kaiser Wilhelm’s golden wedding anniversary. It was funded by rich German merchants and bankers including the Schröder family. There was a German Hospital and a German Church nearby, serving what was London’s largest ethnic minority in the late 19th century.
“I’ve got a very good memory, and I remember screaming as somebody was holding me after my father took me in the through the front door,” said John.
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“What my mum died of, that’s a weak spot. I heard she died of pneumonia, but there are so many different stories. I haven’t even got a photo of her.”
It was 1926 and his father left him there along with his sister Violet, four, and brother Joseph, six, and their two cousins.
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With German staff, teachers and domestic servants the orphanage was “a little bubble of German life” in the East End. What’s stuck in John’s mind the most is the harsh discipline.
“They were cruel those Germans,” he said. “They are very efficient. Whatever you did had to be spot on, or else you got a smack around the ear. That’s how I was brought up – hard. We did what we were told and that was it. Orders all the time.”
John is, however, grateful for having been instilled with a strong work ethic, which has served him well throughout his career as a chef, at one point holding eight different jobs.
“The kids of today have no discipline,” he said. “It’s, “What do you want for dinner dear?”. Meals in front of you. You didn’t eat much, but it was happy days looking back.”
Punishments would include picking carrots from the allotments, filling buckets with stones and pebbles, or pummelling red bricks into powder to make garden paths.
One of John’s tasks was pumping the church organ.
“Imagine a brick wall with a four foot wooden handle coming out of the wall,” he said. “You would pump away and all the music was going. When everyone was singing we would run and look over the front of the balcony to see the people down below, and the music would stop, We had to run back again. We got a smack for it, you know.”
John remembers being so hungry that youngsters would pinch dog biscuits from a wooden cabinet in the store room.
”They were lovely,” he said. “Well, it’s kept me going till this age.”
In 1938 John was one of the last six children still living there when it was shut down by the British authorities as the war broke out.
“In the 30s when Hitler came in it was turned over to the Nazis,” he said. “The priests, the governors, they were all Nazis. We were all put in to the Hitler Youth, and they wanted a new teacher for us.
“This teacher they thought was an ordinary teacher turned out to be the head of Hitler Youth, trying to recruit scouts from England. Eichman. He came in, and was teaching us. He put us all in the little uniforms, but they found out what he was doing.”
John went to live with his father who remarried and had five daughters.
“To this day I don’t know how I got out of there and went to my fathers,” said John. “He wasn’t a father to me. It was hard.”
The navy wouldn’t recruit John because of his nationality, so he ended up serving in the Polish navy during the war.
Now a father-of-four he lives in Worthing with his wife Beryl.
He went to visit the orphanage five years ago, but found a block of flats where it used to stand.
“I was choked when I went to look for it, and it wasn’t there,” he said.
He was thrilled last year though, when Patrick Wiegand, whose grandparents ran the orphanage, wrote a book about it, in which he features.
“I knew all the names of everyone in there,” he said. “Their birthdays. What we ate.”
Despite losing touch with his father he still speaks to two of his half sisters.
“He wasn’t a very nice man – they tell me that,” he said. “They say: ‘We don’t know how anyone could do that with their children’.
“Some of the kids in there had aunts who used to come and visit but we didn’t have anyone. It makes you bitter. I had no love from my father at all. That’s it. That’s life.”
The German Orphanage, Dalston 1879-1939 is published by the Anglo-German Family History Society and costs £9.