At 17, Sylvia Hurst fled Nazi Germany on the last children's train, leavibng her family behind. She tells Gavin Engelbrecht about losing her parents in the Holocaust, and living next door to Albert Einstein.

SYLVIA Hurst froze in fear as she heard the carriage door click and lock behind her. A young Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany on one of the last Children's Transports to leave for London in July 1939, Sylvia had only moments before been confronted by a screaming SS man who was holding a headcount.

"Your name miss," he had demanded. "Can't find her name on my list," a civilian with him said.

The train was for children under the age of 17. Sylvia was 17 and four months. Waiting in trepidation she thought 'surely they won't send me back for those four months'."

Speaking from her home in Tantobie, near Stanley, in County Durham, Sylvia, now 84, says: "I realised they must have thought I was a helper. But the reason my name was not on the list was because I was a child, although I had tucked my label inside my blouse because I felt too grown up. I accepted that I was a parcel, a child with a number. The SS man returned, checked the label and my passport, and left."

It was a narrow escape, but as Sylvia made her way to safety, she had to come to terms with leaving her parents behind - and her younger brother whom they had felt was too young to join her. Sylvia took up a post with the American Red Cross in London, and heard periodically from her parents. But news suddenly dried up.

She says: "When I heard a year later people had been transported to the East I went numb. I spoke little about my parents at all after that. I was in shock. I didn't even want to think about it. I had wanted nothing to do with Germany or the language."

"My sister, Susan, who had also managed to get out of the country, took it badly, she had a nervous breakdown."

Sylvia's parents perished in the Holocaust. Her brother Richard survived, but was mentally scarred, and her other brother, Arnold, also escaped.

She says: "I couldn't bear to think about it. I tried to wipe it out completely. Psychoanalysis was all the rage back then and my artist friends suggested that I should try it. But it was very expensive and I was only a clothes designer. I thought it best to write it down because it really troubled me."

Once her account was written it lay undisturbed for more than 40 years. But, says Sylvia: "I had to face it again. I owed it to my family to write the history."

Her writings have formed the basis of a fascinating new book, Laugh or Cry, which recalls a youthful idyll and life in Germany when Hitler came to power.

Sylvia says: "It remains painful to this day. There is not much written by people involved in the Holocaust, but personal experiences are an important part of history."

Sylvia was born a Fleischer, part of a wealthy industrial family which invented the corset. The family had moved to the Wuttenburg area of Germany from France in the 1770s where they were given the protection of the baron. The town already had tailors and weavers, but they saw a niche and set up a firm which became the first to manufacture corsets.

The firm expanded worldwide with branches in France, Italy and London. The family also became involved in the paper industry, inadvertently inventing tissue and crepe paper when they got the formulas wrong.

Sylvia's father, Julius, was qualified as a doctor of nature who treated the poor and had his own herb woman who gathered herbs for him at the right phase of the moon.

When the first rumblings of Nazism were heard, Sylvia recalls: "We thought it just impossible that people could be like that. Our family was well respected in the town. They were philanthropists, always improving the lot of others."

Newspapers in the town did not print Nazi adverts, but Sylvia remembers their first handbills announcing a talk on "The Pestilence of the Jews".

She says: "When I first saw the Stuermer (the Storm Trooper), produced by Julius Streicher, I thought it was comic." But the message was undeniable with its depiction of Jews as "horrible lecherous men with long noses almost meeting their chins". It never occurred to Sylvia that the Jews in the cartoons referred to them.

"At first grown-ups made good-humoured jokes about the Nazis," she says.

But after the 1932 elections, marching began in the streets and people disappeared into "protective custody". She recalls: "The town was divided between those who believed in emigration as an urgent measure and those, like my father, who maintained that Nazism was a crazy and unreal dream and that the bad times must pass."

Sylvia was sent to fashion college in Berlin and then Hamburg where she was a border in a Jewish orphanage.

She says: "The morning after Crystal Nacht (Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis launched a widespread attack on Jewish property) I remember the silence in the house broken only by the telephone with calls from all over Germany bearing bad news about someone's brother, father or relative who had been arrested.

"I, too, got a call saying my father was collected to Dachau."

Children's Transports at the time, arranged by the Society of Friends, the Quakers, and Jewish Board of Guardians, offered an escape route for the lucky few.

Much to her regret, Sylvia never got to say farewell to her mother who had been visiting her sick grandfather. She remembers the last details vividly: "It was 10am on July 25 from platform four of Hamburg station.

At 17, Sylvia Hurst fled Nazi Germany on the last children's train, leaving her family behind. She tells Gavin Engelbrecht about losing her parents in the Holocaust, and living next door to Albert Einstein.

"I remember a girl with red hair who was crying for her mum. We comforted each other and made daisy chains with flowers we had collected in a meadow while waiting for the train."

After the war, Sylvia became a fashion designer and created costumes for theatre and television. She then moved into education, working as a senior lecturer in design in Manchester. She went on to run the Oak Tree Inn in Tantobie for 15 years.

She says: "I hope youngsters will read my book and learn a little more about European history and also find out what can be done to avoid brainwashing in the future."

* Laugh or Cry by Sylvia Hurst (The Book Guild £17.99).

Lessons with Einstein

HE fitted the image of the stereotypical professor down to a tee. With wildly ruffled hair, he wore what appeared to be hand-me-down clothes, with buttons done up in the wrong holes.

As a child with an interest in clothes, Sylvia Hurst also noticed Albert Einstein wore a woolly jumper at times, which was highly unfashionable.

But most of all - as an eight-year-old - Sylvia remembers she was intensely jealous of him because he would monopolise her father's time.

Sylvia says: "I knew he was famous but never knew what for. I thought my father was far more interesting because he could heal people."

The physicist was a distant cousin of the family. She says he and her father each had their esoteric side and both claimed they could feel the forces of the universe and cosmos. Their serious discussions about such things as magnetic rays and forces took place in the library.

"One was not allowed to disturb them," Sylvia says. "It was strictly forbidden for us children to discuss Albert with anyone outside the house. Father did not want him to be gawped at. He always forgot to tip the maids, so father would put some money on the kitchen table, pretending that it was from him."

He also taught Sylvia the theory of relativity. "He said 'If two lovers sit on a bench for one minute, that is a short time. However, if you sit on a stove for one minute, that is a long time'," she recalls.