LONDON (Jun. 27)
Between 1938 and 1940, some 10,000 children from Germany, Austria and Poland were plucked from the imminent threat of the Nazi inferno and brought to safety in Britain.
Earlier this month, with age increasingly taking its toll, survivors of the Kindertransport, or children’s transport, converged on London from all over the world for what is likely to be their last full-scale reunion.
They came from Britain, the United States, Canada and Israel. They also came from Australia and New Zealand. One delegate, originally from Berlin, even traveled to the event from Nepal, where he lives alone, self-sufficient with his own generator, in the mountains outside Katmandu.
The gathering, says Munich-born organizer Bertha Leverton, now of London, exceeded everyone’s expectations. “It was absolutely overwhelming.
“There will never be another gathering like this — this is it,” she says. “We are dying out, and I don’t want this to just peter out. I want to go out on a high.”
Ten years ago, Leverton, now 75, founded the London-based Reunion of Kindertransport, dedicated to keeping the former “kinder” in touch with each other through a regular newsletter.
Fifty years after the war began, Leverton says she realized that most of the survivors of the Kindertransport had never spoken about their experiences. Their children might have known they were from Germany, Poland or Austria, she says, but they knew little of the ordeal their parents had endured.
She decided to remedy that by organizing the first Kindertransport reunion, an event that not only captured the imagination of the kinder but also the attention of the international media.
The idea of an association was picked up by “kinder” survivors in the United States, who established the Kindertransport Association in New York. It now has chapters throughout the country.
Leverton arrived in Britain in January 1939 when she was 15 years old, leaving behind her parents and a sister. “I prayed every night that they would be able to come.”
Her prayers were answered. Fate and circumstance combined to allow her parents to flee Germany in 1940 and slowly make their way to Britain.
Leverton’s reunion was, tragically for the children of the Kindertransport, desperately rare. The overwhelming majority of other children’s prayers were not answered.
Most of the young refugees continued to receive mail from their parents for a few months after they arrived in Britain but then, inexplicably, the letters from home stopped, and they were left to guess why.
“I lost my childhood,” Leverton says. “We all lost our childhoods. We all knew what was going on.” Curiously, she recalls, “most of them did not break down during the war.
“They broke down afterward — when they saw the pictures of the concentration camps, when they knew for certain that their parents would never be coming for them, when they learned in what gruesome circumstances they had become orphans.”
Leverton recoils when asked about the what she calls the “dreadful” family to which she was assigned when she arrived, bewildered, in her new country.
“They were paid for having me,” she says, “I not only worked for them but also went out to work, and I had to hand over my wage packet to them each week.”
Like many of the “kinder,” she was assigned to a non-Jewish family, but while she emerged with her Judaism intact, many others — younger than her and influenced by their adoptive families — did not.
“Quite a few became Christians,” she says. “They came as little children and needed something to believe in. You take children 5, 6, 7, and it gives them roots. This is what happens.
“Those that came to the reunion showed an interest in Judaism. They know they are still Jews and they want their children to know.
“There is still something in the soul.
Leverton blames the British Jewish community for the placements into non-Jewish homes. Many, she says, were simply unwilling to take in the refugee children.
“Anglo Jewry didn’t open their arms to us,” she recalls. “We didn’t look like refugees. Many of us arrived in our finest clothes and some people resented that. They wanted refugees to look like refugees.”
The problem was compounded by the insensitivity of the refugee committees – - composed of Jews — who “did not pay much attention to whether Jewish children went to Jewish homes.”
But, she hastens to add, there were exceptions. One wealthy couple bought a home in London that could accommodate 13 of the “kinder.” And 51 boys were billeted together in a mining village in the north of England. “Of the 51,” she says proudly, “only one was lost to Yiddishkeit.”
Today, the “kinder” form a large and intensely close international family, largely as a result of Leverton’s newsletter. And she is clearly a proud member of her extraordinary, extended family.
“The refugees mainly mix with each other and marry each other,” she says. “I suppose the major characteristic of the `kinder’ is unity. Unity binds us all together. It all happened a long time ago, but you can never forget something like that.”
At the three-day gathering this month, the “kinder” attended conferences, seminars and workshops. There were formal dinners and country hikes. One of the highlights was the unveiling of a plaque in the British Parliament that expresses the gratitude of the “kinder” to the British government for saving them.
But for Leverton, the lasting memory will be a book for the “kinder” that will be as exclusive as the group itself.
Available only to the “kinder” families, it will contain archival material, stories and article by them, as well as their names, addresses and telephone numbers.
The book, like so many other of Leverton’s endeavors, will be a strictly family affair.