As Churchill would later say, it was not the beginning of the end but it was the end of the beginning. The first five years of Hitler were horrific enough, yet in 1938 the screw turned all the tighter. Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland almost doubled the Jews under the Nazi flag, to more than 400,000. Before long, Jews in Vienna were on their knees, scrubbing sidewalks with toothbrushes. There was international hand-wringing over Hitler’s mistreatment of Jews but when Germany, in July, offered German Jews to any country that would have them, 32 nations, meeting at the French spa of Evian, politely declined. In November came Kristallnacht, with winter closing in.
Well, if the German Jews were being abandoned, was there mercy, somewhere, anywhere, for the children? Committees and organizations, mostly Jewish but not only Jewish, in various international capitals offered plans that culminated in what became known as the Kindertransport: England (primarily), Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland agreed to lift visa requirements for children younger than 17, if the advocates for the children would assume all costs and responsibility, and the children would each have enough money for a return ticket to Germany; after all, this would be a temporary solution, if that. The children were expected to go back where they came from. (In the United States, a Senate bill to accept 20,000 Jewish children failed in 1939 and 1940, with wartime European countries no longer a viable destination.)
Relics of this haunted but rarely examined chapter of the Holocaust are now on display in a small but stinging exhibit, “Kindertransport – Rescuing Children on the Brink of War,” a collaboration of the Yeshiva University Museum and the Leo Baeck Institute, that opened this week in Manhattan at the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History, through May 24, 2019.
Each child was allowed to bring one suitcase, some suitcases bigger than they were. What would a child bring? What would a parent pack? No one knew how long the crisis would last. How does a parent write a goodbye, or a guide to the unknown? One mother packed items for a marriage trousseau, a pin cushion, a monogrammed tablecloth and towels. Eva Goldmann, 15, practical, packed a German-English dictionary, while her mother sewed “Eva Goldmann” name tags onto all her belongings. Ruth Wachen, mother of Helen, 6, and Harry, 8, packed shoes and clothes that were a size too big; after all, the children were growing, who would take Helen and Harry shopping when they outgrew what they were wearing?
Hannah Kronheim, from Cologne, carried an olivewood spice tower for Havdalah, her reminder that God “separates light from darkness … and Israel from all the other nations.”
Miriam Lewin, 60, a member of the Kindertransport Association, was at the exhibit. The association is comprised of the “kinder” of 1938-39; their children, known as the KT2s; and the grandchildren, the KT3s. With many of the original kinder now in their 90s, it is up to the KT2s and KT3s to be the guardians of the legend. Lewin says, “I made a series of videos for teachers about how to use a book about the Kindertransport, ‘The Children of Willesden Lane.’”
Henry Steinberg remembered, “We just sat pretty much muted, and exhausted, until we came to the Dutch border. Then someone said we are out of Germany. We just went wild. On the train we danced and we danced. We whistled.”
Helen Hilsenrath said goodbye to her two children and, she said, “We ran doggedly behind the moving train until it disappeared. Slowly we made our way home. Within it, everything seemed empty and desolate.”
Lucy Lang, who left Vienna on the Kindertransport in 1938, spoke at the exhibit on behalf of the long-ago children: “I was a ‘kint’ with my sister, Erica [Jesselson]. I was 15 years old, one of the bigger children. I didn’t quite realize at that time what a sacrifice my parents made by sending us away, not knowing if they would ever see us again. I cannot visualize doing a thing like that. Unfortunately, most of these kids never saw their parents again. All the cries of the little children, we had to comfort them … . Many of them stayed in London, served in the [British] army during the war, and made good lives for themselves. I only want to emphasize, I cannot fully [appreciate] how parents were able to let their children go,” she told the crowd. “I hope you feel good [if] you have your children with you.”
The fragility of family remained on many “kinders’” minds, all these decades later. Shortly after Kristallnacht, 10-year-old Karola Ruth Siegel, a wisp of a girl, saw several Nazis in boots enter her Frankfurt home. They took her father to a truck idling in the street. Her slender father, slightly bent, just before climbing into the truck, turned to his daughter. He tried to smile, tried to wave. “It was the last time I ever saw him,” said Karola, now 90, at the exhibit. It was a lonely Chanukah, lighting candles without him.
Her father was sent to Buchenwald, which in 1938 operated like a prison. Mail was permitted, and Jews were “sentenced” to prison terms, after which they’d be released. Karola, only 10, didn’t comprehend the machinations of the Kindertransport. Her father sent a card, “It would make me feel much better if Karola would go to Switzerland,” where there was a place designated for Orthodox children. Karola remembers, “I didn’t understand why. I didn’t want to leave. I was an only child.”
At the railroad station, “My mother and grandmother told me we will see each other again,” though they never did. “My grandmother said, ‘You’re going to have lots of chocolate in Switzerland.’ They told me, ‘God is going to help… be good, and always study.’” Karola remembering her father’s half-smile and wave, tried to smile and wave, “so they wouldn’t cry.”
(Karola is better known today as Dr. Ruth Westheimer. When her Kindertransport group was sent to Palestine after the war, she was told that “Karola” was too German and she should use her middle name, “Ruth.” Because she was not at the exhibit as “Dr. Ruth,” but had gone to conjure up her 10-year-old self, perhaps the reader will forgive me for identifying her as Karola, rather than her more celebrated self, with whom I co-authored “Heavenly Sex.”)
On the train leaving Frankfurt, some children were crying, and little Karola tried to get the Orthodox children to sing familiar, inspirational songs, such as “Yom Ze L’Yisroel Orah v’Simcha” (“This is the day for Israel, a day of light and joy”), and “Tzaddik K’Tamar” (“The righteous will flourish like a date palm”). She also sang sadder German children songs, such as “Hanschen Klein” (“Little Hans”), about a boy who goes into the world alone, but his mother cries without him. She wishes Hans the best, “just be back soon!” For seven years, cloudy and clear, Little Hans is far away. He returns but he’s now Big Hans. Will anyone recognize him?
Well, maybe that didn’t cheer anyone up. “When we sang those songs on the train,” explained Karola at the exhibit, “I didn’t know what would happen, I was only 10, but I knew there was no return. Those German songs were very poignant for a 10-year-old, sitting on a train [bound for] the unknown.”
Let’s give Gisele, a mother, the last word. She wrote to her son, Bader: “Always be careful when swimming. Do not swim underwater. Do not stay in the water too long. … There are so many worries about a beloved child so far away. … My beloved child, may God guard you and protect you in all your ways, and give you Eliyahu HaNavi as a guardian. … Thousands and thousands of kisses to you, my golden. Your ever-and-always loving mother.” She died in Theresienstadt.
The Kindertransport exhibit is on display through May 24, 2019 at the Popper Gallery, Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St. For more information call (212) 744-6400 or (212) 294-8340. Additionally, The Zamir Chorale’s annual Chanukah concert at Merkin Concert Hall (129 W. 67th Street, Sunday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m.), will feature Zamir’s performance of a new composition by David Burger based on Dr. Westheimer’s experiences, including the songs sung on the Kindertransport. For more information: (212) 501-3330.