London, June 20-21, 1989
by Olga Drucker
Originally published in the December, 1989 issue of Jewish Currents
HALF A CENTURY HAS PASSED since the ships crossed the English Channel from Hook of Holland to Harwich (pronounced Harrich), England. They steamed across in the dark of night. Their cargo: children — a few hundred at a time. The ships made the same voyage again and again, between early December, 1938 (after Kristallnacht) and August, 1939. By then, the eve of the outbreak of World War II, about 10,000 children had been transported out of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
We came alone. We were as young as four months, as old as 17 years. Nine thousand were never to see their parents again. I was one of the luckier ones. After six years in England, I was reunited with my parents in New York, in 1945.
Now, in 1989, I attended another reunion. The 50-year Reunion of Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) was held in London, England, on June 20 and 21, 1989. It was the brainchild of one woman, Bertha Leverton, herself a Kind from Munich, who wanted to do something big for this special anniversary. She looked for a hall near where she lives. The hall of the Harrow Leisure Center (we’d call it a recreation center) could hold 1,000. She hired it, then placed some ads in Jewish publications around the world, found a local caterer to serve kosher lunches, teas and suppers, and arranged for two concerts, one for each night. The first would be by professional artists who would donate their time; the second by Kindertransport talent. She lined up a number of VIP’s to talk to us.
Next, she began to send out newsletters as our applications started to pour in. In less than a year well over 1,000 Kinder applied. Latecomers had to be turned away. Again, I was lucky.
I became more and more excited — and nervous. Bertha had asked me to play my cello at the second concert. I began to practice. But in between notes I kept seeing that train which carried me and the other Kinder away from Stuttgart, away from my mother and father. I kept choking on something as I saw again my grandmother, who had come especially to the Wiesbaden station to kiss me goodbye as my train passed through. A year later she would perish at Theresienstadt. As my cello bow made the Saint-Saens “Swan” glide across the strings, I saw again the ship that carried me and the other Kinder across a rough Channel to England — and safety. I was 11 years old. As I committed to memory the music of the Bach duet for cello and flute, which I was to play with my 81-year-old English foster mother, a procession of foster mothers danced before my mind’s eye. Some were good to me, others indifferent, while one or two made it their mission to convert me to Christianity. My spry and chipper octogenarian foster mother, the flautist, will remain forever my “real” foster mother. We adopted one another nearly 50 years ago, and visit back and forth often. (Since then I also found my Jewish roots again.)
This time, when I returned to London for the reunion, I stayed with one of her daughters (my “sister”) as I had done so often. The BBC camera crew arrived two hours after I did, for an interview. My foster mother and I w ere on the Breakfast Show the morning o f the first day of the reunion.
WE STREAMED INTO THE LEISURE HALL THAT MORNING, 1,000 elderly Kinder, as eager as kids on their first day of school. Our attention was immediately drawn to the pictures on the walls. There we were, enlarged in black and white: ourselves walking to the trains flanked by our stoic, tight-lipped parents; ourselves on the ships, laughing as if we were on a school trip; ourselves with fear and bewilderment in our eyes as we were greeted by strangers who spoke a foreign language. Ourselves in the bunkers of hastily equipped summer camps in dead of winter, awaiting the families that would take us in.
Already a crowd was forming around those pictures. “Look, there’s me! There, that one. The one holding my sister’s hand. The one being led by the bobby (English policeman), the one clutching a doll… a violin… And there is… I remember him. And isn’t that… ?” Long lost friends began to find each other. The hall resounded with screams of recognition. Tears flowed. Laughter rang out. And always the specter of “Why was I saved and not those others?” stood grimly accusing at our sides.
We found our tables. They were set up in long rows, marked with the names of our towns: Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Vienna… Czechoslovakia… Poland. On stage were the dignitaries: the mayor of Harrow, an M.P., a rabbi. Bertha came running from somewhere backstage where she was still busy organizing. A cheer rose for her.
A short memorial service opened the festivities. We held a moment of silence for those who perished — many of our own families and friends. We said Kaddish. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, agnostics, and a few Christian converts, we bowed our heads as one. Greetings were conveyed to us from Margaret Thatcher and from Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales, a.k.a. Princess Di. The speeches began.
We heard about some of the people responsible for our rescue. Lola Hahn-Warburg, well in her nineties (she has since died), was a key member of the Jewish Refugees Committee, herself an emigre to London. She pleaded for the Kinder at the British Home Office, whereupon, on November 21, 1938, a debate in the House of Commons, under Neville Chamberlain, resulted in permission for “an unspecified number” of children up to age 17 from German occupied countries to enter Great Britain as “transmigrants.” Radio appeals followed. Money was raised. Castles and farms were offered. Marks & Spencer department stores donated free shoes and boxing gloves. Public opinion did much to sway Chamberlain, whose image had plunged since his Munich appeasement efforts.
We learned the name of a Dutch social worker, Gertrude Wijsmuller-Meyer, author of No Time for Tears. Mrs. Wijsmulller went to Vienna to meet Adolf Eichmann. Harassment by the Gestapo, jail and other humiliations did not daunt her. She demanded authorization for 10,000 Kinder to be transported to England right away. Eichmann laughed. Was she sure she wasn’t Jewish? She answered no. He ordered her to remove her shoes and raise her dress “to check.” If it would lead to our rescue, she would comply even with this absurdity. Eventually her tormentor agreed to release 600 children on condition they leave Vienna that Saturday. Short notice! But on that Sabbath early in December, 1938, 500 Kinder sailed via Hook of Holland to Harwich on the S.S. De Praag. One hundred Kinder had to be put up temporarily in Holland. That was the first Kindertransport. In the days to come, Mrs. Wijsmuller was instrumental in the rescue of more than 10,000 Kinder — until time ran out. She has been honored as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem.
In England, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld saved hundreds of children, some of whom he remembered in a talk at the dinner. He established at least one home for the Kinder, one of the residents being Bertha Leverton herself.
Help came from other sources as well. Involved were the Quakers, churches, educational institutions, and the British government of the time. The war took a great toll on British citizens, but we children were treated as their own. Britain’s policy on Palestine notwithstanding, I have always had, an always will have, a profound love and respect for the English. They saved my life!
We heard the voices of the Kinder themselves: Hella Lieberman now lives in Australia. She was 15 when she left her native Danzig in May, 1939. Her grandchildren live in Israel, where she had been visiting before flying to London for the reunion. There were more Kinder on the plane. A TV crew from Nord-Deutscher Rundfunk, Hamburg, flew with them, taping a documentary to be shown in Germany. It was Hella’s first time back in London since 1946. Hella said: “We refugees were the best foreigners England ever had. We worked hard, learned the language, and made ourselves fit in.”
Celli Land, now living in Israel, nodded her head. She told about having to clean out the chimney flues for her foster family before school every moming. “I was paid two shillings six-pence.” Not so bad. A quarter.
Another Kind grew thoughtful. “Our parents told us we were special. They emphasized Kultur. Education. Perhaps we were spoiled. We didn’t expect to have to do physical work, had never been asked to lift a finger before. But, you know, we learned fast. We adapted.”
A grandfather told us a story: “I had my violin when I got to Harwich. A customs official wanted to take it from me. He must have thought I was going to sell it. I cried. Then a man came and said: “Let’s find out if the lad knows how to play it.’ So I played ‘God Save the King.’ They let me keep it”
There were questions. Some of those present asked why England had not saved more Jews. However, it should be remembered that England was the only country in the world that took us in in such large numbers, and had the war not started when it did, would have saved even more. (A boatload of refugees was turned away from the American coast and Cuba, and forced to return to Germany and death.) Only the older child (my 19-year-old brother among them) were kept for a while on the Isle of Man or sent to Canada and Australia. But again, we should remember that war breeds confusion, and all Germans, including German Jews, were eyed with suspicion. (Here in America the Japanese-Americans fared far worse!)
We discussed the issue of identity. Where do we belong? Some said in the countries where we now live. Some said: Israel. Some said: We are children of the universe. And of our relationships vis-a-vis the Germans and Austrians: How do we deal with the younger generation whose fathers and grandfathers were surely Nazis? Some said forgive. Others said never. Still others said: It is not for us to forgive!
NBC and BBC cameras were everywhere. So were reporters from every imaginable publication. We Kinder had come from literally all over the world. One had come from as far as Nepal, many more from Great Britain itself. We had come from France, Holland, West Germany, Belgium, Austria, Luxemburg, Italy, Switzerland, Finland, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Canada, and about 200 of us from the U.S.
The food was superb. The concerts were well received. We laughed, we cried, we hugged each other and we talked, talked, talked. We could have gone on another week, but we were also tired. Bertha Leverton showed no sign of fatigue whatever. She seemed inexhaustible.
One Sunday, June 25th, we went on a special bus trip to Dovercourt, Essex, near Harwich, where one of the camps in which many of us first awaited our new foster homes still exists. There were the little cottages. There was the dining hall. But it had changed. Or we had changed.
The mayor of Harwich joined us, as did some local residents who still remembered us. Dennis Mann, for instance, was 14 years old when he worked on the S.S. Amsterdam, cutting our sandwiches, handing us our blankets. One woman was the daughter of the policeman shown in one of the photographs on the wall, holding two little boys by the hand.
We were driven to the waterfront, to the dock where we all arrived, 50 long years ago. A Scotsman in full regalia was playing the bagpipes for us there. A ship from Holland was circling in the harbor, waiting to greet us. Its passengers were tourists, but every one of us, I’m sure, saw themselves: wide-eyed, bewildered Kinder, arriving alone, numbered tags hanging from our necks, in flight for our lives.
We were the ones rescued. We were the lucky ones. We watched that ship from Holland, and we remembered. How can we forget?
At the time of publication, Olga Drucker lived in Merrick, NY.