Kindertransport Reunion: A Personal Remembrance

London, June 20, 1989 … A remarkable woman, Bertha Leverton, small in stature, but large in vision, opens the ceremonies of the Reunion of Kindertransport in Harrow Hall. I sit amongst 1,000 women and men from all over the world, who share my fate, or something similar, and think back to a half century before.

One woman stands out among the rest in our memories. Her name was Gertrude Wijsmuller Meyer, a Dutch social worker, author of No Time for Tears. In early December 1938, she took a train from Holland to Vienna to meet Adolf Eichmann. The Nazis harassed her. She was thrown in jail. Undaunted, she insisted on obtaining Eichmann’s authorization to release 10,000 children to go to England. Laughing, he asked her if she was sure she wasn’t Jewish. “No’,’ she said. To check, he ordered her to remove her shoes and raise her dress. Absurd, thought Mrs. Wijs-muller. But for the kinder—anything. After a few more obstacles thrown her way, Eichmann agreed to let 600 kinder go that coming Saturday. They left Vienna on the Sabbath, 500 to sail on the S.S. De Praag from Hook of Holland to Harwich, England; 100 to wait in Holland for the next ship.

That was the first Kinder-transport. From that day to late August 1939, 10,000 kinder were transported to safety. Nine thousand never saw their parents again. Mrs. Wijsmuller was honored as one of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Israel. 

Stuttgart, Nov. 10, 1938 … My mother, who has never been called upon to make a decision other than what to plan for our meals, decides, on her own, that I shall live. It is far from easy for her, for it means she will have to send me to a foreign land, with a foreign tongue, perhaps never to see me again. I am nearly eleven-years old.

My Papa was taken away in the middle of last night. I was scared when I heard the men stomping up our stairs to fetch him. but afraid to cry out. Mama has been on the phone since early morning. I am not allowed to go to school today. Soon I will start to go to a Jewish school instead, she tells me. The synagogue in our town was burned to the ground last night. All Jewish men, from 16 to 86, were taken away. She is trying to find out where. What is happening?

A week later… Mama has placed my name on a list. I will go on the Kindertransport to England. She said she and Papa will follow as soon as he comes back. But I don’t believe her. I am to start English lessons right away. Papa has been taken to a concentration camp called Dachau. Mama has been on the phone day and night. That is how she found out about the Kindertransport. Her eyes look red.

Dec. 28, 1938 … My birthday. Papa came back last night! But he has changed. He is thin, his hair is white, he doesn’t talk much or smile. Frieda, my nanny since I can remember, had to leave because she let her boyfriend come to our house in his Nazi uniform. I have to be careful what I say. “The walls have ears’,’ Mama says.

March 3,1939… I have to leave today. It’s scary but at the same time exciting. I have a family waiting for me in England. They wrote to us and sent a photo. The pastel colors make them look weird. Their lips are too red. I’m afraid they won’t like me. I know I won’t like them!

I say goodbye to Papa. He has a strange look on his face. Mama comes with me on the train as far as Wicsbadcn. Grossmama comes to the platform there to kiss me goodbye. Mama gets off the train and puts her arm around her mother. They wave to me and try to look brave. Other children have come on the train. I press my nose against the dirty window pane until I can’t see them anymore. My eyes are wet. None of us have any way of knowing that Gross-mama will perish at Theresien-stadt a year from now. Nor that I will live in England for six years before I will see my parents again.

London, June 21-22, 1989 … The 50-year Kindertransport reunion was planned by Bertha Leverton. She has thought of everything, to the last detail. The speakers are from the Jewish Refugees Committee, from the British Government, from the Jewish community in London and the kinder themselves. We have learned about the organization of this tremendous undertaking. Many individuals and institutions, in particular the Quakers, were involved.

London, June 25, 1989 … We thousand from around the world have eaten together these two days of our reunion, have listened and learned together, prayed together, laughed and cried together, and have enjoyed two concerts together. Today we are taken to Dovercourt, Essex, near Harwich. It is where one of several hastily equipped summer camps was opened for us in the winter of 1938-39, where many of us stayed until families could be found to take us in.

“On Sundays, the English families used to come here to pick us over” one kind remembers. “I was afraid I would be too ugly to be chosen!’ Another, who was picked, ran away, back to the camp, despite the fancy clothes she was given. She wanted to be with her friends.

The mayor of Harwich shows us the pier where all of us landed when we first came from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia or Poland, via Holland. A ship filled with happy tourists sits in the harbor. It’s a far cry from the tall funnelled steamboats of 50 years ago, but the sight of it overwhelms me. The tourists are nothing like us, bewildered, wide-eyed kinder who arrived alone, numbers hanging on tags around our necks, in flight for our lives. Today we are the grandparents. We have lived our lives in other countries, where we have made significant contributions to the society in many different ways. We are all of us grateful to the British for taking us in, to the many women and men responsible for our rescue, and to Bertha Leverton for organizing the never-to-be-forgotten reunion. And I, in particular, am grateful to my mother, who found the untapped strength to make the difficult decision that saved my life.