Would you send your children away to save their lives?
Jews who were desperate to get out of Nazi-occupied Europe before the war but were unable to secure exit visas made that agonizing choice, sending their sons and daughters to safety in Great Britain on Kindertransports, while the adults stayed behind. Between 1938 and 1940, these rescue efforts saved nearly 10,000 children —most of whom never saw their parents again.
Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the first Kindertransport, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust has collected more than two dozen artifacts, letters and photographs from 10 Kindertransport refugees in an exhibit called “Childhood Left at the Station.” The items were donated or loaned by the individuals or their families, or borrowed from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They’re showcased alongside panels displaying photographs and information about each person’s story, highlighting what they accomplished in life.
The 10 participants came from Slovakia, Austria, Germany and Poland, and settled in the U.K, Israel and the U.S. Among them are the late Israeli sculptor Frank Meisler, noted sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Northridge resident Dave Lux. The artifacts include Charles Susskind’s sticker-covered suitcase; a pen-and-pencil set in a red leather case, the last gift Sylvia Oppenheimer received from her parents; and letters Rita Berwald wrote, seeking information about her parents. She eventually learned they both perished.
There is a photo of Westheimer holding the washcloth she carried as reminder of her father, a washcloth wholesaler who was arrested after Kristallnacht. He was taken to Buchenwald and, in his last letter home, told her to try to get on a Kindertransport, and that saved her life. Her parents and grandmother were murdered.
“There’s so much meaning to these artifacts,” exhibit curator Jordanna Gessler said, giving the Journal a preview of some of the items. “They tell the desperate story of this attempt to get out and these parents wanting their kids to be safe. I think about the trauma and separation anxiety [these families] went through for no other reason except being Jewish. I also think this is such a timely exhibition,” she said, referencing the undocumented migrant children separated from their parents at the United States’ southern border. “When I started working on this a year and a half ago, I never thought it would be so relevant to what’s going on today.”
Lux, born Isidor Pinkasovic in Slovakia, was nearly 6 when he and his brother became two of the 669 children whose passage British philanthropist Nicholas Winton secured in 1939. “I had no idea what was happening,” he told the Journal. “We thought we were going on an outing. I was screaming, ‘Where are my parents?’ Eventually we realized they weren’t coming with us.”
“There’s so much meaning to these artifacts. They tell the desperate story of this attempt to get out and these parents wanting their kids to be safe.” — Jordanna Gessler
The brothers spent seven years at a Jewish home for boys in England, where they were regularly “slapped around” by the rabbi who ran it, Lux said, and another three years in London before they sailed to Israel. Lux made his way to New York, where he became a graphic artist and photographer, and then lived in Cleveland, where he met his wife of 56 years before they settled in the Los Angeles area.
Now 85 and the father of three grown children and grandfather of five, he’s grateful to his parents — who were murdered along with his baby brother — for making the decision to send him on the Kindertransport. He often speaks to groups about his experiences during the Holocaust. “It’s important to me because we have to continue to tell these stories to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “That’s why I do it.”
Along with children of other Kindertransport survivors, Lux will be on hand for the exhibit’s 3 p.m. opening ceremony on Aug. 26, honoring the British Consul General in Los Angeles. The exhibit also honors Winton and features a film clip, playing on a loop, in which he explains why he fought to save the children.
Pointing out that the English word “kind” is the same as the German word for child, Gessler said she wanted to celebrate the people who showed kindness to the kinder, “whether they took in one child or like Winton, saved many.” She added, “If you look at the ripple effects of those acts of kindness, they had a huge impact. In this day and age when everybody is disconnected from one another or connected by electronics, [we’re providing a] space to discuss acts of kindness and [show] what effects they can have on the community.”
Stressing the importance of reaching youth, Gessler has produced a teacher’s guide to the Kindertransport exhibit, including photocopies of the included artifacts. She also plans a traveling version of the exhibit in the future.
Gessler hopes visitors “walk away thinking about how they can pass it forward, how they can engage in acts of kindness that will have a larger ripple effect on their community, their town, even one individual,” she said. “The effects of kindness don’t have to be immediate. You can do something for someone that impacts them in a good way 50 years down the road.
“We live in a world that needs more kindness,” Gessler said. “If even one person leaves here and says. ‘I’m going to do tikkun olam, give to charity, do a mitzvah,’ then we’ve made a difference.”
“Childhood Left at the Station” will be on display Aug. 26-Dec. 31 at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. The opening day event with Lux is free but reservations are required.