Janet Diel


During a visit to a Burbank middle school some five years ago, Janet Diel simply couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The stepdaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Diel, 67, sat and listened to students dismiss the death camps as fiction. 

“I just sat there and thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Diel recalled. 

Soon after, Diel began serving as a member of the Burbank Kindertransport Association, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the narratives of the daring rescue efforts that brought Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Great Britain. She has coordinated speaking engagements by survivors at schools in and around Burbank. 

“It’s really important to me to know that children are not being taught that this was a fairy tale of some sort,” Diel said. 

Though not a descendent of a kindertransport refugee, last year she also chaired an event in honor of World Kindertransport Day that involved creating an in-depth presentation on the history of kindertransport and other programs. Survivors and their relatives spoke at the commemoration, which was attended by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and then-Burbank Mayor David Gordon.

Diel is involved in a wide range of other community work as well. As president of the Burbank Coordinating Council, a volunteer-based charitable organization that dates back to 1933, Diel spearheads the collection of donations from Burbank’s film studios, local businesses and individuals in the community. Donations support “camperships,” scholarships that send more than 100 Burbank children to camp each summer, as well as holiday baskets for 550 low-income families. 

Diel and company hold two food drives per year outside local grocery stores, collecting non-perishable items. Closer to the holidays, local businesses and community members donate fresher items, as well as toys for children. Each family in the holiday basket program receives three full bags of food from volunteers as well as at least one gift for each child.

Now that she oversees the program, Diel misses the personal touch of actually delivering baskets — but she remembers the difference they make. 

“When delivery drivers come back, they always say, ‘You should have seen the family. If you only could’ve seen the looks on those children’s faces when they got their toys!’ I just smile and say, ‘I’ve seen those looks.’ ”

A mother of five and grandmother of one, Diel is immensely proud that her 9-year-old grandson is one of the volunteers. Too bad that’s not the norm, she said. 

“My grandson was so proud to be handing out and helping make holiday baskets,” she said. “If we want to make this world better, we all have to participate — not just grown-ups, but kids too.”

Diel lives her mantra of community service, despite personal challenges that she’s had to overcome along the way. In 1979, she went to the hospital, complaining of severe back pain. After an MRI and complications from treatment, Diel was partially confined to a wheelchair — she can walk with a cane only about 50 percent of the time. 

Even here, though, she’s found a way to tie it into her desire to give back. In her role on Burbank’s transportation commission, for example, she oversaw the completion of a handicap-accessible playground at Bret Harte Elementary School in Burbank that doubles as a public park after school and on weekends. 

“My purview is children, bicyclists, pedestrians, disabled — everyone in the community should be able to use everything in the community,” Diel said. 

And she has no interest in letting her condition slow her down.

“Being disabled isn’t a way of life. It’s a state of mind as well,” Diel said. “You can either decide you are going to be active and contribute or you are going to sit and moan.”

Citing Kindertransport, British Jewish clergy urge UK to take in more refugees


More than 100 British Jewish clergy signed a letter urging the United Kingdom to take in more Syrian refugees.

In a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, the rabbis and cantors referenced the 10,000 Jewish children that the United Kingdom rescued from the Nazis between 1938 and 1940.

Two of the people delivering the letter Monday were themselves members of the Kindertransport rescue operation that brought Jewish children to the U.K.,  the British newspaper The Guardian reported.

Many of those who signed identified themselves as the children of Holocaust refugees.

“(W)e know that now it is our turn to open our gates to refugees who are fleeing from tyranny and evil, often with only the clothes on their backs, and their children in their arms,” the letter stated.

“We were heartened to hear that 20,000 refugees will be welcomed into the U.K. over the next five years. Yet we look again to World War II, where we find that immediate action could have saved many more children’s lives. Let the Kindertransport be our inspiration. 10,000 legitimate refugees, at the very minimum, should be offered asylum in Great Britain in the next 6 months.”

The letter, which also urged the government to allow refugees to work in the U.K., said the British Jewish community is willing to find homes for refugees and raise money to feed, clothe and educate them. It was organized by Tzelem UK, an activist group that organizes Jewish clergy on social and economic justice issues.

The letter also referenced the Exodus from Egypt.

“As Rabbis and Cantors we regularly read the story of a band of refugees who escaped from a tyrant with only the clothes on their backs and a bit of flat bread,” it said. “They crossed a sea, and they dreamed of a promised land. We call this the exodus, and it is our founding beacon for hope, and our constant reminder in every generation to open our hearts and our doors to the stranger at our gates.”

Kindertransport film picked for permanent preservation


Oscar-winner “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” has been selected for permanent preservation in the Library of Congress by the National Film Registry.
 
The film, released in 2000, documents the rescue of some 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi-dominated Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in the months leading up to World War II.
 
All of them found refuge in Great Britain, but many were scarred by separation from their parents, most of who subsequently perished in the Holocaust.
 
Deborah Oppenheimer, producer of the documentary and herself the daughter of a Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) survivor, said, “With the passing of so many eyewitnesses to that tumultuous period, the preservation of the film will recognize for all time the tremendous resilience of the children, the courage of their parents who were willing to entrust them to strangers, and the compassion of the British families who took them in at a time when so few would help.”
 
Mark Jonathan Harris, the film’s director and a USC professor, noted, “This recognition is a tribute to the character of our subjects as much as it is to our film. I know that those [survivors] who are still alive will be gratified that their wrenching stories will be preserved for generations to come and that others may be inspired by the courage and resilience they displayed in the face of harrowing circumstances.”
 
Each year, the Registry adds 25 feature films, documentaries and even home movies judged to be historically, culturally and aesthetically important enough to preserve for future generations.
 
Among films joining “Kindertransport” as new additions this year are “Saving Private Ryan,’ “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Big Lebowski.”

At 105, ‘British Schindler’ celebrated in Prague


A 105-year-old man known as the “British Oskar Schindler” — having saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis — received the Czech Republic’s highest honor Tuesday.

Sir Nicholas Winton was flown on a Czech military plane to Prague, where Czech President Miloš Zeman awarded him the Order of the White Lion. Seven of the 669 children he rescued were present at Tuesday’s ceremony, which coincided with the Czechoslovak Independence Day.

“I want to thank you all for this tremendous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago,” Winton said after receiving the award.

Winton was 29 when he first arrived in Prague in December of 1938. He was planning to go on a skiing holiday in Switzerland but changed his plans when he heard about the refugee crisis in Czechoslovakia. In the following months, he organized eight trains that carried children, the vast majority of them Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to safety in the United Kingdom.

“I’m delighted that so many of the children are still about, and they are here to thank me,” Winton said.

Winton, a baptized son of German Jewish parents who settled in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s, worked as a stockbroker before World War II. In Prague, he joined efforts by several other Britons trying to help the refugees.

“These people were the guilty conscience some in Britain had over their country’s role in the Munich Agreement, and came to help,” historian Michal Frankl from Prague’s Jewish Museum told JTA.

Signed in 1938, the Munich Agreement permitted the Nazis to annex parts of Czechoslovokia.

“Winton’s crucial role was in negotiating permits for the children with the British authorities. He also found families willing to take care of them,” Frankl said.

Ruth Halova, now 86, left Prague on one of the trains, known as Kindertransports, in June of 1939, less than four months after the Nazi occupation of the country. “It was a very emotional and joyful moment,” Halova said of the ceremony. “I’m happy I could shake [Winton’s] hand for all those who could not be here.”

Also in attendance was Asaf Auerbach, another child Winton rescued. Auerbach was 11 in July of 1939, when he boarded the London-bound train along with his brother. “It was very moving for me when I sat there today,” he said. “I noticed that even the president shed some tears.”

The final Kinderstransport left Prague on Sept. 1, 1939. However, it was forced to return because of the outbreak of the war, and none of the 250 children it carried survived the Holocaust.

Winton’s story only came to light in the 1980s, when his wife discovered lists of names of the children he rescued from Prague. In 1988 he met around 80 of those children for the first time since the war in an emotional encounter captured in a BBC documentary.

In 1998,  Czech President Vaclav Havel decorated Winton; Queen Elizabeth knighted him five year later.

Matěj Mináč, a Slovak-born director, made three films about Winton and his war time efforts including the 2002 documentary “The Power of Good,”  which won an Emmy Award.

Mináč told JTA that Winton, at first, “did not want to talk about himself at all. “It took us several months to convince him that those nine months he spent in Prague was probably the most important time in his life” the filmmaker said. “His story is amazing because he was no James Bond. He just did what any decent person should have done but didn’t.”

Who is a Holocaust survivor — and does it matter?


When she was arrested earlier this week during a peaceful St. Louis demonstration against police actions in Ferguson, Mo., Hedy Epstein grabbed national attention.

That was partly because, as a 90-year-old white woman, Epstein was not the typical advocate for a young unarmed black man killed by the police. But her Holocaust past — she fled Nazi Germany as a child — arguably played an even bigger role.

Nationwide news sources — including JTA — focused not just on her age, but her background: “Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein arrested in Ferguson protest,” read Newsweek’s headline, and images of Epstein, clad in a black T-shirt that read “Stay Human,” and gazing steadily at the camera while cuffed between two burly policewomen, instantly went viral. 

While some pundits might disagree with Epstein’s politics — in addition to police brutality, she has also spoken out against Israeli treatment of Palestinians  – other critics went further. Recognizing that much of the attention drawn to Epstein’s arrest hinged on her status as a Holocaust survivor, something she publicizes on her website, some commentators went so far as to question that status itself. Ultra-conservative publication Frontpage Mag called her a “fake” Holocaust survivor “desperate for attention.”

The attacks on Epstein’s status as a Holocaust survivor point to a significant phenomenon: the moral gravitas we tend to accord Holocaust survivors. Surviving Auschwitz — coupled with his extraordinary skills as a speaker and writer — lent Elie Wiesel the authority to serve as a voice for world Jewry, and raise worldwide consciousness of Nazi atrocities. With the exception of Holocaust deniers, few people question the unique power that survivors, as victims of a morally indefensible atrocity, have to command attention for the political and moral causes they embrace.

So it’s not surprising that Epstein’s critics would question her Shoah bona fides. (Indeed, her Holocaust survivor identity has come under fire before.) As the years since World War II pass, and the number of living witnesses to its horrors dwindle, the question of who “counts” as a Holocaust survivor — whether the term can be applied to refugees and hidden children or if one has to have spent time in concentration camps or ghettos — has achieved greater import.

There is much at stake. Beyond the concrete legalities of reparations and social programs, there is a wide spectrum of who is considered a Holocaust survivor, and the whole question — with its often unseemly judgments about how much suffering is required for one to earn the title  – has spawned complicated debates.

At the more inclusive extreme is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which defines a Holocaust survivor as “any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945… includ[ing], among others, people who were refugees or were in hiding.”

On the opposite end is Czech-Israeli Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer, who defines Holocaust survivors solely as “those people who were physically persecuted by the Nazis or their cohorts,” in ghettos, concentration camps or labor camps. Some survivor counts include only those persecuted by Nazis in continental Europe; other estimates encompass all who were subject to discriminatory laws under Nazi satellite governments in North Africa and elsewhere.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, acknowledges this ambiguity in its Shoah Resource Center, admitting that “it is difficult to define the term Survivor” – and leaving it at that. 

By necessity, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which distributes monetary compensation to Nazi victims, has a highly specific approach. Its tiered system entitles those “who fled Nazi invasion or lived under curfew” to a one-time “Hardship Fund” payment, while ongoing pensions are reserved for those who “were interned in a concentration camp or ghetto, performed forced labor, or lived in hiding or under false identity.”

But beyond the distinctions necessitated by reparations, are strict requirements for claiming a Holocaust survivor identity necessary?

Hedy Epstein’s story is instructive.

Epstein was 8 and living in Freiburg, Germany when Hitler came to power. A year after Kristallnacht, she was sent to England in a children’s transport. Like many others sent on the Kindertransport, Epstein never saw her family members again.

The flight, trauma and loss Hedy Epstein experienced as a young woman undoubtedly changed her perspective on the world. Is that enough to garner our respect  – that and the fact that, at age 90, she’s still showing up for protests? Given that an increasing proportion of the Holocaust witnesses who remain alive were children during World War II, and thus less likely to have made it through the concentration camps (where those too young to work were usually killed immediately), folks like Epstein will soon be all that’s left.

Whether we call refugees and hidden children “survivors” or something else, the fact is they still have been shaped by their experiences and often have an important perspective to add to global discourse.

And even they won’t be around all that much longer.

 

 

Survivor: Idele Stapholtz


The dining room of the Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, Germany, suddenly went dark. Idele Stapholtz — then Ida Steuer — heard shouting and breaking glass as strange men began hurling tables and chairs through the windows lining the back wall. She and her friend Katie Kohn, both 12 years old, grabbed hands and ran. Seeing a partially opened pantry door, they slid inside and huddled terrified in a corner. A teacher later coaxed them out, leading them back through the demolished dining room and outside to the large playground, where the other children were waiting in the cold. They walked with the orphanage staff to their nearby one-room schoolhouse. It was Nov. 9, 1938, the night that came to be known as Kristallnacht

The next morning, the children returned to the orphanage to collect their belongings. The building had been gutted, and furniture, bedding, clothing, personal items and even a piano lay broken and strewn across the playground. Somehow, amid the wreckage, Idele found her photo album and some of her loose photographs scattered about. “They were my identity. I had nothing else to prove I existed,” she said. 

Idele was born on Aug. 13, 1926, in Chemnitz, Germany, to David and Sara Ida Steuer, Polish émigrés who had met and married in Germany. Sara died two days after Idele’s birth, and her hospital roommate, a Mrs. Emerling, whose baby was stillborn, took Idele home with David’s permission and nursed her. 

David visited Idele every week. Her earliest memory is accompanying him to a park, which she later realized was the cemetery where her mother was buried. 

When Idele was 4, her father, a teacher, was offered a new job in Recklinghausen, in North Rhine-Westphalia. Idele was still living with the Emerlings, who by then considered her like a daughter, and to bring Idele with him, her father had to steal her away and quickly board the train. 

In Recklinghausen, Idele lived with the Jacobsohns, a German-Jewish family. She was well cared for by the parents, whom she called Mutti and Oncle, and treated as a little sister by their four teenage children. David joined the family daily for meals.

The Jacobsohns were poor. The mother was a caterer for the Jewish community center, and the father a disabled World War I veteran. They were also secular, celebrating Easter and Christmas.

After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, David was deported to his native Poland. His plan was to secure exit visas to New York for Idele and himself, where three siblings had immigrated before World War I. “I wasn’t heartbroken. I knew we were going to the United States,” Idele recalled. 

Idele remained with the Jacobsohns. But later, as her schoolmates joined the Hitler Youth, they began to throw rocks and call her “dirty Jew.” The first time that happened, Idele ran home to the Jacobsohns, crying. “I didn’t know what a Jew was. I thought it was a disease.” 

The Jacobsohns believed they would be safe in Germany, as Mr. Jacobsohn had fought for the Kaiser. But in fall 1937, the Recklinghausen Jewish community decided that Idele, for her own protection, should be sent to Dr. Leopold Rothschild’s kinderheim (orphanage), in Dinslaken, 25 miles away. 

After Kristallnacht, Idele and the other children were taken to Cologne, where they joined 600 children from across Germany on a kindertransport to Middelkerke, a Belgian town on the North Sea. 

Idele was transferred to Brussels, where Germaine Goossens picked her up on Jan. 5, 1939, taking her to the three-story home she shared with her mother, Marie. The two women owned a children’s clothing store that occupied part of the first floor.

Idele called the women Tante Marie and Tante Germaine. Communication was difficult at first, as the Goosens spoke French and Flemish, while Idele spoke only German. But Idele became fluent in French after only a couple of months in school, thanks in part to a kind teacher who provided extra help. She also quickly made friends, who were always welcome at the Goossens’ home. And on Sundays she accompanied her Catholic Tantes to church.

“I was terribly spoiled,” Idele said.

Then, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, and by 1941, life became more restricted and more dangerous.

When Idele needed a tonsillectomy, going to the hospital was out of the question. Instead, the Goossens’ family doctor, who knew Idele was Jewish, came to the house and performed the surgery on the kitchen table. “I only remember waking up to ice cream,” Idele said.

In the summer of 1941, when Idele turned 15, Germaine took her to City Hall to register as a Jew. But the clerk, probably a member of the underground, advised Germaine against it, and Idele became a child “hidden in plain sight.” She obtained a false ID, with the name Idele Steuer, and a vacant lot for her address. 

In late 1941, when Jews were no longer allowed to attend public school, Germaine enrolled Idele in a Catholic high school, a branch of the Dames de Marie order that Germaine had attended. The dean, Madame Eulalie (also known as Sister Judith), welcomed her — knowing she was Jewish — and kept her status secret.  

The Lannoo family, friends of the Goossens, also protected Idele’s identity, and their daughter Annie, five years older than Idele, became her close friend and surrogate older sister. Idele spent summer vacations at the Lannoo’s home in Ghent, where she learned to ride a bike and swim. 

On Sept. 3, 1944, British troops liberated Brussels, resulting in three days of celebration. “The world stopped,” Idele recalled. Worries about her father and the Jacobsohns soon followed, though she was still unaware of the Holocaust’s full horror. 

In 1945, Idele visited a maternal cousin who had been hiding in Holland, hoping to receive news of her father. But the cousin had heard nothing. “I remember being very, very sad,” Idele said.

Idele then located the four Jacobsohn children, who had immigrated to the United States and England. She learned their parents had been deported in 1942. Gerda, a daughter, had heard that Idele’s father had joined the Polish resistance, but had been captured and sent to an extermination camp that same year, though Idele has never been able to validate this. 

Meanwhile, Idele contacted her father’s siblings; they invited her to visit New York, and she arrived in July 1947 on a six-month student visa. The family treated her well, and she took classes at New York University. In October, she met Benjamin Stapholtz, a U.S. Army veteran born in upstate New York. The two became engaged on May 8, 1948, and were married on June 12, 1949. In April 1950, they traveled to Belgium for a two-month visit with the Goossens.  

Their daughter, Yvette, was born in January 1951 and daughter Deborah in December 1953. The family moved to Lancaster in 1955 for health reasons, and to Los Angeles 18 months later. Benjamin became a CPA and Idele took classes in special education. In 1971, she became a special-education assistant at Palms Elementary School, where she worked until retiring in 1991. 

Through the years, Idele has stayed in close contact with all the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save her. And in 1993, she traveled to Yad Vashem, where she unveiled three plaques to be displayed at the museum, naming Marie and Germaine Goossens, Madame Eulalie, the Lannoos and their daughter Annie as Righteous Among the Nations. 

Now 87, Idele is a member of three book clubs and is relearning German at the Culver City Senior Center. “I find it very healing,” she said. She also enjoys her family, which now includes three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Over the years, she has spoken about her experiences at various Catholic and private schools and continues to speak at Chapman College and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Her focus is always on the righteous gentiles, especially her Tante Marie and Tante Germaine.

“The whole world was going crazy, and these people put their lives on the line,” she said.

Letters to the editor: Missionaries, Kindertransport and more


Addressing the Bigger Wrong

Rob Eshman is right to question George W. Bush’s decision to address the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (“Why Bush Was Wrong,” Nov. 15), but I feel there is another issue that he should have addressed in this context: the Jewish position toward Evangelical Christian movements. On this second issue there has been no debate: Israeli prime ministers, some observant rabbis, and even Jewish entertainers have emphasized their gratitude to Evangelical Christian movements for their support of Israel. Yet those movements, like their messianic Jewish cousins, seek to supplant traditional Judaism with a vision that is heretical to it.

The reason commonly given for this otherwise strange Christian-Jewish alliance is political: Since Israel has tended to be politically isolated in the world, it needs all the allies it can obtain, from any source. According to this thinking, we should embrace any group, including messianic Jewish groups that support the State of Israel. As Eshman indicates, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute supports the State of Israel by spending money in it.

I would argue that, given the long-term threat that messianic Jewish and Christian groups pose for Jews, the State of Israel should work harder to be less politically isolated, so that it can more easily obtain support from organizations and countries that do not represent a challenge to Jewish beliefs and survival.

Barry H. Steiner, political science professor, California State University, Long Beach


The Real Danger of Christian Missionaries

Dennis Prager wrote a very important article on the dangers of Christian missionaries who try to convert Jews by telling them that “you can believe Jesus is the Messiah and still stay Jewish” (“Jews for Jesus,” Nov. 22). The problem, however, goes way beyond this deception. What missionaries conveniently leave out in their deceptive scheme is the Christian belief that Jesus is … God. Yes, it is this idea, above all, that crosses the line for virtually every Jew: Not just that Jesus is the messiah, but that the messiah will be God in a body.

In my four decades of dialoguing with Jews who have converted to Christianity, my No. 1 argument for bringing Jews back to their faith has been that very point: Jews can believe a human being is the Messiah but never that he is God. That is beyond the Jewish pale. It is idolatry of the highest order. The founder of Jews for Jesus was well aware of this danger when he told his followers, “Make sure you don’t tell them that Jesus is God until much later.” 

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, Jews for Judaism

Dennis Prager responds: 

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz makes an important point. Years ago I wrote a column in which I suggested that Jews make a deal with Jews for Jesus: If you continue to believe that Jesus was the Messiah but drop belief in Jesus as God, we will embrace you as fellow Jews. Jews have believed in any number of Jews as the Messiah – from Bar Kokhba to Shabtai Tzvi – and have always been considered Jews. But they never believed that anyone was God. 

Having said that, I also want to clarify that I do not believe that Christians are idolaters.


Now Is the Time to Preserve Jewish History

As an English Gentile, I first became fascinated about the Kindertransport after seeing the memorials at Liverpool Street Station in London (“Survivors to Mark 75th Anniversary of Kindertransport,” Nov. 22). The Holocaust was not really covered in our history lessons at school, and it has only been [depicted in] the documentaries (“Into the Arms of Strangers” and “Auschwitz: The Nazis and ‘The Final Solution’ ”), various books and the films like “Schindler’s List” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This chapter must be kept alive. I am moved by it and I feel that we all have to be reminded about it more and more as those who were part of the Kindertransport grow older. Memories will fade, the message will lose impact with time, but whilst it is still possible, there must be a serious attempt to make the Holocaust a permanent part of world history, so that it will never happen again — something that unfortunately has happened since the demise of the Eastern Bloc.

Richard Hood via jewishjournal.com


Beautiful ‘Walk’

I can’t wait to see it (“ ‘Walk’ Changes a Life,” Nov. 22). I was in the congregation when Rabbi David Wolpe told this profound story. I knew then that I would never, ever forget it. Mesmerizing and absolutely inspirational. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story with the world!

Jennifer Malvin via jewishjournal.com


corrections

The byline on an interview with author Mitch Albom (Nov. 22) should have been Dora Levy Mossanen.

An incorrect photo accompanied chef Michel Ohayon’s recipe in the story “Eight Chefs’ New Chanukah Delights, One for Each Night” (Nov. 22). This is the correct photo.

Survivors to mark 75th anniversary of Kindertransport


On the evening of Dec. 2, a small group of elderly men and women, some with their children and grandchildren, will gather at a Burbank mall to mark the 75th anniversary of a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, episode of the Nazi era, known as the Kindertransport (in English, Children’s Transport).

Susanne Goldsmith, 82, will be there, and so will Abraham (Abe) Sommer, 89, to recall the events of 1938 and 1939, when nearly 10,000 young Jews from Nazi-dominated Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia climbed aboard trains to find refuge in Great Britain.

In a world that generally closed its borders to Jews fleeing Hitler, the British offer to admit the children, following the mass pogrom of Kristallnacht, was a rare humanitarian gesture, but it carried a wrenching price.

The offer allowed for the admission of children only between ages 2 and 16, but not their parents or older siblings. Each family had to decide whether to send young children to be cared for by absolute strangers in a foreign land, with no assurance that parents and children would ever be reunited.

The first Kindertransport carried 200 children from a Jewish orphanage in Berlin that was destroyed by Nazi mobs during the Nov. 9-10 Kristallnacht. The group arrived in England on Dec. 2, 1938, less than a month after the night of arson and murder.

On Dec. 10, at the main train station in Vienna, 7-year-old Susanne Weiss (later Goldsmith) and her 9-year-old brother, Peter, bid their parents goodbye, in the first Kindertransport from Vienna, which was organized by British Quakers.

Goldsmith, now a resident of Burbank, recalled, “I cried all the way” — or at least until the train crossed the border into Holland, where a group of Dutch women distributed a then luxurious repast of thick slices of rye bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with chocolate.

Abe Sommer, who now lives in West Los Angeles, came aboard on the last Kindertransport to leave Vienna on Aug. 24, 1939. It arrived in London on Sept. 1, as newspaper boys were shouting that Germany had invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and Germany were at war, spelling the end of the Kindertransport.

Even given the innumerable victories, defeats and catastrophes in the ongoing commemorations of World War II, the Kindertransport events still retain their hold on the imagination, particularly among writers and artists.

One who could not forget was TV producer Deborah Oppenheimer. When her mother was 11, she boarded a Kindertransport train in Germany, amid tearful assurances that the family would soon be reunited. Along with 90 percent of the evacuated children, Oppenheimer’s mother never saw her parents again.

Whenever Deborah tried to ask her mother about that part of her life, the mother broke into tears, so the child stopped asking. But after her mother’s death, Oppenheimer decided to find out all she could about the Kindertransport.

Viennese children on their arrival in London. Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library

The result was the film “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” which won the 2000 Academy Award for best documentary feature.

“At first, the kinder (shorthand for the Kindertransport evacuees) didn’t want to talk about their wartime experiences, feeling that these were insignificant compared to the suffering during the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million children,” Oppenheimer said in an interview last week. “Many didn’t start opening up until they reached their 70s or 80s.”

Oppenheimer, now executive vice president of Carnival Films and appointed last year by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, explained the appeal of their story today:

“It is difficult to grasp the idea of 6 million murdered in the Holocaust,” she said, “but everyone can understand the suffering of a child suddenly ostracized by all her classmates or abruptly separated from her parents.”

Once the kinder arrived in England, their fate was decided by the luck of the draw.

Some found loving foster parents who scrimped to feed an extra mouth; others were exploited as servants. Some were housed in baronial estates, others in freezing holding camps waiting to be adopted at weekly “cattle market” inspections.

Goldsmith and her brother were among the lucky ones. Their new foster parents turned out to be a wealthy Jewish couple who picked up their new charges in a Rolls-Royce and housed them on a large estate along with eight other evacuated children.

“Our parents made it to England after the war started; we never asked how,” Goldsmith recalled. “They looked haggard, like refugees, and neither Peter nor I wanted to live with them.”

The family ties were eventually restored, and parents and children arrived in New York in early 1940. The Big Apple didn’t appeal to the family, but they couldn’t decide where else to relocate.

At that point, young Peter reminded his father that he had always enjoyed Giacomo Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West,” set in an imaginary mining camp during the California Gold Rush.

In short order, the family crossed the continent and settled in San Francisco.

Abe Sommer was less fortunate. On arrival, he was housed on a large farm in central England in one of many tents for refugees — shelters that did nothing to keep out the cold in the winter.

In 1943, Sommer joined the Pioneer Corps, an engineering auxiliary attached to the British army. For two years after the war ended, his assignment, ironically, was to supervise German prisoners of war.

He moved to Palestine in late 1947, worked on a kibbutz, and 10 years later moved to Los Angeles and established an automotive electrical shop in Beverly Hills. In 1994, he retired to his home in Beverlywood.

Sommer married a fellow Kindertransporter and after her death married another women with a similar background.

These days, the one-time refugee children try to keep in contact through the loosely organized Kindertransport Association (kindertransport.org), with small membership clusters in major cities in England, the United States, Australia and Germany.

There are no figures available on how many of the original kinder are still living.

In the Los Angeles area, one of the main activists is David Meyerhof, a retired teacher living in Burbank, whose 92-year-old mother is a Kindertransport alumna from Germany.

He and Goldsmith organized the local 75th anniversary commemoration, which will include a program of music, poetry and oral history, Meyerhof said.

The Dec. 2 event, part of the Temple Beth Emet Chanukah program, will start at 7:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Burbank Media Center Mall, in front of the Burlington Coat Factory store at 245 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. The public is invited.

For additional information, contact David Meyerhof by e-mail at dmeyerhof@yahoo.com or by phone at (818) 261-2060.

The Power of Music


"The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival" by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen (Warner Books $23.95).

Vienna, 1938. In the city of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Strauss, 14-year-old musical prodigy Lisa Jura looks forward to a promising career as a concert pianist. Hitler has other plans. With the breaking of glass on Kristallnacht, Jura’s dreams are shattered.

Internationally celebrated concert pianist Mona Golabek, with journalist and poet Lee Cohen, has crafted a loving, lyrical tribute to her mother, Lisa Jura, in "The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival."

Jura was one of 10,000 Jewish children saved from the Nazis by the British and sent on the Kindertransport to safety from Eastern Europe. Already being compared to "The Diary of Anne Frank," this simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting tale weaves together the stories that Golabek’s mother told her about prewar Austria; the gut-wrenching separation from her family; life at the orphanage on Willesden Lane; and the power of music to help her survive.

As Jura’s mother, Malka, puts her on the train, she says the prophetic words that will sustain and inspire her daughter and future generations: "Hold on to your music. Let it be your best friend."

In a world turned ugly, the beauty of music becomes Jura’s strength, and, against tremendous odds, with the help and encouragement of the 30 other displaced children at the orphanage, she wins a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy.

"Each kid saw something in my mother’s music that reminded them of what they had left behind in Czechoslovakia, in Austria, in Germany," says Golabek, a Grammy-nominated artist, "and that’s what I tried to do in the story, not only to pay homage to my mother, but to all these kids and to their bravery."

The book opens with Jura’s tantalizing daydream of performing in a great concert hall and closes with the fulfillment of that dream, as she makes her debut before an exhilarated crowd. And in between, the pages burst with melody: Jura pounding the cadenza of the Grieg "Piano Concerto" to drown out the sounds of bombs during London’s blitz, Jura visualizing Chopin fleeing a flaming Warsaw as she struggles with the somber coda of the "Ballade," Jura remembering her mother’s Sabbath candles as she plays the solemn opening of Beethoven’s "Pathetique."

"My mom and her mother never cared if a piece is in C major. What really counts is the passion behind it, the image. If it’s ‘Clair de Lune,’ imagine the moon over a desert island. That imagination allowed her to survive the horrors of what she experienced, because a C-major chord will not inspire you through the horrors. It’s the moonlight, the idea that maybe the composer wrote it for someone he loved. These things inflamed her imagination, and that’s how she inflamed mine."

And now Golabek’s book will inflame the imagination of a whole new generation. The Milken Family Foundation, together with Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization that teaches tolerance to 1 million students annually, are working with Golabek to bring the story to schools across the country by developing a companion curriculum guide.

Plans are under way to launch the book in Austria, and make it available to teachers as part of the now mandatory four-year Holocaust education program for students.

The saga of Golabek’s 18-year struggle to get the story published is almost as harrowing as her mother’s story itself. "It went through many, many writings; many, many ups and downs, starts and disappointments," Golabek says.

Now the accolades and offers are pouring in. On Sept. 24, she will be an honored guest speaker at the California Governor’s Conference for Women at the Long Beach Convention Center and will appear at Beth Am on Nov. 17 with her sister, pianist Renee Golabek-Kaye, and Jura’s four grandchildren, all musicians: Michele, 16; Sarah, 14; Jonathan, 8; and Rachel, 7. Brandeis University will honor her at the Skirball Cultural Center next March 31.

Last week Golabek was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition and was the subject of a feature story by Andy Meisler of the New York Times. In the planning stages is a concert next year co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Austrian government. And, of course, Golabek is considering movie offers.

On her syndicated radio show, "The Romantic Hours," which highlights stirring writings against a musical backdrop (Saturdays at 10 p.m., 105.1 FM), Golabek often quotes the poet Jean Paul Richter: "Life fades and withers behind us, but of our immortal and sacred soul all that remains is music."

"That was a quote my mother taught me, and the whole reason why I wrote this book and why I created ‘The Romantic Hours’ was that my mother felt through words and through music our souls would be immortalized."

Through a Child’s Eyes


All the time Deborah Oppenheimer was growing up, her grandparents remained silent, one-dimensional portraits in a silver frame in the living room. “They were always there but never referred to,” says Oppenheimer, who is in her 40’s and the executive producer of “Norm” and “The Drew Carey Show.” “I knew virtually nothing about them.”

Her elegant, refined mother, Sylva Avramovici Oppenheimer, rarely told stories about her family. Viennese waltzes filled the air at Oppenheimer’s Valley Stream, N.Y., home; the German meals were served on German porcelain, but there was scarcely a memento of Sylva’s childhood in Chemnitz, Germany.”I tried a few times to ask questions, but she would start crying, then I would start crying, and I’d retreat because I didn’t want to cause her pain,” the producer says. “I could sense this veil of sadness that enveloped her. Her grief was vast and deep.”

All Oppenheimer knew was that just after her 11th birthday, Sylva had packed a tiny suitcase and boarded a train alone for an uncertain future among strangers. Her journey was part of the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took some 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in England. Sending her off was a desperate act of love by desperate parents, Oppenheimer knew. Sylva never saw them again. After the war, she read their names on a posted list of Jews who had perished in the death camps.

While Oppenheimer did not push her mother to relive painful memories, she hoped one day to make a documentary about the Kindertransport, perhaps when her television career was over. Then events intervened to remind her that the proverbial clock was ticking.

In 1990, during a routine physical exam, doctors found a spot on Sylva’s lung; when she died of cancer three years later, at the age of 65, her past seemed to die with her.

Then came a startling discovery: A cache of letters, hidden in a drawer, that had been mailed every day by Oppenheimer’s grandparents to her mother in England. Written on tissue-thin paper in delicate fountain pen, the letters made Oppenheimer’s family come alive for the first time. “No one, not even my father, had known that the letters existed,” says the TV executive, who is also the producer of the feature-length documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” which opens today in Los Angeles.

The letters included family gossip, nicknames, terms of endearment and attempts at parenting from afar. “It was thrilling to realize my mother had been so deeply loved,” says Oppenheimer, who learned of the Kindertransport’s 60th and last reunion in June 1999 and realized time was running out. “My mother’s death gave me permission to explore the subject without fear of hurting her,” she adds, ruefully.

Oppenheimer approached filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris of “The Long Way Home,” the Oscar-winning documentary about the aftermath of the Shoah, only to find he was reluctant to begin another Holocaust film. “I think there’s a certain amount of what I’d call, Holocaust exhaust-ion,” the 55-year-old USC film professor told The Journal. “If you embark upon a film in that arena, you’d better have a fresh perspective.”He was persuaded, finally, by the chance to write and direct a movie that was as much about the resilience of children as the Shoah, a preoccupation of Harris’ since learning how his Hungarian grandfather arrived alone in the U.S. at the age of 12. “The draw, for me, was telling the story from a child’s point of view,” adds the director, whose five children’s novels are all written from a 12-year-old’s perspective.

As research, Harris and Oppenheimer read dozens of unpublished memoirs; watched Melissa Hacker’s 1995 docu-mentary, “My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports”; scoured the archives of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation; secured the cooperation of the U.S. Holo-caust Memorial Museum to view the rarest of vintage footage and artifacts. Armed with a distri-bution deal from Warner Bros., where Oppenheimer’s sitcoms are a tremendous commercial success, they set off to conduct 23 interviews with Kinder and their foster parents and rescuers in England and on the East Coast.

One woman quietly recalled how no one attended her 8th birthday party in Quakenbrueck, Germany, “the first compre-hending for a child that you are ostracized.” A Kind described being forced to work as a maid by her English guardians; a man recounted how he could not relate to his birth parents after the war; a Berlin Kindertransport organizer lamented losing his own wife and 3-year-old in Auschwitz.

The rescuer, who was gravely ill, died just five weeks after the interview. “It was as if once he had finished, he could let go,” says Oppenheimer, for whom the film was an emotional journey.

While making the movie, she discovered fragments of her mother’s story, which began at Hackney Hostel in London and continued at Cockley Cley Hall, a 5,000-acre estate near Norfolk. A Kind who had shared a bed with her mother described life in the gamekeeper’s residence, a fairy-tale-like thatched cottage with a tiny window and a mattress stuffed with twigs and leaves the girls had to knead before they slept. The woman mentioned the notched candle they kept at bedside to ration their reading; the pegs on the wall where they hung their ribbons and dresses; the harsh Jewish matron who punished the girls by withholding letters from their parents.

In summer 1999, Oppenheimer attended the reunion at Cockley Cley, where Kinder walked her down corridors, up back staircases, and into the dormitory-style bedrooms where they had silently cried themselves to sleep at night.

The producer also made her way to Chemnitz, an industrial town near Dresden, where she visited her family’s hosiery factory and the “Jewish house” where her grandparents had been confined after their home was confiscated. Across the street, she wandered the padlocked, decaying old train terminal, where Sylva had set off on the Kindertransport and her parents had boarded cattle cars to the camps.

In another part of town, Oppenheimer stood in her mother’s childhood apartment, by then a doctor’s office with a worn tile foyer; while she found nary a trace of her family’s living quarters, she comforted herself by looking out the window at the view her family surely had enjoyed. She imagined her mother playing in the garden and noted the same rhododendrons and geraniums that Sylva had planted in the backyard in Valley Stream. “I felt amazement that I was retracing the path of my mother’s life, but true sadness that I was doing it without her,” Oppenheimer says.

The film, she explains, has been a way to keep her mother present and to achieve closure since her death. “Ironically, I had to lose my mother to learn her story,” she says.

“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” opens Sept. 15 in Los Angeles. There is also an accompanying book of the same title (Bloomsbury, $27.50); a CD soundtrack from Chapter III Records (available in stores Sept. 26); and a display of Kindertransport artifacts, most collected for the film, to appear at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Sept. 8-24 (for information, call (202) 488-0400).