When he was six-years old, Joe Hess remembers an evening when he looked out the window and saw his synagogue burning. It was November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. His parents made a decision that would save his life; they were able to get Joev and his sister on the Kindertransport that took them to England. The Kindertransport was a program where, from 1938 until September 1, 1939, about 10,000 Jewish children — mostly from Germany, Austria and Poland — were sent, without their parents, to England and placed in foster homes.
Hess, 91, who will be honored by Jewish National Fund-USA during an exclusive event at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, on June 21, told the Journal how he is lucky that his parents made a decision that would keep him alive, even though it was an emotional trauma no parent should have to go through.
“It was terrible,” he said, recalling that he had one suitcase. “My mother couldn’t make it to the train station. My dad had to take us. To think about what it’s like to send your children away and possibly never see them again, it’s very difficult. But doing so, which saved me, is something I knew I would cherish for the rest of my life.”
But there is a wild twist to Hess’ story.
Hess and his sister were taken in by a Jewish British family that already had three children of their own. During the Battle of Britain, when London was under attack , the family moved to a farm. After the war, he would attend Rutgers University, get a degree in meteorology from Florida State University and join the Air Force. But after a date with the woman who would become his wife, he discovered that his father was somehow alive. Max, his father, had survived numerous concentration camps and about 10 years in Siberia. He hadn’t seen his father in 17 years, and he flew out with a translator because by that time he’d forgotten most of his German.
“I just threw my arms around him” Hess said. “You don’t have words at that point. What can you really say?”
He said his father spoke very little about his experience but clearly, it took great physical, emotional and mental strength to survive.
“He told me he’d made a deal with God he’d live to be 90 years old,” Hess said. “When I did his eulogy, I said he was such a good man, God rewarded him to be 91.”
His mother, Hess was later told, had died from typhoid fever.
Hess said he was one of about 130 Jews who were flown to his hometown of Fulda in Germany, where they met the mayor. “Do you blame the children for the deeds of the fathers?” Hess asked. “I don’t think so. I’m appalled and I blame the people that did it. I spoke to the mayor and he said the Nazis just took over. But I said, ‘you let it happen.’” He said the attitudes of people he spoke to were generally positive. He added that someone told him there was a blind man with his wife and his wife told him the Jews were back and the blind man said “I thought we got rid of all of them.”
Asked if he is surprised by rising antisemitism and violence against Jews in New York and Los Angeles, he said, he will never understand hate. “Why are people afraid of Jews?” he asked. “Are we interested in taking over the world? No. Antisemitism is a fear of people, and we should not be scared of people who are different. People also have hatred against Blacks, Asians and others because they are different but that’s of course not a good reason. That’s why it has been vital for me to speak to schoolchildren so that we can lessen the hate.”
Hess said he greatly respects America and doesn’t have anger, but was disappointed to learn there were bills in Congress to take in thousands of Jewish children that never passed, due to attitudes about Jews and immigration. “There were at least 300,000 trying to get in America and I didn’t understand what Americans were afraid of,” he said. “It puzzles me. The United States was formed on religious freedom so why did it turn its back on religious freedom?”
As to whether or not as a child, he could understand what was happening, he said his knowledge was limited, but he knew something was drastically wrong at his Jewish school, when the leader of the school had to use a whip against Hitler youth so Jewish children could get to school safely.
Does Hess believe in God after the savagery that took place against his family and people?
“Yes,” he said. “It was the glue that got me through.”
“Holocaust education is vital,” he said. He said he made the trip because he thought it might do some good to speak to and educate German citizens. There is a tremendous lack of Holocaust education in Germany, he said, as generations believe “it happened a long time ago.” While he thinks Holocaust education is good in California, he is aware more can be done in America.
He has spoken at countless schools in the Los Angeles area and beyond. At one school, Hess said the Mexican-American students came up, hugged him, kissed him and told him they had no idea what took place and that people should not hate or bully others.
“That is my greatest reward,” he said, qualifying that his first blessing was to have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren along with being married to the love of his life, his wife Marjorie.
Hess, who was once president of Temple Beth Sholom in Long Beach, said he decided to give back to Jewish organizations and took a special liking to Jewish National Fund when he learned about it.
“I said, if Israel had existed then like today, my parents and I would have been in Israel,” he said.