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.
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 email@example.com or by phone at (818) 261-2060.