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When the war was over, many kindertransport survivors did not speak about their experiences; now they do

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On Hope Square at the main entrance on Liverpool Street in London is a sculpture called The Arrival, one of five across Europe created by Frank Meisler along his route to Britain as a Kindertransport child. (Photo: networkrailmediacentre.co.uk)

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Liberation 75, a global gathering of Holocaust survivors, descendants, educators and friends, was held in Toronto from May 4 to May 9, 2021.  One particular workshop, entitled MEET THE KINDERTRANSPORT ASSOCIATION, provided a sense of the importance and impact of the rescue operation that saved close to 10,000 children from perishing in the Holocaust. Trainloads of unaccompanied child refugees, of whom the vast majority were Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland made their way to Holland and then crossed over to England by boat during nine months before ww2.

The Kindertransport offered them an opportunity for survival in England, for what was initially anticipated by some as being a short term stay.  Since millions of European Jews, along with large numbers of other ethnic and religious communities from the civilian population, were killed by the Nazis, many of these children found themselves to be orphans after the war. There were some parents who fortunately did survive but reuniting parent and child had its own challenges, especially after so many years of separation and traumatic loss.

The workshop was chaired by Melissa Hacker, ”the first member of the Second Generation to serve as President of the Kindertransport Association (KTA) and daughter of a Kindertransport survivor from Vienna”. Melissa is a filmmaker who made her directing debut with the 1966 documentary My Knees Were Jumping; Remembering The Kindertransports, and is involved in providing material and writing the catalog for a Kindertransport exhibit opening in December of this year at the Jewish Museum of Vienna. “(Hacker) serves on the Executive Committee and the Governing Board of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants.”

The KTA “connects Kindertransport survivors, their children and grandchildren, preserves and shares Kindertransport survivor stories, and supports children in need and child refugees.”

In 1989 Eddy Behrendt, a Kindertransport survivor, founded and became the first President of the KTA. He saw the Kindertransport as a part of Holocaust history that had truly never been fully explored. With the help of the Simon Wiesenthal Center the KTA began searching for the Kindertransport children who had come to the United States after the war. According to Bebrendt “It took every waking hour, many letters, money, and dedication but within a year these children, now on their way to being seniors, met in the Catskills for a Reunion of emotional proportions. Bertha Leverton, also a Kindertransport survivor, was the official in charge of the reunion, which attracted 500 Kindertransport survivors.

Eddy Berendt wrote, “At these meetings I met many people with similar background stories and even some that came to England on the same train as I. It was time to remember, the past reunite once more, and to help others”

Two stories were shared at the event, each by a daughter of Kindertransport survivors. The first, Margaret Kittel Canale, spoke about her mother, Vera (Posener) Kittel, who  left her home in Breslau, Germany to go on a Kindertransport on July 25, 1939 at the age of 15. She has been living in Toronto since 1950,. is currently 97 years old and in good health.

Vera’s older sister Steffi was already living in England and working as a domestic, when Vera left home to join her. By then, brutal acts of violence and antisemitism were rampant throughout Germany and Jews faced increasingly harsh restrictions regarding their legal and human rights

Upon arrival, Vera went to Bournemouth on the Southern coast of England, as Steffi’s employer was there at a seaside resort and stayed in a hostel with other refugee children. However, as German Jews were seen as enemy aliens, as were all Germans, both Steffi and Vera were relocated away from the seashore.  Vera was sent to Cambridge. She was required to hand over any earnings from an apple picking job to the Jewish Committee in order to pay for room and board and was required to report to the police if she moved or changed jobs due to her enemy alien status.

Steffi returned to London.  She was over 18 and therefore of age to be incarcerated for being an enemy alien. She was put in prison for a month and later was held at an internment camp on the Isle of Man for a year and a half. She was finally released when England decided German Jews were not a threat to the country.

Along with other Jewish refugee girls of her age, Vera had to train to be a domestic and worked as one in Cambridge. When she was finally able to move to London, she had to work in a war factory  and volunteered assisting air raid wardens during the blitz.

After liberation in 1945, a friend of Vera and Steffi’s parents got word to the girls that their parents had been executed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz in March of 1943. One can only imagine the anguish that they experienced at learning of this terrible tragedy. Vera married in London in 1945 and gave birth to her daughter Margaret in 1947. Vera, her husband and daughter came to Canada in 1950. 

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The third panelist, Susan Stayna is the daughter of Karl Stayna who left Vienna on the first Kindertransport from there on Dec.10, 1938 at the age of 12 and now lives in Queens, N.Y. in the United States. He is 94 years old and in good health.

Karl’s parents, who were of Jewish descent, had registered as having no religious affiliation. As a result, his passage on the Kindertransport was arranged by Quakers as he was not considered to be Jewish. He was on the first Kindertransport from Vienna to England in December of 1938. His heart must have been breaking as he sat on the train as he did not want to leave his parents and was very worried about whether they would survive the great challenges ahead of them

His initial impression of England was not a positive one. He did not find it to be a warm or welcoming place and stayed with many other children in a school where he slept in a cold dining hall before staying in a girls boarding home. He then went to live with a childless Protestant family prior to relocating to the home of one of their relatives in a safer area outside London. He attended school and became an engineer, settling in London after the war.

He learned over time that his father had perished in Auschwitz, but his mother had survived and had moved to New York. He decided to join her after not seeing her for 10 years and slowly adapted to living there. After he got married 12 years after arriving, he began to truly consider America as his home. He now has two adult children, three grandchildren and lives in Queens, N.Y.

Peter Needham, a half-Jewish Czech boy (second from the left), and other children at Prague Airport before departing on a 'Kindertransport' flight to Great Britain organised by the Barbican Mission, 12 January 1939. (Photo: iwm.org.uk)

When the war was over, many kindertransport survivors did not speak much about their experiences, even if they had lost parents, siblings, grandparents and other relations. They were busy trying to build new lives and believed that they were lucky ones, in that they had not suffered or been in great danger. However, on the inside they were traumatized and felt as though they had been abandoned to live in the world without the love and support of their families. Many felt survivor guilt after they learned about the concentration camps and the inhumane conditions under which people were forced to survive, while they had food, shelter and lived in relative safety.

Why should they talk about their experiences, they asked themselves, when their parents, siblings, cousins, their grandparents, many others who were murdered, and those who survived camps, ghettos, or in hiding were the ones whose stories should be told? Their childhoods were interrupted, but they were grateful to have survived.

The kindertransport children who have now reached a ripe old age have had many decades to mourn the loss of their families. Beyond their now distant memories of a lost world, they are grateful that they were offered the opportunity to survive the Holocaust and continue living their lives as best they could. They can now understand how painful it must have been for their parents to send them away and will never forget them.

Judy Weinryb is a published author who facilitates a Creative Writing class on zoom at the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living. She has been a freelance writer for the Canadian Jewish News, the Jewish Tribune and the Markham Review. A social worker for many years, she has an interest in Jewish Community from both a professional and personal perspective.

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Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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