One of my recent patients being treated under the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program, Edith K., told me that she didn’t really consider herself a Holocaust survivor because she “never had to survive the concentration camps.” She experienced Nazi persecution, lost her parents at an early age and was forced to watch the shul’s Torahs being burned during Kristallnacht. She was one of the fortunate children who was part of the Kindertransport, escaping to the UK. I enjoyed talking with her so much and asked her to relay her wartime experiences.
Edith K., 94 years old, may have been on one of the first clandestine evacuations of children to escape the Nazis and she told me her story of Kindertransport, of which I knew very little. Almost all those (about 10,000 children) involved in this famous rescue mission that took place over 8-9 months, had all witnessed the horrors of Kristallnacht. Most had the terrible experience of having to watch their parents or other close family members being taken away to concentration camps, then being put on trains to unknown destinations, never to see their parents again. Between December 1938 and August 1939, some fortunate (mostly) Jewish children were connected with child rescue operations, arranged by London’s “Movement for the Care of Children from Germany”, known as Kindertransport (“KT”). As war between England and Germany began in earnest, the last transport from Germany left on September 1, 1939.
In 1937, Edith was 11 years old when her mother died at the age of 47 of pleurisy. She did not have access to any remedy such as simple antiinflammatories. Edith had one older sister who immigrated to New York at around the same time, so Edith was then an only sibling who was living with her widowed father in a small town in Germany, called Gerolzhofen, in Bavaria, not far from Frankfort, as the war was heating up. In Edith’s words,
“A few months after that traumatic death, the Jews in Germany and Austria
went through what is known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was November 9-10, 1938, and the synagogues were looted, some burned.
I distinctly remember the worst of it; we were studying in Hebrew school inside our synagogue when German police with heavy boots barged in through the front door.
We could hear the banging of their boots on the stairs coming to look for us. They came in and told us all to get out immediately. We were forced outside only to watch them remove all the Torahs, pile them in the street, and burn them. The only reason they did not burn the synagogue right then and there was because it was too close to the Christian buildings on either side, and they didn’t want those to catch fire as well.
Following that, we had to watch all the Jewish men of our town get arrested and sent off to the concentration camp, Dachau. As far as I can remember I ran after my father and held on to his legs. A Nazi officer who I knew slapped my face and my father pushed me away, saying, “You have to go, you have to go.”
While in Dachau, my father learned of the KT which had never been “advertised” in small towns such as ours, only large cities like Berlin, Vienna, Munich, etc. All the men were released just before Christmas and sent home in the hope that they would just pack their suitcases and get out of Germany. My father and I had a very high quota number to come to the U.S. and he never made it. He was killed in one of the smaller camps associated with Auschwitz. But before that happened, he took me to a train station where I boarded the train carrying children from all over Germany. My father was not allowed to get anywhere near the train, and we said goodbye, never to meet again.
I have a vague memory of the train ride through Germany. At one point, the train had to stop, and SS officers came aboard to have all the passengers empty out their suitcases, checking for contraband. But once we crossed the border into Holland, we all felt safer. Germany had not quite invaded Holland yet. When we arrived in Amsterdam there were several women waiting to hand out fruit, candy and cookies, etc. The next stop was the Hook of Holland, a port on the North Sea, where we boarded a ferry to take us to Harwich, England. All this travelling took at least two days, but to this day, I have no recollection if we ever ate a meal.
From Harwich, a train took us to Liverpool Station in London, another long ride. Once there, we were herded into an exceptionally large room where many of the children were picked up by either relatives, friends of their family or English people willing to take in one of us. This was not easy for anyone as most kids did not speak English and the foster parents did not speak German. After a few hours in that room, again with nothing to eat or drink as far as I can remember, I was one of a few still left. I had no idea what to do so I started to cry! Finally, a lady from “The Committee” took me to a girl’s hostel, located in Kilburn on Willesden Lane. I had to stay there for a few weeks because the Boarding School to which I was being sent, used uniforms and mine had to be made to measure. It was a nice uniform for the girls, but the boys had to wear woolen, scratchy, awful colors. I believe the department store in London which sold these was Derry & Toms in Kensington.
Once the uniform was fitted and purchased, I was picked up by someone and taken by another train to Haywards Heath in Sussex, which was a few miles from Cuckfield, where my first Boarding School was located. It was a Jewish School, and lucky for me, there were about 15 other Kindertransport children there, which made getting acquainted with the place a bit easier, as we all spoke German. That was in April or early May of 1939. Little did any of us imagine that in a few months there would be war between our new and old countries.
Memories of that first school are dim as we were located near Brighton on the coast, and the government thought the area might be bombed and shelled from France. All the children had to be evacuated to safer locations. Once again, in November of 1939, we were uprooted and sent all over the place. At least half of the other KT’s were sent to another school, and I had to go to London to another hostel for a few weeks before a place could be found. At that time, I do not think that London was being bombed. Then one day another “someone” came to pick me up to take me to another Jewish boarding school which, at that time, had relocated from the Kent coast to the middle of the country. That is where I stayed for the next two years, not very happy, but at least safe. Once I reached age 14, I was sent back to London to another hostel and to find a job suitable for a teenager. “
Edith lived in England for 7 years before she finally immigrated to New York where her older sister was still living. After many more years, she eventually moved to Seattle, Washington and has remained there to this day.
On a personal note, I want to thank Edith very much for sharing her story, without which I would not have been educated about this important part of Holocaust history that can… never be forgotten.
By Kal Klass, DDS, AO Seattle Dental Ambassador