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Siggy Wasserman
by Rhonda Spivak

Vera Fast
by Rhonda Spivak

Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League


by Rhonda Spivak, Nov 14, 2011

After hearing the moving and incisive presentation by author and historian Vera Fast’s presentation about her recently published book, Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport, I walked away with an image that has been imprinted in my mind. The image is of a Jewish parent putting their hands on the head of their child to bless that child, before the child is separated from them (probably forever) as the child gets onto a train to be transported away to England, to escape the Holocaust.

There were some 10,000 Jewish children who were saved by this Kindertransport, (among them Winnipeg’s own Siggy Wasserman, Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, and Joe Shlesinger of CBC.) Fast, spoke before a sizable crowd at the Berney theatre on November 9, at the community wide Kristallnacht commemoration organized by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg

After the rampage of Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938,where Jews were attacked, synagogues burned, property destroyed etc, a delegation of British Jewish leaders appealed to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to permit the temporary admission of Jewish children. The next day, the British cabinet accepted the proposal. A nondenominational organization called the Movement for the Care of Children was created. It included Jewish and non-Jewish groups and later become known as the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM).

As Fast, who has conducted extensive research into the subject, noted, the RCM decided that orphans were a priority.

"Some parents in desperation would leave their child on the doorstep of an orphanage so the child had a better chance to be chosen," she said.

Fast discussed in detail how burdened anguished parents, who had decided to send their children to England to ensure their children’s survival had "to prepare them for their separation," knowing they may never see their children again.

According to Fast, some told their children that they had to stay to "clear up a few things", others painted it as "an adventure" the child was going on, and other children remembered parents "laying their hands on my head to bless me."

A tear dropped form my eye when Fast said that. Jewish religious tradition is that every Friday night at the Shabbat table parents put their hands on their children’s heads to bless them. I have done that to my own children—it is a moment of sacredness. A way for the parent to remember that children are the greatest blessing of life, and away for the child to feel blessed, and loved—with the idea that a child who feels blessed will have the foundation to act accordingly, and do good things in life. Putting your hands on a child’s head at the Shabbat table is done while reciting a prayer asking G-d to watch over that child. And that act which we have passed down from generation to generation is what some Jewish parents chose as the very final act that they performed with their child as they parted from them forever.

As Fast added, after putting their child/children on the trains "many parents took taxis from station to station to get one last look at their child." That too is an image that will leave an imprint.

Siggy Wasserman, who was at the event, said afterward when I spoke with him that when he was sent on Kindertransport at age seven he "saw it was an adventure," and wasn’t terrified.

"It never entered my mind that this would be the last time I’d see my parents. There were no tears from me." Others, of course, had a very different experience.

Fast spoke about the difficulties encountered when the Kindertransport children arrived in England.

"There were not enough Jewish homes to take them in," she explained. The chief Rabbi of London castigated the Jewish community [of 350,000] about this , Fast said in an interview after the event.

"But I don’t think the Jewish community could be faulted. Many Jewish families had already taken in other adult refugees since e 1930’s. These were depression years. I disagree with the Chief Rabbi," she offered.

As a result of the lack of Jewish homes, hundreds of gentiles offered hospitality to children, and "most took their "obligations very seriously."

There were occasions when the refugee committees took the "hapless" children from home to home asking people to billet them.

Fast also said that ‘a lot of the Polish children were orthodox and many ended up in gentile homes"—and some became gentile.

Abe Foxman, for example, was hidden in the home of a Roman Catholic nanny who raised him with "Faith" and that" enabled him to later on go to his own faith."

Fast depicted one remarkable situation in which orthodox children were housed in a church.

They on their own initiative set up "Shabbos tables" and "conducted Sabbath prayers", and "they sang in the church hall Lechah Dodi."

As Fast concluded, these children " chose to live their faith in exceptional times."

There were situations where Rabbis offered ransom money to foster families to get them taken out of gentile homes, Fast noted.

For a period of time up until 942-1943 the refugee Kinderstansport children were able to get letters and postcards from their parents in Europe.

Wasserman recalls "that I got letters from my parents in1939-1940." He said he was "placed in a Jewish home, but I wasn’t happy there."

He added that his parents applied for visas and "I thought we’d be re-united " but they were deported to a camp and then onto Auschwitzwhere they died. Wasserman’s sister lived as "a hidden child" and essentially became a "house maid," and after the war through the Red Cross he and his sister found each other. [Note: Hidden children were hidden often in a family’s basement or attic etc]

As Fast added, only a few hundred Kindertransport children were re-united with their parents, and there were many difficulties.

"Some children were still angered that their parents left them," while others found their biological parents to be "strangers" "in body and in spirit" while "some felt guilty that their parents had survived ‘and did not want the other refugee children to know."

At the end of her presentation Fast concluded that even though the Kindertransport was only one small narrative in the entire narrative of the Holocaust, it did enable "10,000 children to grow up on an atmosphere of normality."

After the event, I asked Fast what led to her being interested in this subject. She answered that she had "been editing the diaries of an Anglican church worker’ and this woman had heard of the Kindertransportand " had decided that she should adopt two children".

Fast said, "I had never heard of the Kindertransport before and got interested in the subject." The more Fast learned the more she wanted to learn more.

"This has been the most interesting research I have ever done in my life," Fast concluded.

Shelley Faintuch of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg organized the Kristallnacht program which began with three March of the Living students conducting a short memorial service. Belle Millo, chair of the Freeman Family Holocaust Education Centre thanked Fast noting that when she had read the book, she was "impressed by the number of British who had opened their homes to these children." Wasserman introduced Fast, having met her before when she initially setout on her research.

I haven’t read Fast’s book, but after hearing her presentation, I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone interested in the subject.

Note: An interesting historical fact is that initially the Jewish refugee agencies thought that 5,000 children would be a realistic target number for the Kindertransport, but when the British Colonial Office turned down the Jewish Agency's request to admit 5,000 children, the agencies increased their request to 10,000.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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