‘The Lucky Ones’

80 Years On, Kindertransport Survivors Still Meet to Share Memories of Love and Loss

At their annual reunion, 10 Israeli Kinder reconnect over their wartime escape from the Nazis, but are unimpressed by a new onetime payment from the German government

The Kindertransport survivors meeting in Netanya, December 31, 2018. At 81, Paul Alexander (second from left) is the baby of the group.
Tomer Appelbaum

They are all now in their eighties and nineties, but still call themselves the “Kinder.” The word is seared into their identity as surviving members of the Kindertransport – the eleventh-hour operation to evacuate Jewish and non-Aryan children from Germany and Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom between December 1938 and May 1940.

On a rainy winter’s morning, they begin arriving at a seaside restaurant in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, for this reunion of the Israeli “Kinder.” Most are accompanied by an adult son or daughter, or a caregiver. They are among the dwindling number of survivors who said emotional farewells to their parents at train stations across Europe before being sent to Britain some 80 years ago. Of the 10,000 Kinder, about 7,500 were Jewish.

Some Kinder were as young as a year old and transported in laundry baskets. Paul Alexander was 18 months old in July 1939 when his mother handed him over to a British volunteer nurse at Leipzig train station. At 81, he is the youngest Kinder at this gathering. The organizer calls him “our baby.”

Others, like Stuttgart-born Henry Stern, were in their early teens when they were put on a train. “My parents sent me to England hoping we would rejoin each other sometime later, but we never met again,” the now 94-year-old tells Haaretz. Placed with a family in England that housed him but showed little warmth, he recalls: “I learned for the first time what longing for home felt like. I did not know it would hurt such a lot.”

Alisa Tennenbaum is the organizer of these annual get-togethers. An 89-year-old who moves and speaks quickly, her dark hair gathered in a bun, she left Vienna on the Kindertransport at age nine - she would turn 10 just over a week later, the day World War II broke out. She was among the few lucky ones who, like Paul Alexander, were reunited with her parents.

She estimates that there are now 70 Kinder remaining in Israel. Just a week before this gathering, the phone rang at her small home in central Israel, imparting the news that another Kinder had passed away.

Ten are in attendance today and after they catch up with one another, the news that each surviving Kinder is now eligible for a onetime payment of 2,500 euros (nearly $2,840) tops the agenda.

“It really does not pay what we suffered. My mother and brother and elder sister were just shot, and there is nothing we can do about it,” says Mordechai Vered, 90, originally from Cologne. He later found out they were murdered after being discovered while in hiding. He was 10 when he left on the Kindertransport. He now lives in Holon.

Kindertransport refugees arriving in Harwich, England, from Germany, December 2, 1938.
Fred Morley / Fox Photos / Getty

Over lunch, seated around a long table, the group discusses the compensation, how to apply for it and what they might do with it. Some say they will put it toward a vacation with family; most conclude it is a belated and token amount.

The announcement of the onetime payment comes 80 years after the Kindertransport began in December 1938. The operation had begun about a month after Kristallnacht, when Jews and Jewish businesses were attacked by Nazis in towns and cities across Germany and Austria, bringing the impending sense of danger even closer to Jewish parents and causing many to search desperately for ways to get their children to safety.

Grandparents for the children

Karla Pilpel was just seven when her parents sent her to England from Berlin. “They told us we were going on holiday – they did not tell me the truth. I could not understand why everyone was so upset; we were going on holiday,” recounts Pilpel, 87, a retired nurse who lived most of her adult life in Jerusalem and whose maiden name was Rothstein.

When she first immigrated to Israel, she lived on Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee. She had not seen Henry Stern – who has lived there for nearly 70 years – for decades. She rushes up to him with her still-strong English accent and asks, “Remember me? How are you, sweetheart? Everything OK in Lavi?”

Stern, a serious-looking man with silver hair and a kippa – and whose own English is marked with his German accent – asks how she recognized him. “I was told you were you! How can we [still] recognize each other? We were young and beautiful, and now we are … ugh,” Pilpel says with a laugh.

“Who says so?” Stern replies teasingly.

They catch up on common friends and acquaintances, and share that they both lost their spouses fairly recently. They also discuss a common friend who had wanted to marry Pilpel during her early days in Israel.

Organizer Alisa Tennenbaum, left, greeting Kindertransport survivors, including Karla Pilpel (center), at the annual reunion in Netanya, December 31 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

“Do you know why I didn’t marry him? Because I wanted my kids to have grandparents. I married a fifth-generation Israeli,” she tells Stern.

Vered also reconnects with Stern, whom he first met in England while they were both preparing to immigrate to Israel in the late 1940s.

Vered says he draws a sense of comfort from these gatherings, even though fewer Kinder are in attendance as each year passes. “It’s all my history,” he explains. “Everyone has a story to tell that is similar but not the same.”

A daughter’s mission

Marian Lebor’s mother was on the Kindertransport from Leipzig, but died in 1996 without ever talking about her wartime experiences. “It was just too traumatic for her,” says Lebor, who is working with a photographer to take portraits of the Kinder in attendance that she hopes to put together for an exhibition. She says she comes to gatherings like this one to fill in the gaps of her knowledge through the stories of other survivors.

She admits to being thankful for the parents who made that agonizing decision to separate from their children and put them on trains to the U.K.: “There are so many descendants today because of that courage,” she says.

Lebor says her own research shows that parents often sent their children off with the advice: Look forward, not back; be optimistic – “which is wonderful in some ways, but also a terrible burden,” she says, noting that her mother’s philosophy was always to focus on the positive. Lebor fears this came at the cost of not processing her own anguish and trauma.

Sitting near Lebor is Kurt Stern, no relation to Henry Stern, who was one of hundreds of Jewish children saved in 1938 and 1939 by British stockbroker Nicholas Winton on what became known as the Czech Kindertransport.

Alisa Tennenbaum, right, pictured with three girls she lived with at a hostel in England during World War II.
Dina Kraft

Kurt Stern, who became an accomplished pastry chef in Israel and later a tour guide, was only 10 and an only child when his widowed mother parted ways with him in 1939.

His memories of the two-day journey to England are sparse: The sand that blew into his sandwich while he ate at the Hook of Holland port; the first time he had English tea and the spoonfuls of sugar he added to it, trying to make it palatable.

His son Yoel, a lawyer, leans closer as he listens to his father retell the details of his story and what he knows of his mother’s final days. What would Yoel tell the grandmother he never met? His eyes pool with tears. “I would tell her, 'Thank you,’” Yoel says softly. “He’s the best person in the world.”

He looks at his father and then kisses the top of his head. They then move as one as they say their goodbyes and start to make their way home.

As others also get up to leave, Tennenbaum – the group’s efficient and ever-cheerful organizer – collects the group’s name tags. 

“For next year, please God,” she says.

A camp leader ringing the dinner bell at a camp for young Jewish Kindertransport refugees from Germany and Austria, at Dovercourt Bay, near Harwich, January 11, 1939.
Reg Speller / Fox Photos / Hulto