For 93-year-old Paul Kester, the sum of $2,800 offered him by the German government for his childhood ordeal during the Nazi era can never replace what he lost, but he welcomes the payment as recognition that “this history is not forgotten.”
Kester, who spent his early years in Germany, was just 13 when he was sent away by his parents to Sweden as part of the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that allowed some 10,000 Jewish children to flee Nazi-occupied Europe in the late 1930s.
He is now one of a rapidly diminishing number of living Kindertransport refugees eligible for a one-time payment of 2,500 euros - just over $2,800 in U.S. dollars - approved by the German government this week for survivors of that humanitarian effort.
“It’s a goodwill gesture,” Kester said of the compensation offer during an interview with Reuters at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, which opened an exhibit on the Kindertransport this year marking its 80th anniversary. “The amount is something that doesn’t mean much to me. But the gesture does.”
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Only about 1,000 of the Kindertransport evacuees, now in their 80s and 90s, are still believed to be alive worldwide, though the precise number is uncertain, a museum spokeswoman said.
About a half dozen are known to reside in the Los Angeles area, including Kester, a retired accountant who settled in the United States in 1948 with his wife, Susanne, also a German refugee. They met during his 10 years in Sweden. She has since died.
As a boy, Kester lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father managed a family-owned clothing store. But after the widespread violence and destruction of the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogroms that swept Germany in November 1938, Kester’s parents arranged for him to flee the country.
He ended up in a January 1939 Kindertransport evacuation to Sweden, which took in about 500 of the children who were relocated. Most of the 10,000 were sent to Great Britain, but some went to Switzerland and other countries.
“I was lucky to make it,” he said. His parents ultimately perished at the Auschwitz death camp.
The payment from Germany “does not replace what was lost,” Kester said. “But it is, I guess, the only way, one of the ways, that Germany can show that this history is not forgotten, and that hopefully it won’t be forgotten in years to come.”
Compensation for Kindertransport refugees was especially late in coming because of a debate, since settled, over whether they should rightfully be considered Holocaust survivors, said the Holocaust Museum President Paul Nussbaum.
“These children were ripped away from their parents,” Nussbaum said. “They left a world that was destroyed, and they went alone with other children to a new reality, which was not a family environment by and large.”
Both Kester and Nussbaum said the payments could help carry a broader message about the consequences of unchecked intolerance and hatred at a time of rising xenophobia around the world.
Kester, who once gave talks to German high school students about the Holocaust, said he was frequently asked whether they bore any of the guilt, to which he always answered “no.”
But, he recounted telling them: “You have an obligation to know your own history, the history of your country, and to make sure that something like that will never happen again, and make tolerance one of your primary purposes in life.’”