Sunday, 9 August 2015

SG50: How do you save 50 children from Hitler?

How do you save 50 children from Hitler? Simple. You just follow the ordinary life of a couple in America. Their names? Ms Eleanor Shirley Jacobs and Gilbert J. Kraus. The husband, Gill, was a successful lawyer and his wife, Eleanor, was a homemaker.  They married in their twenties and had two children, Steven (b. 1926) and Ellen (b. 1930). They were Jews and came from prominent Jewish family. They were also physically matching. Gill was described as handsome, intelligent and urbane and Eleanor had “doe eyes, porcelain skin, and a charming wit.”  

In the book, 50 children, written by their grandson-in-law, Steven Pressman, their daring rescue of 50 Jewish children from Vienna during the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938) was  well documented.  It started off with a meeting with a good friend named Louis Levine who canvassed the idea to Gill. Gill and Eleanor then made the decision to carry out the plan. They knew full well the risk involved and how they might leave their own children orphans should anything happen to them. Yet their collective will overcame the reservation and fear.  They knew that it had to be done.

The decision was in fact made without much fanfare. There was no visitation from heaven. No divine sign. No travailing or fasting of sorts. No nation-wide publicity. It was just the desire to do what is right that was compelling enough for Gill and Eleanor to embark on this perilous journey to rescue 50 young strangers from the clutches of imminent extermination.

Of course, the plan did not go as smoothly as they wanted it to. Obstacles in the way of immigration procedures, visa approvals, finding sponsors for the children when they arrive in America, and even bearing with the negative voices of naysayers reared their ugly heads. Many prominent members of society and government, including some Jewish leaders themselves, discouraged Gill and Eleanor from embarking on the insane mission. Some of them insisted that they will surely fail.

In addition, the American immigration restriction was tightened after WWI so as to protect jobs from immigrants. The Great Depression only made it worse. Other reasons were more paranoia than economic. One protesters who represented a group of WWI widows urged Congress “not to let in thousands of motherless, embittered, persecuted children of undesirable foreigners who would grow up to become potential leaders of a revolt against the American government.” It is therefore not surprising that a poll taken in the late 1930s found that “60 percent of Americans held a low opinion of Jews, regarding them as greedy, dishonest and pushy.” All this only made it even harder for Gill and Eleanor.

Of course, amidst the discouragement and procedural obstacles, there were some who encouraged the couple to go ahead with it. Gill had the full support of the national Jewish fraternal organization called Brith Sholom. The plan to rescue the children was in fact mooted by them. The latter had set up a children’s summer camp in Collegeville in readiness to receive the children. Most of the expenses would also be paid by Brith Sholom.

With their blessing, Gill and his doctor friend, Robert Schless, left for Vienna in April 1939. Initially the plan was to leave Eleanor behind to take care of the children. However, when the emotional stress of selecting the children from amongst the hundreds who came hoping to be rescued proved too much for Gill, he telephoned Eleanor for help. She came in after about a month later.

By that time, the situation was already quite unbearable for Jews in Vienna. Here’s a little background. When Austria voted “yes” to Hitler’s rule in April 1938 (a year before Gill arrived), the Nazi machination immediately put into effect Hitler’s dream of a Juden-free Germany and Austria. In fact, the fate of the Jews in Austria was even worse than the fate of the Jews in Germany.

One magazine reported that “in Austria, the full force of the sadistic Nazi attack has come overnight.” Raids were carried out regularly by the Hitler Youth organization. The Jewish shopkeepers were terrorized. Flags displaying the swastikas were everywhere. And within a few days of annexation, nearly one hundred suicides were reported. By the end of April 1938, the numbers climbed up to two thousand.

The whitewashing Aryanization process was so complete that the ranks of Jewish doctors, businessmen and lawyers were wiped out in the city. Their businesses were either taken over by the Germans or they were forced to declare bankruptcy. And matters went rapidly downhill when on 7 November 1938 a seventeen year old Jew whose parents were arrested by the Nazi guards shot a junior German official at the German embassy in Paris. The bullets went through the official’s abdomen and he died thereafter.

In the pocket of the assassin was a postcard that reads: “May God forgive me. The heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do.” The Jews in Germany and Vienna faced the full brunt of the murder and the infamous Night of Broken Glass (known as Kristallnacht) turned the city into a carnival of self-gratuitous violence against them.

Throughout the night, seven thousands Jewish shops were burnt down and the Jews were thrown out of their houses. Many were arrested and sent to prisons or concentration camps in train- and bus-loads. And a fine of $400 million (one billion reichsmarks) was imposed on the collective Jewish population of Germany and Austria in compensation for the death of just one junior German official. This is what I call forcing the hand of justice to serve the heart of injustice.

Here is one account by a rescued child on how she was treated during that time as narrated in the book: “Elizabeth Zinger was five years old and had recently started kindergarten. Sitting quietly in her classroom one morning, the little girl raised her hand, trying to get her teacher’s attention so that she could request permission to go to the bathroom. The teacher, however, continued to ignore her, even as it became obvious why she wished to be excused. Finally, Elizabeth could not wait any longer, and she wet herself. Her teacher shot her a scolding look, and grabbed the frightened girl by the collar of her blouse, pulling her out of her chair and in front of the rest of the class. “You see. This is what the Juden do. They make in their pants,” the teacher announced to the other students, after which she shoved the sobbing girl back into her seat. “After that horrendous experiences, my mother didn’t send me back to school.”” Now, back to the rescue attempt.

Although thousands of children came for the interview, only 54 were selected. Gill and Eleanor selected more than their quota just in case. Eleanor recalled that the parents who came to the interview were incredibly calm and strong for their children. One child who refused to go with the American couple was told sternly by her mother that “if you leave, your life will be saved, and then I will have a better chance of saving my own life.” Another parent told her child that she was merely going on a holiday in America. Alas, the parents knew that this would be the last time they will see their children. Other children wanted to take their younger siblings with them but their parents firmly censured them as this would jeopardize their chances of being selected. There was an age limit and children below five were excluded from the rescue plan. They were too young to satisfy the conditions for the long journey. It is ironic that the fate of their life depended on the date of their birth.

The interview and selection process took weeks to complete. After that, the next part of the plan was to bring the children from Vienna’s train station (known as Kultusgemeinde) to Berlin and then on board a ship in Hamburg. Transit via three locations was what separated the children from death and freedom. 

At Kultusgemeinde, Eleanor recalled that a few of the children presented her with little flower bouquets and “some of the parents then stepped forward, offering words of grateful appreciation for taking their children to safety.” Unfortunately, one of the children, namely, Heinrich Steinberger (5 years old), could not make it because he had fallen ill on that day. Three years later, he was murdered at the Sobibor death camp.

After the kind words of appreciation, the children quickly occupied themselves with games and songs, and Eleanor wrote that “this entire party filled me with absolute misery.” Just before the children left, the parents and children presented Eleanor with a gift. It was a porcelain depicting two female figures, kneeling and facing each other. Along with the sculpture was an endearing message which reads:

In memory of a Mother-Day
in hard times never to be forgotten,
of the day on which you have taken upon
yourself with motherly love
the care for Jewish children

When the children boarded the train, words of comfort were heard by many as parents hugged their children in tears and said their final goodbyes. One mother said to her child, “Be a good girl and listen to your foster parents and make sure you get a good education. Before you know it, we’ll be there, and we’ll all be reunited, and I’ll see you in America.”

One strange thing that Eleanor noted was that the parents were not allowed to wave to their children before departure. Eleanor was told that “Jews were not allowed to give Nazi salute. The parents risked being arrested if they raised their arms to wave good-bye.”

As the train slowly moved forward and the platform receded from view, Eleanor and the children peered out of the window and she observed that “the parents stood in completely orderly and quiet fashion. Their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red and strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed.”  

When the train left the station, the children found it difficult to sleep. Most of them played until two in the morning before they dozed off. Obviously, they were not used to sleeping in a moving train without their parents by their side. Eleanor however could not sleep that night, not a wink. She could not get the image of the parents’ faces at the train station out of her mind. She wrote, “Their eyes haunted me. I prayed that God might comfort each parent who had returned home to watch an empty bed.”

The next morning, at 7:52 am, the train arrived at Berlin. After resting in community buildings prepared for them, the children made their way to the American Embassy for medical checkup, further interviews and bureaucratic registration. By this time, the feeling of homesickness hits home for the children, especially the young ones. Most of them were crying and asking for their parents. They looked weary, worried and lost. Eleanor tried to cheer them up but she could only provide token consolation.

During the interview, one of the incidents stood out for Eleanor. It concerned an eight-year-old named Charlotte Berg. She had long blond hair and bright blue eyes. She had a face of an angel. When she was asked to write her name, she broke down. This poignant moment is best described by the author in the book:-

“Charlotte took the pen but suddenly began to sob. Eleanor leaned in close and heard the girl mumble something but was unable to make out the words.

“What’s the matter?” Follmer (the interviewer) asked Charlotte. “Don’t cry . Raise your head. We can’t hear you.” But the little girl, her chin down, continued to cry into her lap.

Finally, she lifted her head and managed to speak clearly enough that everyone in the office could hear. “Muss ich Sara schreiben?”  she asked as the tears continued to stream down her face. At first, Eleanor did not understand what the girl was saying.

The name on her German passport was listed as Charlotte Sara Berg. But Sara was not her middle name. In an effort to easily identify Jews, one of Hitler’s edicts required Jewish females to list Sara as a middle name if their first names were not recognizably Jewish. Males were required to use Israel as their middle name.

Once everyone understood what the young girl was asking – “Must I write Sara?” – Follmer buried his face in his hands for a few seconds. He then looked back up at the pretty little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl sitting across from him with tears streaming down her cheeks. She was still clutching the pen in her hand.

Schreibe Charlotte,” he told her, speaking as soothingly as he could. Write Charlotte. “You will always keep your name where you are going,” he said. “You will never have to write Sara again.””

After they had completed the examination, the children were transported by buses to the Hamburg train station. Their last stop. From there, they were brought to the dock, and one by one, they boarded the SS Harding. The trans-Atlantic passage took about 10 days from Hamburg to New York harbor. The SS Harding sailed past the Statute of Liberty and the children were filled with excitement as they alighted from the ship to start their new life in America. They were housed in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, before they were placed in suitable homes set up by their new foster and adoptive parents.

Most of the children adjusted well to their new life. They got married and had children of their own. Some of them even lived to a ripe old age and saw their children married off with their own children.

Gil died in August 1975 at the age of seventy seven and Eleanor died in August 1989 at the age of eighty-five. And the Nazi’s Final Solution took the lives of one and a half million children. These are of course cold, impersonal statistics for the history reader, but for every child rescued from the death grip of the Nazi extermination machines by the dedicated efforts of Gill and Eleanor, they will forever be grateful and indebted. There were in fact many of these heroic stories of strangers risking their lives to save the Jewish children from certain death. Their deeds were largely anonymous at that time as their motivation was about the rescued lives and not about fame and recognition (Sir Nicholas George Winton [19 May 1909 to 1 July 2015] was one illuminating exemplar of what humanity is capable of. This British humanitarian organized the rescue of 669 children, mostly Jewish, from Czechoslovakia in an operation called Czech Kindertransport. The world only got to know about it 40 years later in 1988. He was dubbed the "British Schindler").

They have indeed made a difference to those lives they had saved and one holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos, who was elected to the United States Congress, recounted a story where he would ask, “How can one know the moment when the night has ended and dawn has come?” The reply was this: “The moment when you know that the night has turned to day is when you see the face of a stranger and recognize him as your brother.” 

I guess this is the common bond that holds humanity together, that is, this bond that treats everyone, regardless of race, language and religion, as their very own. This is the blessed tie that binds us all. And this is what I have learnt this National Day, SG50. Enjoy Singapore, you’ve come so far! Cheerz.

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