More than 500 public and Catholic parochial school students, accompanied by their teachers, sat in rapt attention at the College of Saint Elizabeth on May 1 as two Jewish Holocaust survivors described being shipped away from their homes and parents during World War II.
They were Kurt and Margaret Goldberger, two of 10,000 children whose lives were saved by the Kindertransport.
The rescue initiative was organized in England after Kristallnacht — the November 1938 “Night of Broken Glass” that terrorized the Jewish population throughout Germany and Austria and that is generally regarded as the start of the Holocaust. In the wake of the brutality, Jewish and Christian leaders, most notably Quakers, asked the British government for permission to admit unaccompanied children between the ages of two and 17.
The Kindertransport enabled these rescued youngsters to grow up away from the war zone while the Nazis were rounding up European Jewish families for extermination.
“Imagine a two-, three-, or four-year-old child being brought to the station where the Kindertransports were leaving and being given to an older child who was told, ‘Take care of my little boy or girl until you get to England,’” said Margaret Goldberger from the podium at the Dolan Performance Hall on the Convent Station campus. “You have no idea why your mother and father are suddenly giving you up.”
The couple, who met in New York at a gathering of refugees in 1947, spoke May 1 as part of the college’s Holocaust memorial program, “Choosing to Act: Stories of Rescue.”
From her home in Hicksville, Long Island, Margaret directs the speakers’ bureau of the Kindertransport Association; her husband, Kurt, is its president. Some 500 rescued children and their descendants are current members.
For nearly an hour, the Goldbergers described their life before and after the transport that made them displaced children. Kurt, who lived in Vienna, told the students, “I grew up in a middle-class family, and generally we had a comfortable life until March 12, 1938, when Hitler marched in and everything changed.”
“I was almost 14. I knew what was happening but some of the younger ones had no idea. Suddenly they were sent away from their parents. It must have been traumatic. Unfortunately, 70 to 75 percent of the children never saw their parents again,” he said.
“My mother had preceded me to England as a domestic servant. My father was able to leave later on. So we all survived,” Kurt said.
He arrived in his new country speaking little English and lived in a youth hostel run by the Jewish community in the city of Croydon. “It wasn’t easy,” he said.
Margaret grew up in Berlin and left Germany on a Kindertransport in June 1939. “My parents had applied but they could not get American entrance visas until 1941.” By the end of that year, Jews in Berlin were being shipped off to concentration camps.
“I was just over 13 in June of 1939. I stayed in London with a family for a month then in a hostel run by B’nai B’rith,” she said. “We had a very strict matron, and we all had chores to do. But I met a lot of new people and made lifelong friends.”
Both of her parents survived, but her father, who had been incarcerated in a concentration camp after Kristallnacht, arrived in America in poor health and died before Margaret could see him again.
Twenty-three of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust. “The saddest story,” she said, happened to her mother’s sister’s family in southern Germany.
“They were very religious people, and when the relatives in Berlin said, ‘Why don’t you register your children for the Kindertransport to England?’ they decided, ‘We don’t want to be separated. If the children come to England, we don’t know if they will come to a religious home. We don’t know if they will be able to keep kosher.’”
The parents perished in Auschwitz and “to this day we don’t know what happened to their four children,” Margaret told her audience.
In her introductory remarks, CSE president Sister Francis Raftery said the Kindertransport veterans’ parents “were threatened by the most horrific event in civilization, where people of ill-will tried to snuff out a whole culture, a whole richness of families. They were unable to do it.”
Harriet Sepinwall, codirector of the college’s Holocaust Education Resource Center, reminded the audience that of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, 1.5 million were children.
“England took in 10,000 Jewish children. But in 1939, when the war broke out, the rescues stopped,” she said. “Other countries, including the United States, said ‘no’ to accepting the unescorted young people.”
Asked by a student whether she still feels anger toward the Germans, Margaret said, “Of course we are still angry at the Nazis, but to this day, the Germans in Germany or the Austrians in Austria, we don’t have any anger against them. But if we meet any people older than we are, they are under suspicion as far as we are concerned.”
Summing up his message to the students, Kurt said, “We must close the gap that exists between different people, between people of color, between people of different religions.
“We’ve got to respect each other and work together for a common goal.”