Monday, April 2, 2012

A miraculous escape; lessons to heed

Kurt Herman, age 9, arriving with a kindertransport to NYC
So much about Kurt Herman reminds me of my father. Like my father, he was born in Vienna. Like my father, he has a twinkle in his eye and brings humor to the darkest things. But mostly, his story of escape from the Nazis, thanks to luck and perseverance, is similar to the one I heard growing up. 
I learned of Kurt at the showing of a new documentary, ToSave a Life. That movie, which debuted recently at Philadelphia’s Jewish Film Festival, tells the story of a Philadelphia couple who in 1939 got it into their heads that they could save 50 Jewish children from Vienna.
With much drama and against all odds, including a scary elevator incident with top-ranking Nazis, the couple brought those 50 children – 25 girls and 25 boys – to safety in Philadelphia.
It was the largest “kindertransport” to the United States, according to its producer, Steven Pressman.
Kurt Herman, then 9 years old, was one of those children.
Interviewed for the film, he attended the premier, cracking jokes on stage afterward.
I wanted to know his story, and what lessons in life he was passing on to his children and grandchildren. My late father had underscored the importance of having a career you can take with you and always having a valid passport. He also taught us that luck doesn’t just happen. You have to seize it.
That is how he survived.
My interview with Kurt took place, fittingly, in the small Holocaust Awareness Museum  housed at the bustling Klein branch of the Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia. Kurt’s Nazi-stamped visa, which allowed him to leave Austria, sat in a glass case.
“It’s an experience you don’t forget,” said Kurt,  now 82, of the life-changing bombshell that dropped when he was eight years old. That bombshell was Hitler’s annexation of Austria on March 12, 1938.  One week, he was in a classroom filled with friends of all religions. The next week, the Jewish kids were seated separately, Hitler’s picture was on the wall, and all the other children were wearing swastikas.
 “They wouldn’t play with me anymore,” Herman remembered. “I asked my father, what did I do? His answer. You were born Jewish.”
As Kurt said at the movie showing, the problem for the Jews in Germany and Austria in the early years wasn’t getting out. The Nazis were happy to cleanse the country of  Jews who could leave. The problem was “getting in.” Every country had quotas and visas were scarce.
Kurt remembers the Nazis raiding their apartment, looking for valuables, antiques  -- and his father. Only on the third sweep was his father home, successfully hiding under clothes on top of a closet.
Then came Kristallnacht,  Nov. 9, 1938, the rampage of Jewish stores and synagogues. “I saw our synagogue burning,” Herman said. "There was a big fire as they burned the books and torahs.”
For years, his family of eight – his parents, grandparents,  aunt and uncle, cousin and himself -- had tried to leave Austria, applying for visas to other countries.  Finally, in 1939, an uncle left for Shanghai. Soon after, his father and parents – who had Polish passports – were able to board a ship to Cuba. (It was turned back, dumping them in France as displaced persons, with their whereabouts unknown by their family.) Then, Kurt’s mother learned about Philadelphia lawyer Gilbert Kraus and his wife Eleanor, who had arrived in Vienna to rescue the 50 children.
Because of strict quotas, the U.S. State Department had initially turned down the couple's request for visas for the children, but they convinced the government to give the children visas that had been issued but not used, perhaps because the recipients had gone elsewhere or died.
“All I knew was I was one of the kids interviewed,” Kurt said. “On May 10, 1939, a notice came that by some stroke of luck, I was picked and I had to be at the Vienna train station on the 22nd of May with two suitcases. I remember that the parents weren’t allowed to cry or wave,” he said.
In Berlin, the Krauses faced one last hurdle: obtaining the German passports that would allow the children to leave. In one of the movie's most dramatic moments, based on Eleanor's memoir, the Krauses arrived at their hotel, only to find it surrounded by security. Earlier that day, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Italian counterpart had signed a military alliance, and the Nazi and the Fascist got into the elevator with the Krauses. Eleanor trembled all the way to her floor.
After landing in New York on June 3, 1939, all the children were taken to a summer camp in Collegeville, PA. owned by B'rith Sholom, sponsors of this journey. To his amazement that fall, Kurt joined an Allentown family “with a maid and butler,”  in  a house that is now home to the president of Muhlenberg College.
With 1939 photo of his arrival in NY
His mother got out in early 1940 -- the only person to get off a waiting list for the last boat the Germans let sail out of Genoa to New York. Just before the Nazis invaded France, Kurt’s father also escaped, as did his aunt and cousin. His grandparents perished in concentration camps.
Kurt has been telling his story for years now to schools, synagogues, anyone who will listen.“I didn’t give any speeches until Schinder’s List,” he said. “I would have talked but no one asked me.” 
He has urged his eight grandchildren to get good educations and to "be on the alert and remember what happened to us."
He also counsels them that "when you're in a pinch, you better rely on... your family. Friends are great... I had friends, too, and like that," he said snapping his fingers, "I was a dirty Jew."
My father learned a harsher lesson in the year he spent in Dachau and Buchenwald before the American visa he had applied for in 1932 came through. "Civilization is only skin deep," he would tell us. "Beneath the surface people are animals."
My father arrived in New York on May 16, 1939, just 18 days before Kurt.
It was none too soon for both of them.

So, what was the advice your grandparents were determined to share with you?


Wendy Lee said...

Thank you for this very moving account and video. What an amazing story!

Jonah Willers said...

I never heard this story of the 50 children who were rescued - how incredible and inspiring! Making a difference by sharing one's life story is such an important thing to do, not only for the world to hear but also for the one telling the story.

Frugal Scholar said...

i came via your WSJ comment--as I'm sure others have. Interestingly, my mother (born in Vienna, got out in 1938) is there now with my son (his first trip). I'm hoping to go next year.

My grandparents, great aunt and uncle, and all their friends in Boston were from Vienna. Will read this more carefully when I have the time. Glad I discovered it.

Linda P. said...

I followed a link from your post after Kurt Herman's death. Stories such as these are so important. Thank you for including this post on your blog.

Linda P. said...

I followed a link from your post after Kurt Herman's death. Stories such as these are so important. Thank you for including this post on your blog.