Archive for September 6th, 2009

Saving the World

Sharon September 6th, 2009

One talks about saving the world, and of course, you know you can’t do it.  The world is vast, its problems massive, its fragile ecology so complex that it is hard to know where to start.  Or perhaps it isn’t quite as hard as we think. 

To understand this story you have to start with three young girls, cousins.  One of them was a teenager, nearly 16, with a boyfriend.  The other two were younger, 11 and 12, and when the teenager wanted to be alone with her boyfriend, walking in the park, their mothers would send the two younger girls, each an only child, with their cousin to play chaperone.  The younger girls were too young to fully understand why the older one wanted to be alone, so the older one and her boyfriend would give them money for ice cream, or bet that the younger girls couldn’t run around the park in a certain time, hoping for a few precious minutes apart. Imagine them, a slim teenager, newly in love, and two pesky younger cousins, wanting still to play.

There is a picture of the girls, a few years before our story, at a birthday party.  The two younger ones are excited, still children, the older one just barely a teenager.  They all smile for the camera, and are caught, in a single moment, alive, together.  All of them were beautiful young women, all bright eyed with dark hair - there was a family resemblance.  That picture would matter a lot in the years to come.

…And you have to start with three grown women - also cousins.  All of them mothers, all of them loving their children more than their own lives, quite literally,  each with one daughter, living in the city together, raising the girls as closer than most cousins, consulting with each other on the ordinary dilemmas of daily life. 

This, however, was Berlin in the late 1930s, and the ordinary dilemmas of daily life were becoming much more acute, for the women and their daughters were Jews.  Already Jews were being transported, and stories leaked back from the camps - probably rumor, of course - it would have to be rumor, because such terrible things could not be truth.

Then came the big decision - the kindertransport.  Good people organized a way to take Jewish children - only the children, even the babies had to go alone - out of Germany, to a faraway land, to stranger.  But where were they taking them?  To England, soon to be a war zone.  And when could they come back?  The stories of the camps could not really be true - to put your daughter on the train by herself, send her off to who knows where, a place that might be less safe…?  How could you know what to do?  But if you believed the terrible rumors, the bits of evidence that filtered back to the ghetto, even a tiny bit…  What to do?

In the end, two of the girls, two of the three cousins, the teenager, barely young enough for a place, and the now-14 year old, they got on the train.  The other cousin did not go.  I can only imagine what her mother thought -  that even in the ghetto, she’d be safer with her mother.  Who could ever blame any mother for thinking that?  Who chooses to imagine the circumstances in which parental love for their children is not enough.  Imagine the consultations, the discussions, the debates that the parents had, and how strong those three women were - two strong enough to let their daughters go, one strong enough to believe that she could protect her child as mothers are supposed to.

The older girl’s boyfriend was over 17 - there was no place for him on the train -  he waved goodbye, and the oldest girl closed her eyes and decided not to believe any of the stories.  The two girls on the train were set to work caring for the youngest ones, including babies and children so small that they did not understand what was happening.  Each girl carried all she had of her past in one suitcase and the pockets of her clothes.

Fast forward 70 years - earlier this week, 22 kindertransport survivors retraced the journey out of Prague that they took, to be met by the man who arranged the Czech children’s evacuation, now 100 years old.  Sir Nicholas Winton hid for decades his participation in saving  the lives of 669 Jewish children who otherwise would almost certainly have died.  All in all the kindertransport saved 7,500 Jewish children.

The “children” are now in their 70s and 80s, and their benefactor has seen a whole century.  I wish for him that he might live, as we say, “to one hundred and twenty.”  If there are blessings prayer can bestow, I wish for all of them for him and his family. Without him, and without the other people who worked hard to bring about the kindertransport, my husband would not be here, nor my children - for the young girl on the cusp of adolescence who made it out was his Grandmother, Inge.  I knew her in her in her 70s, and she and her cousin Margot, the teenager, would tell merrily the stories of Inge’s chaperoning her older cousin and her boyfriend, Markus, of how innocent and foolish Inge was, of what they did when they made it to Britain.

Many of the stories were sad and hard - Inge was taken in by a British family that used her as virtual slave and abused her physically.  Margot waited and waited for the boyfriend she loved - and learned he’d been taken to Auschwitz, and after that, knew nothing more for a long time, even though she continued to wait.  They learned Margot’s parents were transported, and that Inge’s father died in the ghetto.  And yet, they always laughed together.  Inge found love.  They found ways to be happy through all the hard years of the war, with each other.

And they always took out the picture - the only one they still had, of the other cousin, the one who did not make the risky journey to Britain, through war-torn lands.  The one they envied, at the time, because she stayed with her mother, in the arms of someone who loved her.

The war ended, and they learned that the stories were true, what they thought could not have happened, had.  The cousin, her mother and father, all of them were murdered in Auschwitz.  Markus, the beloved boyfriend survived the camps, wasted, tortured, but alive, and the day they got the letter saying he was alive was one of the happiest days of not just Margot’s life, but Inge’s as well.  By then Inge was married to Cyril, a young Jewish RAF soldier, and expecting their first baby.  The two cousins were living together, and they celebrated, even though they did not know what to expect, when Markus came home, traumatized.

And miracle of miracles, one of the mothers survived as well.  We still do not know the whole story - somehow, in their gratitude at survival, no one asked.  But we know that Inge’s mother,  Else, whose force of character was such that she got her daughter a precious space on the kindertransport, that she sent her daughter off to the unknown to give her a future, did something quite astounding.  After the death of her husband, long after no Jews were permitted to leave, in 1941 as many of the last Jews in Berlin were being transported, she escaped Germany, somehow, and crossed the border, making it, eventually, into Lisbon and then to America.   What she did to get there we may never know. 

Inge is gone now, and Cyril too - they left two children, three grandchildren.  Else is gone, and my son Elias Alexander is named for her, and her heroic second husband, Ali, who helped Jews escape Germany by conducting them over the Danish border, who escaped the Nazis and hid in the forest until he too could cross the border.  They lived to help make my husband the man he is.   Inge and Cyril lived to see four great-grandsons, to integrate into the daily life of three of them and to make frequent visits to the fourth, and Inge to know that the last one of their great-grandsons would carry names for them.  Markus and Margot married, had children and grandchildren, and Markus died only a few year ago too.  Margot lives in assisted living in New Jersey, and still holds the letter sent by Else to her and to Inge when she reached Lisbon.  All the children of the kindertransport are grown old, with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their own.

I cannot describe the great spark of joy I felt when I read that Sir Nicholas Winton was still alive.  Those who arranged Inge and Margot’s journey are mostly dead now, but at least one person remains to be grateful to for the lives that were saved.  In the vast swath of death that came for the Jews and for so many others, there was life, and reason for laughter, and memories worth having.  There was survival, but more, there was a future, a future embodied in my four small sons, who would not be here without the work of Winton and others like him.  And they would not be here without the courage of ordinary mothers, who sometimes choose rightly, and sometimes wrongly, sometimes can resist the forces of history and sometimes are swept along with them, but whose best they can is sometimes nearly enough.   They would not be here without the courage of those who sometimes struggle to believe the unbelievable, the truth, even when it seems very difficult to comprehend.

May Sir Nicholas Winton enjoy a long, long life with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren around him  May he be rewarded here on earth and someday by G-d in heaven for what he did.  And may every single one of us remember that in the times to come, there is no such thing as saving a single life - every life has a future larger than just one - and so, if you save a single life, it is as if you have saved the whole world.  You can, in fact, save the world - all you must do is feed someone who would starve otherwise, give refuge to someone who would die otherwise, tend the sick who would otherwise die - and you save a piece of the world who size cannot be calculated - the part becomes the whole.