Saving Jewish Children During World War II

In 1938 and 1939 as World War II was getting under way, thousands of European Jews sent their children to live in England. The children survived. Most of the parents died in the Holocaust.

This is the astonishing story of the "Kindertransport," which rescued Jewish children from almost certain genocide, and brought them to safety in England. This is also the story of a fiercely determined American woman and her own journey from Hollywood to the Holocaust. Bob Simon reports.

Deborah Oppenheimer thrives in the world of situation comedy. She is executive producer of the nationally televised "Drew Carey Show." But that's only a part of what's occupied her for the past several years.

The story begins in Germany. Now the capital of a united Germany, Berlin is one of the most dynamic cities in Europe.

Among the new buildings is a museum devoted to the history of Jewish life in Germany. Built in the shape of a broken Star of David, the museum officially opened in September.

Oppenheimer was a guest of the German government at the museum's opening. She produced a documentary a little-known episode of World War II.

The film will make its TV premiere in December on HBO. Called "Into the Arms of Strangers," the film has been embraced by the German government, which has made it part of the Jewish Museum's permanent collection, and required viewing for German schoolchildren, many of whom know very little about the Holocaust.

"I know this film takes place during the time of the Holocaust but I don't think of this film as being about the Holocaust," says Oppenheimer. "This is a story of people who were rescued. It's a story of people who were saved."

It's a story that took place in 1938 and 1939, after Hitler came to power but before the outbreak of war and before the death camps. Everyone knows how six million Jews perished, but very few know how 10,000 were saved, not by Oscar Schindler but by the British government. Word circulated in the beleagured Jewish communities that trains were being organized for children. It was called "Kindertransport," the transport of children. Children, aged 2 to 17, ere separated from their parents and put on trains to England. In many cases, they were given just a few days notice.

The Nazis were glad to see the children go. This was before the Nazis began to implement the Final Solution. In 1938 and 1939, the Germans were willing to let Jews out as long as they had visas to go somewhere. Britain was the only country which agreed to take the kids. The United States refused. Lore Segal was 10 when she was put on the train to England. But she wasn't known as Lore Segal that day. She was known as Number 152.

"Each child was given a number," she says. "My number and I still have it was 152. And this was the number that every child put around his neck. And a similar number was attached to our suitcases."

For the young refugees, crossing the English Channel was a time of seasickness and smles.

"It was a wonderful feeling," said one of the children decades later. "Freedom. We started to smile. I don't think any of them had smiled for a long time. It was wonderful."

But the smiles didn't last. They were in a foreign land and didn't speak the language, and they were alone. The British had refused to take in their parents, many of whom wound up on other trains, heading in the opposite direction. Most of the children never saw their parents again.

But Lore Segal was lucky. Her parents escaped from the Nazis and joined their daughter in England. Lore and her mother, 97-year-old Franzi Grossman, now live in New York.

Lore still remembers saying goodbye to her mother. "It was dark, it was night. There were children who howled and wept. And there were children whom I've since talked to about this, what we did was to say, 'Oh, I'm going to England, wow, this is exciting' And the difficulty with that way of handling it is that you separate yourself from your genuine feelings."

Grossman took her daughter to the train. "After a certain time, all these children left the place where they were brought to the train and were gone. The moment when the children were away, the place was empty. I think this was one of the very first moments where I really noticed what, what I've done. That I sent my child away."

In 1964, Segal wrote a novel about her experiences as a foster child in England. She had a lot to write about. From age 10 to 17, she lived with five foster families. They were kind and giving, she says, but they drew the line.

"They didn't love me. But the fact is, why would they? I was a prickly child, I was. I was a smart-ass child. I was not charming to have around, I was not cute, I was not cute. I wasn't Shirley Temple."

"It's so complicated for them," says Oppenheimer. "They think they've been abandoned by their parents. They don't entirely understand to be grateful to these strangers, to be thankful to them for having taken them in. Their whole childhood has been disrupted, their education has been disrupted."

Oppenheimer's career as a producer of comedy was disrupted when she decided to make this movie. Why did she do it? One of the children evacuated to England, an 11-year-old girl, was Deborah's mother.

Growing up, Oppenheimer knew only fragments of her mother's experience. "I just knew little fragments. She told us she had cried herself to sleep every night for two years." She tried to ask her mother questions sometimes: “I tried, but she would start crying and then I would start crying because I didn't want to cause my mother pain. The signals were very clear that she didn't want to talk about it."

Oppenheimer would never have made the film if she hadn't discovered a stack of letters her mother had hidden. They were letters to Deborah's mother, a child in England at the time, written to her by her parents, who were trapped in Nazi Germany. The letters are extraordinary in their ordinarinessFor example: "My Dearest Little Mouse… take your meals properly and don't fill up on junk food… practice your English diligently… and be a good little girl… Dear Sylva… don't go to sleep too late… I was very happy with your dear little letter, only there shouldn't be so many spelling errors."

The letters continued for three weeks. Then the war started, and the letters stopped. The writers of those letters, Oppenheimer’s grandparents, eventually died in the camps. Oppenheimer’s mother, who moved from England to America after the war, could never speak of what happened, even when she was dying of cancer.

"I knew my mother on the surface was this happy woman, but I knew she carried around this tremendous grief," says Oppenheimer.

The little girl who grew up in the suburbs of New York, in what appeared to be a happy home but was really filled with sadness, became a producer of comedy shows. But there was always this idea of the Kindertransport nagging at her. It was only after her mother died, and the letters were discovered, that Deborah realized what she had to do.

"I was driven," says Oppenheimer. "My mother was guiding me, my grandparents were guiding me. I felt that I was meant to make this movie. And it was hard. But there was never any question in my mind about making it."

She had no idea how it would be received. She won an Academy Award. "That was an out-of-body experience,” she says. “It was surreal. It was an amazing, amazing triumph for the survivors. I knew they were all watching and rooting for us."

Oppenheimer thinks that her mother’s silence was a mistake. It was, she says, not good for her mother, or for her. “I don't think this was good for me. I think my mother, in believing that she wasn't passing on her sadness, she absolutely did.”

There is an irony to Oppenheimer's film. If her mother had talked to her, Deborah says, she never would have felt the need to make the film.

If she could talk to her mother now, what would she say? "I would say, 'Look, didn't we do good?' I think she'd be really proud."

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