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Youngest Holocaust survivors look to next generation

Now in their 70s and 80s, children of the Kindertransport gather in Irvine to share stories with their children and grandchildren and continue searching for lost friends.

January 03, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Holocaust survivor Doris Small, center, with daughter Miriam Saunders, 60, left, and granddaughter Jenniffer Veno, tells her offspring: "If I didn’t go through this and if I didn’t survive, you wouldn’t be here.”
Holocaust survivor Doris Small, center, with daughter Miriam Saunders,… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

She was an orphan, a 14-year-old Jewish girl, when she went to the Berlin train station on a summer day in 1939, leaving behind all that she had ever known.

She had already experienced loss: her parents claimed by illness, her brother taken by the Nazis. Now Dora Gostynski was about to get on a train that would take her and hundreds of other Jewish children to safety — but they had to go without the comfort of their parents.

She remembered the other children's sobs as they embraced their parents, who had made the agonizing decision to give their children a chance at life, even if meant never seeing them again. And she remembered the parents who relented when their child didn't want to leave them. They walked away from the train station, and back into a world of danger.

"There was like an ocean of people and an ocean of tears," she said.

She was escaping Nazi Germany through the rescue mission Kindertransport, which carried about 10,000 youths to Britain and elsewhere for shelter during the Holocaust. Many — more than 60%, according to various estimates — never saw their parents again.

As they grew older, they sought out one another, drawn by a wrenching, shared experience. They founded the Kindertransport Assn., and kinder from around the world have gathered every other year for the last two decades.

The kinder are among the youngest Holocaust survivors, yet even they are now mostly in their 80s, a group thinned by the passing years. With each gathering, there are whispers that it could be the last.

At the most recent gathering, in an Irvine hotel, a much older Dora recalled the train station on that day more than 73 years ago. She recognized one of her classmates, a girl named Fritzy Hacker. Fritzy's mother hugged each of the girls tightly before they boarded the train together. "She said goodbye to the two of us like she was my mother too," she said.

But Dora couldn't stop thinking about her sister, Ida. They had applied for the Kindertransport mission together. But as they waited for word to arrive, her sister had turned 17. She missed being able to qualify by two months.

As the train chugged toward the Dutch border, she and Fritzy told themselves they were going on a field trip. The other passengers wept. She thought of her sister. She didn't know if she would ever see her again.

::

Dora — now Doris Small — is 89, and a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She was one of the remaining kinder who had come to share their stories of survival with one another and their children in the hopes that their history isn't forgotten after they are gone.

"My generation is dying off," said Michael Wolff, who at 76 is one of the youngest. He was 2 when his mother handed him over to a teenage girl to carry him to Scotland. When his father visited him months later, he did not recognize him.

The conference in Irvine represented a passing of a torch to the survivors' children and grandchildren to maintain the Kindertransport story. The gathering drew three dozen survivors, and for the first time, the gathering was organized by the second generation — "KT2," as they are called. More than half of those attending were the survivors' children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

The conference reflected the push to connect generations, with sessions on writing memoirs and ethical wills and conversations in which moderators prompted open dialogue after years of silence. It was time for their children — and the world — to know their legacy.

"This is a story of survivors," said Wolff's son, Jeffrey, who was the conference chairman. He said they are "strong characters because they had to adjust, they had to adapt, they had to survive."

They were linked by traumatic experience, but the gathering, in some ways, had the feel of a high school reunion.

They reconnected with people they hadn't seen since they were children. The kinder and their children walked around with scrapbooks, flipping through pages of black and white photos hoping to identify the other children on their ship.

There was also a message board, where the kinder and their descendants left notes in hopes of finding others on the same voyage or track down those they haven't heard from since the war.

Did anyone stay in Cornwall during war and after in orphanage/hostel? Pls contact Linda

And in underlined red letters: Does anyone know a Fritzy Hacker from Berlin, Germany?

::

Doris Small still searches for her friend all these years later.

She lives in Broomfield, Colo., now. She's supposed to use a walker, but she tends to leave it behind. She keeps her hair a light shade of brown. A toothy, impish grin frequently creases her face.

After her husband, a concentration camp survivor, died four years ago, she became involved in the Kindertransport Assn. This was her second conference, attending this time with her daughter and granddaughter.

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