Yom Ha'Shoah Commemoration and Service at Sinai Temple
Mr. Halberstam is a member of Sinai Temple who was part of the Kindertransport, the rescue mission that took place just prior to the outbreak of World War II. On Sunday April 27th 2012 Mr. Halberstam was the featured speaker at the Yom Ha'Shoah commemeration event at Sinai Temple where he recounted his experiences. This page containes a transcript of his presentation.
Champaign Resident Remembers the Kindertransport
The Kindertransport Association
In 1938, immediately after the November 9, 1938 Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom in the German Reich, the Jews of Britain initiated the unique rescue operation now known as 'Kindertransport'. Within days they obtained the permission of the government and, in the nine months leading up to World War II, with aid from Quaker and other non-Jewish refugee organizations, brought nearly ten thousand unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to safety in Britain. Most of the children, but not all, were Jews. Most of the parents who had sent them to safety perished in the Holocaust. Most of the children settled in Britain; others re-emigrated to Israel, the Americas, and elsewhere, scattering over the world.
The Kindertransport Association (KTA) is a not-for-profit organization that unites these child Holocaust refugees and their descendants.
The KTA shares their stories, honors those who made the Kindertransport possible, and supports charitable work that aids children in need.
Into The Arms Or Strangers
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport is a 2000 documentary film directed by Mark Jonathan Harris and narrated by Judi Dench. It tells the story of the kindertransport, an underground railroad that saved the lives of over 10,000 Jewish children. The movie uses archival footage and interviews to recount the stories of children sent to live in England, after fleeing from Nazi Germany.
Yom Ha Shoah Memorial Service 2012
April 27, 2012
Featured Speaker: Heini Halberstam
On Yom Ha Shoah we remember the destruction of the European Jewry, and we mourn the savage murder of six million of our people. The Holocaust is the most horrific event in our long history that is full of horrific events, and there are so many of us alive now because over the centuries we have lost so many. It falls to me this evening to provide a glimpse - a pitifully inadequate glimpse - of these catastrophic events. My mother was one of eleven children and my father one of four, so it is not surprising that there were many in my extended family who perished in the camps; but it is above all the suffering and murder of my mother that forever haunt me. Under difficult circumstances she planned my escape, and her influence has ruled my entire life. Although we parted when I was twelve years old, it seems to me as if she had passed on the task of caring for me to a succession of wonderfully kind women as if acting on her behalf, so that I have always been in good hands. I shall tell you about some of this good fortune tonight; some of my guardian angels are long gone now; how I wish that they could hear me now acknowledge my profound debt to them all.
I come from the Sudetenland in the Northwest of the Czech Republic, a German speaking region that was assigned at the end of WWI to the newly created Czechoslovak Republic against the wishes of many of the local residents, ironically some Jews among them. I was born in 1926 in Brux (Most in Czech, meaning “bridge”), a city that had become by the start of the 20th century one of the more lively centers of Jewish life in the region. There were some 315 Jewish families living there comprising more than 1,000 souls, and my father had been Rabbi of the Orthodox congregation since 1923, a year when he also married my mother. We had a handsome Temple standing in its own grounds, also an apartment block where we lived, as did the Cantor and his family, and my father had an office on the ground floor.
In one of the city’s squares stood an elegant Opera House -cum- Theatre, and a castle called Hnevin was perched on a hill above the city. On the outskirts there were both German and Czech gymnasia (High Schools) flanking the local barracks. There was even a Jewish member of the City Council who gained more votes in the last election before the war than there were fellow Jews with votes!
Incidentally, although we spoke German at home since both my parents were educated in Vienna, I attended Czech schools only and so was bilingual from an early age. Unfortunately, there were also coal and lignite mines to the north of the city and these extended right under the city. First under German occupation and later under the post-war Communist government, the city was razed to the ground to create access to these deposits; and only a venerable old Catholic church was saved, only to be moved to a new site. For several years the area became known as the most notorious ecological disaster in Europe; but now there is a brand new town there. So far as I know, no Jews live there and I have no desire to visit. There had been a Jewish community in Most since the 13th century, and my father wrote a history of it in 1934, published in a volume about the Jewish communities of Bohemia.
I recall the religious life of our community as very active. On weekdays, morning and evening there were minyans (a minimum number of ten adult Jews required for a communal religious service) available for services, and on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and on High Holidays, the congregation was present in strength. I was usually upstairs with my mother in the women’s section; later I was allowed downstairs, but then I have to report, alas, that sometimes I misbehaved, to the great displeasure of my Father.
Back to my story, I don’t remember much from those years, but there is one sinister occasion, which sticks in the mind.
One Saturday morning service when still sitting in the balcony, I saw a portly man enter, dressed in hunting green, a Tyrolean hat on his head and twirling a cane behind his back, and proceeded in a leisurely manner round the temple, studying the wall inscriptions and also the men davening (swaying) in prayer, for all the world as if he were in a museum - or a zoo; when he had seen enough and provoked no reaction, he left as quietly as he entered.
My father was strictly orthodox and my much younger mother was a dutiful and busy rebbetzin; but she was skeptical and allowed me liberties, like attending Christmas parties of friends, that my father quietly frowned on. I was very much her son and totally under her influence. My father officiated at a funeral one cold, wet autumn day in 1937, and when he returned home that afternoon he had a heart attack. He died that same evening in agony. My mother was devastated and naturally I drew even closer to her. I became rather a clinging child, and couldn’t bear to let her out of my sight. I must have been very tiresome. In the summer of 1938 I was sent to summer camp - to grow up, on the advice of her friends.
It was high time. Hitler began his demands for the Sudetenland that summer, to the enthusiastic clamor of the locals, and by the Fall in early October, Chamberlain and Daladier gave in to him at the notorious Munich Conference. On September 24, my mother and I took a train to Prague; she had rented a small flat there in anticipation - in fact it wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, and we had to stay with friends for a few days. This was politically a frantic time; there were false alarms of air attacks, reports of suicides, friends were packing to leave for Palestine and there were tearful partings. We could have gone too, but my mother had her heart set on sending me to England instead, and so far as I could tell, she made no plans for herself to escape. I had begun lessons in Brux, and now she arranged for me to continue in Prague. She also found a place for me at a local Czech gymnasium and in no time I had a few Jewish friends there and was admitted to their circles. On the morning of March 14, 1939, we were on our way to school when we found German Sentries guarding the bridge over the Vltava (the river running through Prague) - the invasion had begun! Our life wasn’t much affected at first as far as I could sense; but my mother continued to make arrangements for me to travel to England. We saw German troops goose-stepping down the main avenues, but otherwise we were not troubled by them. They were front-line soldiers on their best behavior - the SS and Gestapo would come later - but then (on April 17) I believe my mother saw me off on the train to London. At the Station my mother was calm and controlled; I joined 35 other children on what was the Second Kindertransport from Prague, (although I had no idea about Kindertransports for years) I waved to my mother as the train pulled out of the station, and a strange change came over me - I seemed to know suddenly that I was from here on my own, and yet I was not worried. My mother had given me my instructions, and I knew I had to make my way on in charge of my life.
In fact, we would never see each other again. She must have felt desperately lonely back in the empty flat, her friends packing for their journey to Palestine. We corresponded for two years; her letters to me were mostly to urge me to write more often. They are lodged now in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Our journey to England was straightforward, though we were made to change trains rather too often. At the German-Dutch border, at custom control, I couldn’t find the key for my suitcase, but the officer just waved me through - I must have looked honest! In Amsterdam some kind ladies brought us food and drinks; the crossing from the Hook of Holland to Harwich was smooth and the final train-ride to Liverpool Street Station in London delivered us like so many addressed parcels into the arms of apprehensive adults - in my case, a cousin of my father’s who had emigrated to the UK many years before with her husband. In fact, they had arranged for me to be “adopted” by the community of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood, London who had engaged to take care of me till I reached the age of 16. I had met them in Belgium a few years earlier, and probably my mother sent them a photo of me. Anyway, we met easily and I got a fine car ride across London and was made to feel welcome.
After a few days of meeting the rest of the family and a little shopping at Selfridges for suitable school wear, I was packed off to the Muncaster School some 30 miles outside of London, and I would remain there for the next two and a half years. At first there was a plan for me to be Bar Mitzvah at a synagogue my father would have approved of; but then War broke out in early September ’39 and life changed. Many boys left the school, the school, much diminished, moved twice over the next two years. We were never far from London, but we never experienced an air raid. There was very little serious instruction at Muncaster - indeed, most of the time there were no teachers except for the Head, and one itinerant science and maths instructor. It dawned on me that if I was to find my way to a university I’d have to engineer a move. There was a very kind lady, a Mrs. Turner, who lived in Beconsfield in Berkshire, who had me stay at her house in vacations; and when she heard my tales out of school she set about moving me to another school. Basil Henriques was a magistrate in the East End of London and a member of the L.J. Synagogue congregation; and he arranged for me to join Raine’s Foundation School for Boys, and East End school evacuated to Camberley (England’s West Point, the British Officers Training School), Surrey, on January 1, 1941. This move was the making of me; but before I tell you a little about my good fortune, I’ll tell you what happened to my mother.
A younger brother of hers and her youngest sister had escaped from Vienna to New York in 1937 and there they received some help from cousins who had prospered. Indeed, one was none other than Helena Rubinstein, the once famous cosmetics queen, and on looking into her filing cabinet containing files of numerous poor relatives she agreed that my mother qualified. A place was booked for her on a ship bound from France for New York late in 1941; but that was when the USA entered the war, and the ship never sailed.
My mother’s Last Journey
In late 1942 Reinhard Heydrich (the author of the Final Solution, Himmler’s No. 2, and “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia”) was assassinated by Czech paratroopers; mortally wounded, he was flown to Berlin where he died in early June. Thereupon the Germans launched various characteristically savage reprisals, notably the destruction of Lidice, the murder of many Czechs, also dispatch of several transports of Jews to the East. One of these was Transport AAh of 1000 persons, and my mother was one of these, her number # 591. She had been arrested at the home of friends where she had probably been living; in a letter to Switzerland her host lauded my mother’s courage at the time.
The transport went via Bohusovice, through Katovice and Osweczim (Polish spelling of Auschwitz) to Majdanek, a camp near Lublin. There all men aged 16 to 50 were made to get off. After that the train travelled to Sobibor, where all sick people, who had been segregated in a special wagon, were shot. From the remaining prisoners, some 120 were selected and sent to work in the labor camp in Ujazdow. The man in charge was a Ukrainian called Machnik.
This camp was a subsidiary of the main encampment at Krychov, an old prewar penal colony, and here the commander was SS officer Gruneisen. (From here a number of prisoners were sent to Sobibor to “try out” the newly installed death machinery there.) From Ujazdow the prisoners continued their journey in filthy cattle trucks to yet another camp described as a selection camp on the river Bug. There they were robbed of all their remaining belongings; those unfit for work were killed; it is not know how. The prisoners - Czechs, Dutchmen, Poles, Austrians and Germans - slept in barns on the bare floor, without blankets. They had to walk each day many miles to the place of work and there they dug trenches in marshy soil, probably for the purpose of drainage or irrigation. So debilitated were they that soon they could scarcely hold their tools; they worked and slept in wet clothing. The camp doctor, himself a prisoner, could do little since he had no medical supplies, and the camp commander recognized only typhus as a disease exempting from work. All typhus patients were taken to a special typhus camp where they were left to die.
This information comes from a single prisoner who escaped in the first half of 1942. Shortly before he got away he overheard a telephone conversation between Machnik and the main camp. From this he understood that probably all remaining prisoners would be sent for extermination to Sobibor. This was later confirmed.
There were no survivors. Nor has there ever emerged any further information about my mother.
In the Pinkas synagogue in the old city of Prague there is a memorial wall where the names of the 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Holocaust are inscribed. My mother’s entry is
HALBERSTAMOVA, JUDITA, 7.VI. 1896, 10.VI. 1942
The first date is her birth date, so that she was just 46 years old; the second is the date of deportation, because the date of her death is unknown.
Back to January, 1942. As soon as I arrived at Raines I persuaded the Senior Master to let me join the class that was preparing students for the Schools Certificate and incidentally matriculation for entry to London University; I chose the minimum number of subjects, and in June I sat these exams and passed - I even got a distinction in Physics! I was also able to demonstrate my prowess in Soccer, which gained me instant acceptance at the school. At this point I had to change digs, and my good fortune was to be billeted with Anne Welsford.
Anne was in her early thirties at the time, and her elderly mother, a wonderful lady, lived with her. There was also another, younger boy from Raines, Jewish and from the East End of London - a cheerful and chatty lad called Morris Wernick, who provided entertainment for us all; he was short then and several years behind me. When we met years later in Canada he had grown much taller than I . We lived in this seemingly palatial house called “Arden”, standing in several acres atop Church Hill overlooking Camberley; we had rooms of our own and a book-lined study in which we did our homework. We walked or cycled to school. All the teachers were excellent and I felt very proud of my school cap; the headmaster of the local grammar school warned his pupils against the ruffians from London, but that had the unintended consequence of making us mysterious and attractive. Many of the Raines boys were Jewish but this seemed not to matter. Indeed, a local lady - a Mrs. Matthews, hosted a regular evening get-together where we would meet regularly and settle the world’s problems. Eventually we were all to become medical doctors or university teachers.
Anne was a lady of independent means; she had inherited from an uncle who had graduated with high honors from Harvard and went on to a distinguished career in the Chinese Government for many years. “Arden” was his retirement home. He died in 1934 and left his estate to Anne. Early in 1944 Anne came into our study and said to me that she thought that I was just good enough to go to university -- and she had decided to send me there! Now I had sat scholarship exams, but though I had failed to get one I had done well enough to be offered a place at University College London; so suddenly I was launched, just as if my mother had arranged it! In those days once could graduate in two years, and Anne provided 200 pounds sterling for each of them. Although I didn’t work as hard as I should have done, I got First Class Honors Degree; and from here on I was able to support myself; I became a TA, I did some outside teaching and I secured scholarships. After three years of graduate studies I secured my first university appointment in 1949. The rest isn’t exactly history, but it is in the records. I married my college girlfriend the following year, and ten years later children started to arrive with remarkable regularity; three girls and at last a boy! We were all on our way to a holiday in Brittany, France in the summer of 1971, when an out of control truck ran into us as we were parked by the road side and killed Heather, my wife.
A year later Doreen, my present wife of more than forty years, had the courage to take us on; again it seemed as if my mother had stepped in and arranged matters in our favor.
Let me say a few words about the Kindertransport. This was a scheme conceived by the leaders of the UK Jewish Community and, perhaps also, by the Quakers who had been in Europe since the end of WWI providing hunger and other relief, and saw more clearly than most what was happening in Germany. Influential members of the British Government were approached and permission was given to admit 10,000 German Jewish children not more than 17 years old to the UK. All this was agreed in time for the first Transport to leave for the UK just after Kristallnacht, the night of November 9/10, 1938. The scope was enlarged to include Austrian and Czech children once Germany occupied those countries too. It was all done in a great rush, and the brave adults who shepherded the Transports have never been adequately acknowledged. Each guide was committed to return once each Transport was delivered.
In the UK the Kinder had mixed fortunes. The littlest ones felt abandoned by their parents and were very unhappy. Foster homes were hard to find, even among Jewish families. Quite a few of the Kinder spend the war years in camps, holiday camps sometime that were not equipped for winter usage. In some foster homes they were used as servants. Language was often the problem; and perversely, it proved a problem for those who were reunited with their parents after the war, for they might well have forgotten their mother tongue! The movie, “Into the arms of Strangers” paints a convincing picture, and by now there are many accounts, on the Web or in print that tell a variety of adventures.
You might be interested to hear a curious story reported by Tom Segev in his “The Seventh Million”: Apparently Ben Gurion said on some occasion in 1938, perhaps when he first heard about the proposal to send Jewish children to the UK, that if he had the choice of sending 100,000 German Jewish children to England or only half that number to Palestine he would opt for the latter without hesitation! This over-the-top remark was not well received even though it demonstrated his passion for the creation of Israel.
I consider the Kindertransport Organization to be a living memorial to the Holocaust, a repository of generations of memory. The Organization now includes second and third generation membership. Also, there are memorials built at Liverpool Street Station in London, and at the Hook of Holland in its honor. And there are both here and in the UK monthly Newsletters and annual meetings.
It is time for me to try your patience no longer. I spoke here on this occasion 30 years ago, and my conclusion then struck rather a somber note. Give that there is now a frequent reference among the talking heads to the NEXT HOLOCAUST, I cannot do better than repeat what I said then:
“The dead call on us to honor their suffering, and to take advantage of our survival to be the better prepared for the next challenge. For as long as we live there is always another challenge, and another reckoning”.
Some historical dates:
January 30, 1933 - Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
March 20, 1933 - Dachau opening
April 1, 1933 - Boycott called of Jewish businesses
September 15, 1935 - Nuremberg Laws passed stripping Jews of citizenship
April 13, 1943 - Warsaw Ghetto Uprising begins and lasts 28 days
October 14, 1943 - Sobibor uprising. Camp operated only 18 month