(MCT) — 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 percent, 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 Association, 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, Calif., 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 had come to Irvine 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 Association. This was her second conference, attending this time with her daughter and granddaughter.
It was a history once kept quiet, but she has grown confident now in sharing her past.
“You should have seen the heavy breaths I took,” she said, recalling the moment her train cleared the German border. “I remember it like yesterday.”
They arrived in England and the children filed into a large room lined with benches where they would be assigned to their homes. It was the last time she saw Fritzy.
A number of kinder were fortunate and were assigned to families who accepted them as their own, while others went to less embracing households where they were used as common laborers. Some were packed into orphanages.
Dora went to live in London with an elderly couple who owned a factory making men’s trousers. They sent her to work and didn’t enroll her in school. The days blended together.
“I didn’t know what month it was,” she said. “Every day was the same: Monday, Tuesday … ”
She woke up one day in the hospital, possibly because of exhaustion or malnutrition. She didn’t know how she got there, or why. “Father Christmas came through the hospital, and that’s how I know it was close to December.”
Her sister had made it to England and was living with a family as a maid. The two sisters kept in touch through letters after they were separated. After Small was released from the hospital, the sisters found a little room in a rough London neighborhood and got sewing jobs in a factory.
After the war ended, she and Ida left for the United States. Her sister, now 91, lives nearby in Colorado.
“I still hate tea,” Small said. “It reminds me of England.”
The Holocaust cast a shadow that has hung over generations. Small’s daughter, Miriam Saunders, recalled growing up in a German-Jewish enclave of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood where no one seemed to have grandparents. She would wake up to her father’s nightmare screams. She knew there was something the adults around her were keeping secret.
“I didn’t know why they did the things they did,” Saunders, 60, said. “They lived in fear, but I never knew why.”
It was years before Small and her husband spoke of the past. They joined a group of Holocaust survivors when they moved to Long Island and, slowly, they began talking. Small’s 35-year-old granddaughter, Jenniffer Veno, said she was nearly a teenager before her grandmother told her about the trains that carried the children from their homeland and their families.
The Smalls began sharing their stories in schools. At one school, the students questioned her for almost two hours and doted on her. “They asked for my autograph!” she said. “I felt like a celebrity!”
She does it because it’s therapeutic. Telling her stories, her daughter said, is what has kept Small sane.
But it never became easy. When one class seemed disinterested, she vowed never to speak to a class again, but she relented because she doesn’t want her history to die with her. She has six great-grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 20. It’s critical that they know.
“If I didn’t go through this and if I didn’t survive,” Small said, “you wouldn’t be here.”
Two generations — her daughter and granddaughter — flanked her as she recounted her life. They assured her that the youngest generation would know that their great-grandmother’s story of survival is also their own.