Our lives are replete with potential “what if” scenarios.
In my own case, for example, if my Polish-born maternal grandfather had made a go of it in pre-state Palestine of the early 1920s, instead of contracting TB and having to return to Vienna, perhaps I would have been born a Sabra, and might have had a full set of grandparents to boot. Then again, as it would have made my parents’ crossing each other’s path highly unlikely, perhaps I would not have made it into this world.
And, what if young Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld had not displayed superhuman initiative and resourcefulness by organizing the rescue of close to 1,000 Orthodox children, from Germany and Austria? That would have made the possibility of my mother and her two older sisters, Ilsa and Trudy, making it from Vienna to the UK, on a Kindertransport in December 1938, highly unlikely.
By the same token, had George Shefi’s single mother not sent her then-seven-year-old son to physical safety from Berlin by a similar route, in July 1939, I would not have had the pleasure of chatting with the now-89-year-old Jerusalemite about those days, and about some of the seemingly endless list of achievements, and not a few escapades, he has chalked up in the intervening eight decades.
The Kindertransport, “children’s transport,” was a rescue operation instigated by Jewish and non-Jewish organizations in the United Kingdom in November 1938. It was sparked by the events of the night of November 9 of that year, in widespread violence unleashed against synagogues, Jewish businesses and Jews, across Germany and Austria, which became known as Kristallnacht.
The aforementioned reference to corporeal security alludes to the fact – probably not taken into account by most – that while approximately 10,000 mostly Jewish youngsters, aged from just a few months up to 17 years did get out of Nazi-controlled Europe to the UK, that certainly was not the whole story.
“Many children who went to foster families in Britain were treated as little more than domestics,” notes Dr. Elisheva van der Hal, a psychotherapist who worked with Amcha for over 30 years. The latter is an organization that provides psychological and social support services to Holocaust survivors and their families.
“Most of the kinder lost their entire family. Many suffered in the foster homes,” she continues, adding that it also took some time for the authorities to extend sorely needed help to the survivors. “It is only recently, not even 10 years, that the kinder were officially recognized as Holocaust survivors.”
Indeed, people thought – and many still do – that anyone who was spared the horrors of the concentration camps came through World War II unscathed. However, the fact is that all the kinder bear a variety of emotional scars. For many, their childhood ended far too young. While their parents made the incredible sacrifice of parting from their offspring, knowing it was probably their children’s only chance of surviving, it is hard to imagine the anguish the parents must have experienced. They must have known they were unlikely to see their loved ones again. And for many of the kinder, especially the smaller ones like my mother, being sent away to freedom was probably misconstrued as parental rejection. And it is something they have had to live with ever since.
SHEFI MAY be a case in point, but he is also an exceptional one. If there is any trauma residue left from his enforced separation from his mother, just over a month before the outbreak of World War II, that does not come across initially, neither in our conversation nor in an autobiography he put together around 17 years ago.
The said tome is called The Way of Fate, A True Story from the Kindertransport, and Shefi, né Spiegelglas, certainly put in a shift or two in getting all the material together for the venture. Incredibly, he managed to lay his hands on family documents across the generations, including photographs of his grandparents, his parents’ marriage certificate and even his Uncle Sandor’s American naturalization certificate.
Some of the trials and tribulations Shefi endured over his years in the UK, and later the United States, show through the cracks – the wisecracks – although he maintains a sunny disposition throughout.
“I am an optimist,” he declares cheerily. “And I think I have a pretty well-developed sense of humor.”
That, he surmises, may have gotten him through many a scrape more or less intact, bodily and emotionally. It also helped him consign experiences that could have had a lifelong psychologically debilitating effect on him to some nether region of his memory banks, and enabled him to get on with his life and make a damn good fist of it.
He says he recalls Kristallnacht and its immediate aftermath, but does not consciously harbor any challenging emotional detritus.
“I was kept at home for three days after that, and only allowed out together with someone else.”
His infant eyes took in some of the chaos and blatant cruelty that ensued.
“I saw all the shattered display windows of the Jewish stores. And I remember there was a stationery store on the ground floor of our building owned by a Jewish man and his non-Jewish wife. They didn’t smash that store glass front but they wrote on the sidewalk, in large letters: ‘This store belongs to a Jewish pig and his Christian wife.’ I remember that as if it happened yesterday.”
Presumably, Shefi’s mother did her utmost to keep her young son chirpy and innocent, and to spare him any sense of trepidation ahead of his long journey away from her, and to – for him – an unknown destination with an unfamiliar culture and a language he could not speak or understand. She evidently did a good job.
“I don’t remember being afraid at the train station,” he says. “I only remember looking forward to a train journey, and then I was going to go somewhere by boat. I didn’t imagine that I would never see my mother again.”
The youngster was also told, the evening before he left, to gather together all the toys and games he wanted to take with him to England, while his mother got his clothes together.
“My pile was much higher than the one with the essentials,” he laughs.
Needless to say, not all his favorite toys made it into the small suitcase each kind was allowed to take with them.
The departing children, my mother and her siblings included, were generally taken to the train stations after dark.
“We got to the station in early morning. The Nazis didn’t want other people to know about the Jewish children being sent away,” Shefi explains.
Shefi was more fortunate than most of his young co-passengers, at least to begin with. When he arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London, he was met and taken in by relatives, although he changed domicile and geographic location quite a few times during the war years.
Things, he says, could have been much worse.
“If you were a five-year-old girl with blond hair and blue eyes, there was a good chance you would end up at a good home, and you would be treated well. If you were, say, a 17-year-old boy and not good looking, it was more than likely that, if anyone bothered to take you in, you would end up being something like a chief domestic servant. I experienced both ends of that spectrum.”
When the Blitz began he, along with tens of thousands of other children from London, was evacuated to quieter rural pastures. He lived for a time with a rector and his family in a small village called Barnack near East Anglia. His host family included a daughter, called Anne, who was around a year older than Shefi, who by now had more or less mastered the English language. Anne was something of a tomboy, and the pair got up to all sorts of mischief.
Anne was also responsible for Shefi learning to ride a bicycle, although she caused him no end of discomfort in the process.
“She wanted to go cycling but wasn’t allowed out on her own,” he recalls. “She took her brother’s bike and gave me hers.”
The exercise didn’t go too well, and the rector’s headstrong daughter decided it was time to take action.
“She got off her bike and ran into the house and locked me out. It was pouring, but she didn’t care. She just said she’d let me in when I’d learned to ride the bike.”
After an hour or so of pleading, soaked to the bone and shivering, Shefi mastered the iron steed, and was allowed into the house after he’d convinced Anne he could ride without falling over.
“I didn’t bear a grudge,” he chuckles.
Decades later Shefi tracked Anne down on a visit to Britain and, when she opened the door, she exclaimed that she was amazed he’d made such an effort to see her again, considering how nasty she’d been to him.
Toward the end of the war Shefi once again migrated, this time to the other side of The Pond, where he spent some of his teenage years before making aliyah in 1949. He served in the Israel Navy, and for many years as a reservist, and jokes that he probably fell in love with the sea on that very first boat trip, from the Netherlands to England, in 1939.
Over the years Shefi has retraced many of his steps, in the UK, the States and even to Germany, where he once swore he would never return. That was to visit his aunt, a classical singer, who had gone back there from Israel seeking better career opportunities.
DESPITE HIS emotional baggage, and reluctance to have anything to do with his country of birth, Shefi eventually overcame his revulsion from the German language and, today, helps to spread the word about the Kindertransport, not only to Israeli school students but also to their counterparts in Germany.
“I want to help prevent antisemitism,” he says. “You can’t blame 17-year-olds for what happened during the Holocaust, for what happened during their grandparents’ time. I tell them they are not guilty for what their grandparents did, and I want them to hear my story, and about the Kindertransport, firsthand. I tell them they should know what happened, so it doesn’t happen again.”
Shefi’s sterling work has proven its worth.
“I received a letter from a 16-year-old [German] boy who said he’d been reluctant to come to my talk, but that after he and his classmates listened to me, they all got together and decided I was right, and that they must fight racism. That is very heartwarming.”