Young children being passed from person to person and pushed onto a train. Frantic, tearful goodbyes, with parents’ hands pressed up on the carriage window. These are scenes we have imagined so many times, ever since we were old enough even to try to comprehend what our mothers, then aged 17 and 15, respectively, experienced when they were each put on a Kindertransport train that left Leipzig Station for London – one in February and the other in March 1939. Now we are watching it happening in real time, today, in Ukraine.
Our late mothers, Hilde Auerhahn and Rita Rimalower-Nettler, were two of some 10,000 children, aged two to 17, sent alone by train mostly from cities in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to safety in the UK from December 1938 until the last known transport from the Netherlands in 1940.
Hilde and Rita faced huge challenges as they were forced firstly to adapt to a new life in a country that was itself soon at war with Germany, and then eventually to grapple with the realization that they were never going to see their parents again. Hilde’s parents and her young brother perished in Auschwitz. Rita’s parents escaped over the Polish border, but she never heard from them again.
From such a young age, both girls suffered immense sadness and trauma. How brave they were, working so hard to ensure that we each had a safe, secure, happy childhood and family life.
As second-generation survivors, we still struggle to make sense of our mothers’ past. And now we are challenged again, as we watch what is happening today. We are shaken to the core at the heartbreaking scenes of mothers and children – and in some instances just children – as they flee, clutching a few possessions, confused and frightened.
Each year since 2006, the world has marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, which was the day in 1945 that Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian army. On that day, Holocaust survivors, whose number is dwindling with each passing year, share their memories of unimaginable cruelty, horror, violence and loss. And as their stories are told, we all vow that “never again” will such things happen.
Last year marked 80 years since Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. Hitler predicted a quick victory, and initially the German army moved quickly along the front, taking a huge number of Soviet prisoners. But the Germans had not taken into account the brutal winter weather, and they underestimated the strength of Soviet resistance, even through the siege of Leningrad, when the Nazis tried – and failed – to starve the Russians into submission. For Russians, this victory is the high point of their history. Since he came to power in 2000, Putin has made the Russian defeat of Nazi Germany the basis of Russia’s national identity.
If we consider all this in light of what we are witnessing today, we must ask: how can the army of the people who venerate their courageous stand against the Nazis in World War II now invade and commit genocide in a neighboring European country? And justify it, perversely and obscenely, in order to “denazify” Ukraine?
Until a few weeks ago, there were around 9,900 Holocaust survivors living in Ukraine. How many will perish at the hands of the Russian army in 2022 – the same army with the proud history of standing up to the Nazis; the same army that may even have been the survivors’ liberators in 1945?
The Holocaust survivors in Ukraine are at the stage of their lives where it is difficult or impossible to uproot themselves and escape to Israel or to any other country that offers them a lifeline. Until a few weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that in their old age these survivors would once again be living under siege in hopeless conditions: frightened, isolated, bitterly cold and starving. So much for never again.
As second-generation survivors, our voices matter more than ever before, as first-person memory becomes history. We may not be able to bear witness as our mothers did, but we have a responsibility to tell their stories and ensure the past is never forgotten and never becomes a footnote in the history books.
As Holocaust educators, already our teaching of the past is being compromised. “Never again” as a concept in terms of Holocaust education is, at the time of this writing, an empty slogan, because today we see history repeating itself.
We will continue to remember, record and preserve the Holocaust legacy of our families, and encourage all second- and third-generation survivors to do so in order to prevent Holocaust denial and distortion. And perhaps, right now, this is all we can do.
Michele M. Gold is a Holocaust educator. She wrote Memories That Won’t Go Away – A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport and developed Legacies of Survival Workshop Series for Holocaust survivors and second- and third-generation survivors. Born in London, she lives in Los Angeles.
Marian Lebor is a writer and filmmaker. Born in London, she lives in Israel.