A case of children

After a decade traveling the world, the ‘Für Das Kind’ Kindertransport exhibition finds a permanent home in Vienna.

Memorabilia belonging to Inge Joseph on display at the Kindertransport museum in Vienna. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS,RONI GORDON,ROOM NO. 4)
Memorabilia belonging to Inge Joseph on display at the Kindertransport museum in Vienna.
Just over 76 years ago my mother, Ruth Davis (née Schiffmann), left Nazi-occupied Vienna on a Kindertransport, toward physical safety and survival in the UK.
She traveled with her two older sisters, Ilse and Trude, leaving behind her mother and younger brother. Her father – my grandfather, whom I never knew – had already fled to Belgium, where he was to be miraculously joined by his wife and 4-year-old son a few months later.
They survived in hiding for around two years, and even had another baby – a sister my mother never met, and only learned the existence of over 40 years later. Sadly, they all perished in the Holocaust.
While quite a few Kinder – “children” in German – returned to their place of birth, including my late Aunt Trude, my mother has not been back. Ilse lives in London, and is now an 86-year-old greatgreat- grandmother.
My mother and aunts were among around 10,000 predominantly Jewish children, up to the age of 17, from Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, who were admitted by Britain and placed with foster families or in hostels, at schools or farms. It was, literally, a lifesaver for all the children – but it was also a traumatic experience for children and parents alike. Now, some of that emotion is evoked in a permanent exhibition at Für Das Kind (For The Child), the world’s first Kindertransport museum, which opened in Vienna last month in the basement of a building on Radetzkystrasse, in The Salon gallery owned by Dr. Rudolf Schweinhammer and his wife, Mirella Zamuner.
It is a fitting home for the exhibition, which has been displayed at prominent cultural facilities around the world over the last 10 years – including in London, near the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in upper Austria and in Prague. During World War II, the building was used to briefly house Jews prior to deportation to concentration camps. In the exhibition catalogue notes, Schweinhammer and Zamuner express the hope that the commemorative exhibition will “inspire a better, more positive, future.”
Each child was allowed by the Nazi authorities to take just one suitcase, and one other item – my mother recalls taking a rug – and the display in Vienna comprises 23 large photographs commensurately crafted by curators Rosie Potter and Patricia Ayre. The visual substratum for each of the pictures is an open suitcase, which contains various mementos provided by each of the featured Kinder.
Luggage is a recurrent theme in the context of the Kindertransport, which took place between December 1938 and August 1939. All the children left Vienna for Britain from the Westbahnhof railway station; today, there is a monument to the rescue operation on the lower level of the station – in the form of a bronze statue of a forlorn-looking, kippa-wearing young boy sitting on a suitcase. The monument is also called “Für Das Kind,” and was made by Venezuelan- born British sculptor Flor Kent.
There are other Kindertransport creations by Kent: at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the Kinder were collected; in Berlin; and at the main railway station in Prague featuring Nicholas Winton, now 105 years old, who saved 669 Jewish children from what was then Czechoslovakia. Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 for his daring rescue work.
When I got to the statue, there was a woman standing there reading the inscription on the plaque. I asked her, in English, if she knew what the monument symbolized; she said she hadn’t known about the Kindertransport before coming to Vienna. It turned out she was from Haifa, and I told her a bit about my mother’s experience – in Hebrew.
I stood around the vicinity of the monument for a while longer to see whether people actually took note of it, and was gratified by the attention it received. One 40-something gent, together with an older woman, appeared to take particular interest in the figure of the boy and suitcase. It transpired that Matthias was an Austrian architect who had a keen interest in the Holocaust, and had had some dealings with the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. It seems that Austria’s dark past is not entirely forgotten in Vienna.
The new museum should also help to perpetuate the memory of the incredible rescue operation. The official opening took place on December 10 – on the 76th anniversary of the first convoy out of Vienna – and was attended by a bevy of dignitaries, including Austrian Education Minister Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek; Arts, Culture, Constitution and Media Minister Dr. Josef Ostermayer; Viennese Jewish community president Oskar Deutsch; and a Vienna-born Kind, 87-year-old Inga Joseph, who now lives in Sheffield in northeast England.
“I am delighted that Vienna was chosen to have the world’s first Kindertransport museum,” says Joseph, who left for Britain in June 1939 at age 12. “I don’t know how many people there know about the Kindertransport, so I hope the museum will help to show people what happened all those years ago.”
The photograph of Joseph’s suitcase includes all sorts of artifacts from her childhood. There is a motley group of mementos in the picture, including a red exercise book that Joseph says is a book of puzzles, and a small doll with blond plaits. “That’s Trixie,” says Joseph with simple delight. “It’s now in the Imperial War Museum [in London]. It’s traveled all over the world as an ambassador; everyone seems to like the doll, to put in exhibitions and other things.”
Joseph has also shared her experiences of her relocation to the UK, and her initial integration into British society, with the world – through the publication of My Darling Diary, which she put out under her maiden name of Ingrid Jacoby. She started jotting down her thoughts and feelings at age 10, through age 17, and it documents her departure from Vienna, together with her sister Lieselotte, her subsequent longing for her mother and her life in Falmouth, Cornwall, through the Second World War. Joseph also published two more volumes of the diary, and a novel called Six Images of Summer, the latter under her current name.
The somber circumstances in which Trixie found its way to Britain, and eventually returned to Vienna – at least an image thereof – only serves to heighten the sense of innocent childhood cruelly curtailed by the violence of the Anschluss and the Nazi regime. My mother recalls standing in line for long hours at Westbahnhof, with her sisters lined up somewhere behind her, while her mother and the other tormented parents stood a few meters away.
“The main emotion I think we had then was confusion,” says my mother. “I remember being taken to the railway station and being put in a queue with a suitcase in one hand – we were only allowed to take what we could carry – and a rug in the other. I was very close to the front because it was in order of age. I was just seven, and I think there was one girl younger than me. There were soldiers in Nazi uniforms and rifles, just like you see in all the pictures, parading up and down; on the other side were the parents, and they were not allowed to be with us.”
It must have been extremely traumatic for all concerned. “It was late at night,” my mother continues. “There was a huge entrance hall, and the parents were kept back. My mother was in the front row holding my brother.
My last image of her is her face; it was something I didn’t recognize. I knew it was my mother, but the look on her face frightened me. I suppose it was fear.”
The Kinder went on to eventually settle in Britain, while some subsequently moved to the US and elsewhere around the globe, including Israel. Around 1,200 of the survivors had a chance to get together and catch up on each other’s lives in 1989, when Bertha Leverton – who left Munich at age 15 together with her younger sister, Inge Sadan – organized the first Kindertransport reunion in London. It marked the 50th anniversary of the rescue operation, and subsequent events were held on the 60th and 75th anniversaries; the 2013 gathering was graced by Prince Charles and Sir Nicholas.
The Für Das Kind exhibition also includes a minimalistic contribution from Leverton, who turns 92 today and now lives in Israel. Leverton was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2005, and also collated the experiences of a number of kinder in I Came Alone, published in 1996. Sadan undertook a similar exercise with Israeli-based Kinder, called No Longer a Stranger; my mother typed up and edited all the stories. I later translated Sadan’s book into Hebrew.
Alisa Tennenbaum has been doing some sterling work in keeping Kinder connected over here for many years.
Now 85, Tennenbaum also originates from Vienna – although, unlike my mother, she has returned there several times over the years. She even went back to the family apartment in Vienna’s 20th district, together with her daughters. “It was wonderful to see the apartment again,” she recounts. “I saw they hadn’t changed the floor tiles in all those years; they were the same tiles I used to play hopscotch on with my sister and friends.”
In fact, Tennenbaum – who was 10 when she left for Britain together with her sister – talks to all kinds of groups about her Kindertransport experiences, and has traveled to Germany and Austria to do that, too. Last week I caught one of her talks, this time at Yad Vashem, to a group of around 80 Taglit-Birthright youngsters who sat transfixed throughout.
The new museum is supported by a number of private donors, but it was thanks to Milli Segal, who lives in Vienna, that the whole venture took off in the first place. Segal notes that the exhibition first came to her hometown in November 2006, and that she was keen to have it there on a permanent basis.
“The Nestroyhof-Hamakom Theater [a 19th-century theater which was closed and forgotten for many years, and only rediscovered in the late 1990s] hosted the exhibition at that time. Rosie Potter and Patricia Ayre were excited to show their work in such an appropriate environment.”
Potter and Ayre were clearly sensitive to the various emotional nuances of the 23 Kinder, whose earliest mementos they arranged in the suitcase bottom and had photographed. The artifacts convey a palpable sense of lost and scarred childhood and youth.
Joseph’s contribution, for example, includes a number of black-and-white photographs of a young girl with curly hair. When I inquired whether they were of her, from Vienna, she said innocently: “No, they are of Shirley Temple.
It’s silly really, isn’t it?” It struck me as delightful, and not silly at all – the most normal thing a girl with a happy childhood could do.
Segal hopes Für Das Kind imparts that sentiment, and what it meant to Joseph, Tennenbaum, my mother and her sisters, and thousands more Jewish children to escape to safety, while leaving their parents and the rest of the family behind. How could the young children have possibly dealt with the emotion of being sent away to a place where they knew no one, and didn’t speak the language? How could they possibly appreciate that their parents were sending them away in order to save their lives, and not rejecting them? It is hard to comprehend.
Segal wants us to try to get that on board. “I invite you as a visitor to this exhibition to allow yourself to become engaged with these pictures,” she says in her catalogue notes. “They are not ‘just’ photographs, they are the stories of girls and boys living in a horrible time who needed a great deal of strength to overcome separation from their parents and the loss of what had been, up until that point, a safe world.”
Members of the public wishing to visit Für Das Kind may do so by appointment.