Postcards to a little boy

A recent publication by Yad Vashem casts light on a special story from the Kindertransport.

Henry Fonder in Berlin 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Henry Fonder in Berlin 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At a recent London event marking the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport rescue mission, a group of now-octogenarian- and-older kinder (children) who left their families behind in the lead-up to World War II gathered at St. James’s Palace to swap stories and meet Britain’s Prince Charles.
These kinder made their way from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to the safe haven of Britain between December 1938 and the start of the war. All told, around 10,000 predominantly Jewish children escaped the clutches of the Nazis in that fateful nine-month period. Many of the Czech contingent escaped thanks to the courage and initiative of Nicholas Winton, now 104 years old and a knight.
There have been many books written about and by these children, and there have been quite a few documentaries. One, The Children Who Cheated the Nazis, was narrated by British Academy Awardwinning filmmaker Richard Attenborough, whose parents took in two Jewish children from Germany.
Diane Samuels’s 1993 play Kindertransport has been performed all over the world to enthusiastic audiences.
While all the books, films and plays about the Kindertransport recall the moving events that took place three quarters of a century ago, few manage to convey the experiences of the children and the anguish of their parents – who knew it was unlikely they would ever see their children again – with such immediacy as Henry Foner’s Postcards to a Little Boy.
The handsome tome, which Yad Vashem recently published, is based on several dozen postcards that Foner’s father sent from Germany to his young son, who had found a home with a Mr. and Mrs. Foner in Swansea, South Wales. The couple was to become known as Aunt Winnie and Uncle Morris.
“They insisted that I call them aunt and uncle, so I should be aware that they were not my real parents,” says the now-81-year-old Foner, who has been a resident of Jerusalem for more than 40 years.
Postcards to a Little Boy opens with a foreword by the author that recounts his family history. An only child, he was born in Berlin in June 1932 as Heinz Lichtwitz, a.k.a. Heini. By all accounts, the Lichtwitzes were a well-to-do and well-integrated German Jewish family, having received Prussian citizenship in the 18th century (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that citizenship formed the basis for membership in the German empire).
Foner’s paternal grandfather, Ernst Lichtwitz, ran the family printing business, which his father had founded in Berlin. Foner’s mother died when the boy was only five years old; his father, Max, a lawyer who served the Jewish community, took over his care, as did his paternal grandmother, Margarete (née Auerbach), and a nursemaid called Nüppi.
Foner shared a large apartment, in a block owned by the Auerbachs, with his parents, his grandparents and his Uncle Ludwig’s family. The building was in the affluent Charlottenburg district.
Foner relates that “at some point in 1938,” he was told he would be sent to live with a family in Britain.
That, presumably, was after the violent events of Kristallnacht in November of that year, and he arrived in the United Kingdom on February 3, 1939, when he was six and a half years old. He says he does not remember saying goodbye to his father at the train station in Berlin, but he does remember the crossing into Holland, when he and the other bewildered children on his transport finally made it out of Nazi Germany and received a warm welcome from the locals.
That selective memory is one of many common bonds among the kinder. My own Viennese-born mother, who left for Britain with her two older sisters in December 1938, also recalls the kindness of the Dutch women who met their train as they crossed the border, and the tasty goodies they gave the children.
“We didn’t know it was Holland,” Foner recalls. “It was just that after all those uniformed [German] people had gone through you, and searched you, including a body search, with people scowling and yelling, and then suddenly we were met by [Dutch] women smiling and giving us hot dogs. They were delicious!” When he reached London, he waited with other children who had been assigned to members of the Swansea Jewish community.
A Mrs. Selina Levy from that community eventually came and took them by train to South Wales.
Foner says his Welsh hosts received him warmly as well, although, of course, the language barrier severely hampered conversation. Still, the youngster quickly learned English and duly forgot his German. His father sent the first postcard on the day his son arrived in the UK, and he kept up regular correspondence, initially sending cards every few days. But the deteriorating circumstances of the Jewish community in Berlin gradually made communication increasingly difficult. After around four months in Swansea, the boy no longer remembered any of his native tongue, and from June 1939, the postcards from his father, friends and other relatives are all in English.
From the delightful pictures and designs on the communications in the book, one who was not aware of the painful circumstances surrounding the correspondence would have absolutely no inkling that something was amiss.
Some of the cards sport fairytale illustrations. One, sent on April 9, 1939, has a photograph of two fluffy chicks, and Max expresses his happiness that Heini – he addressed his son by his German pet name until he started writing to Swansea in English, at which point “Heini” became “Henry” – enjoyed both his Easter eggs and the Seder evening. He informs his son that the weather is nice in Berlin.
One of the English-language postcards – sent in early August 1939, when things must have been very tense in Berlin – has a photograph of what Max calls the Schienenzepp – short for Schienenzeppelin – which was an experimental high-speed train. Max inquires whether “dear little Henry” has heard of the train.
All of these would be perfectly reasonable topics to cover under normal circumstances, but of course, these were far from normal circumstances. Max was clearly doing his heroic best to allay any suspicions his young son may have had of the dire conditions his family had to endure.
Foner picks out one postcard he feels is par ticularly poignant. His father sent it on February 28, 1939, and it shows a bearded elderly man at a gate, holding a watering can and pointing away from his garden as a bird, a butterfly, a grasshopper and several bugs are sent packing. The caption reads, “Vertreibung aus dem Paradies” – expulsion from Paradise.
“I suppose that describes what I went through, being sent away by my father,” observes Foner. “I actually wanted that postcard to be on the cover of Postcards to a Little Boy.”
The high-quality reproductions in the book also feature postcards from other relatives, including Foner’s grandmother and his uncle and aunt, Walter and Evelyne Lichtwitz, who fled to Paris in 1933 and later to Vichy. They were eventually captured and dispatched to concentration camps, but survived the war. Foner’s other uncle also survived the war, as did his grandmother, who was sent to Theresienstadt. Max was deported to Auschwitz on December 9, 1942, and was killed there seven days later.
Foner describes himself as “quite a private person,” so it must have taken some courage to display this intimate exchange of postcards with his father, whom he last saw when he was just six years old.
“This is not easy for me,” he admits. “Sometimes I talk to groups of English-speaking people about this, but it is getting easier.
I have to put my feelings to one side when I do the talks, and I usually take [my wife] Judy with me for support.”
Despite being torn from his family at such a tender age, he is one of the luckier kinder. His foster parents were a kindly couple who did everything they could to give him warmth and love and provide him with a substitute home. Not all kinder were that fortunate; some had foster parents who exploited them as little more than unpaid servants.
Most of Foner’s relatives survived the Holocaust, even though when he met up with them after the war, it was difficult to bridge the English-German language divide. Amazingly Max managed to send young Heini’s toys to Swansea, as well as a consignment packed with precious family furniture and other practical and valuable domestic items. Many of the latter are now on display at Yad Vashem.
“There is also my father’s typewriter there, whic h I used to type up my master’s degree thesis,” Foner proudly notes.
He took his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Leeds before working as a food chemist for the city, and later in the ceramics department of his alma mater. He and Judy married in 1961 and came on aliya seven years later. Foner soon secured a position as an analytical and environmental chemist at the Geological Survey of Israel, and officially retired in 1997, although he continued working at the GSI as an emeritus scientist until the age of 80.
The last letter he received from his father was sent on August 31, 1939 – just one day before Germany invaded Poland, which led to Britain’s declaration of war two days later. In the postcard, which has a cheery picture of a bird with rolling hills and a farmhouse in the background, Max writes: “I’m glad you are well and happy. I hope war will not come. If he is coming although, God bless you and uncle and aunty!” The book closes with an illuminating review of the political, logistical and social machinations of the Kindertransport, by historian, writer and Bar-Ilan University professor Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz.
“I wrote the book as a sort of memorial to my father and the people who took me in,” says Foner. “I am eternally grateful to them.”