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LOS ANGELES — The Kindertransport was a last-ditch effort to rescue European Jews in the run-up to World War II. Around 10,000 children were sent to Britain to be fostered wherever they could. The program’s last transport left the Netherlands in May 1940, the day before the country surrendered to the Nazis.
My family’s lore holds that my great-uncle was one of the children on that ship. As far as I know, we aren’t completely sure whether this is true; Britain’s official records of the Kindertransport remain sealed up, and the members of my family who escaped or survived the Holocaust lived the rest of their lives mostly tight-lipped on the subject. In this respect, they are very much like the rest of their generation. There is a gap between the events in Europe and today’s popular understanding of them, a time before there were highly publicized efforts to collect oral histories on the war, before Holocaust movies were the cheapest form of Oscar bait.
A lot of personal history vanished into that gap. I’ve yet to learn how my grandmother escaped Germany. She may or may not have also been on the Kindertransport. She was not forthcoming on her life in her home country, what happened there and what killed her family. Different members of my family — parents, uncles, cousins — collected different details over the decades. With my grandmother and great-uncle now gone, we each have a different mosaic of scraps, incomplete and ambiguous. Certainly, my great-uncle was rescued by the program, but was he really on the last ship? It makes for an enticing detail in the story, at least.
Institutions like the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust save such knowledge from falling into that historical gap. Its current exhibitions showcase this mission well. The Last Goodbye is a virtual reality tour of the Majdanek death camp in Poland, guided by survivor Pinchas Gutter. And Childhood Left at the Station: A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport tells stories like those of my great-uncle in a more complete form, so that people today can better understand what happened to him and others like them.
The installation consists of 10 displays, each dedicated to a different Kindertransport child. It details their lives before the war, their experiences with antisemitism in the ’30s, how they were transported out of their home countries, and their lives afterward. The 10 subjects include both future famous figures, like architect and sculptor Frank Meisler and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and regular people like Charles Susskind, an electrical engineering professor. Some personal artifacts — a briefcase, postcards sent back home, a set of pens — are on display. The children could take precious little with them, and often this would end up being all they had left of home, their families claimed by the Nazi death machine. The simplicity of the exhibit emphasizes this loneliness.
Several of the people featured in the exhibit are no longer alive, with Frank Meisler having passed just this year. But they left a complete enough record of their experiences that they can continue to testify even in death, their memories preserved by projects such as this. Living with the perpetual dissatisfaction and curiosity of half-knowledge about what happened to my own family, I wish I had as much to sift through as the loved ones of these 10 subjects. They live with the same painful history, but they can better understand it.
Childhood Left at the Station: A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport continues at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (100 The Grove Dr, Los Angeles) through December 31.