Michele Gold, whose mother escaped the Holocaust, honors the 81st anniversary of the Kindertransport

By Bliss Bowen

Rita Berwald, author Michele Gold’s mother, rode a Kindertransport train out of Germany in 1939

When Marina del Rey resident Michele Gold lost her mother, Rita Berwald (née Rimalower-Nettler), to cancer in 2008, she found herself grieving not only for the parent she had loved but also for the determined Holocaust survivor whose personal history she had barely known. Not until the end of her life had Berwald begun to share memories of the Holocaust, and the loving family that placed her on a train to England out of Leipzig, Germany, in March 1939.

That train was part of the Kindertransport, or children’s transport, a rescue operation that was thrown together after Kristallnacht confirmed to the world that no Jew was safe in Nazi territory. Approximately 10,000 children were hustled out of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland via trains and ferries. They were taken mostly to the United Kingdom, between Dec. 1, 1938, and Sept. 1, 1939, when WWII was declared. Like most Kindertransport children, Berwald never saw her parents again.

Gold talked with artist and Holocaust survivor Gabriella Karin, who proposed creating what Gold calls “a wonderful 64-carriage winding train” in tribute to the Kindertransport. Gold helped her insert photos of Kindertransport children in windows of each of the carriages, and they opened an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in February 2011. The next step, Gold
says, was obvious: “document every face in every window of every carriage into a book.”

Sunday afternoon she is discussing that book, “Memories That Won’t Go Away: A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport,” at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where she is board chair. The event will commemorate the 81st anniversary of the first Kindertransport that left Berlin, and will also include a panel discussion with Gold, Kindertransport survivors Paul Kester and Rita Sinder, and LAMH Board member Judy Cohen, whose father, Eric Seif, was just 14
when the Kindertransport helped him escape Vienna.

“Every story was a different story, and every face to me was beautiful,” Gold says of the research she conducted. “Collectively they reminded me of the sheer tenacity and determination to survive and to live life.”

Following the structure of Karin’s sculpture, each chapter of Gold’s book represents a Kindertransport train, filled with photos and histories of varying lengths of about 600 Kindertransport survivors. Their stories can’t help but be moving, even as their cumulative weight demands time to pause.

“The main thing for me,” Gold says, “is that I documented them as lives that were saved.”

Some children, unfortunately, were treated harshly or like cheap labor. Others, like Gold’s mother, were welcomed like long-lost relatives and remained close to their foster families for the duration of their lives. Several gratefully recall being sponsored by Lord Alan Sainsbury’s committee, and how he ensured they not only received good clothes and pocket money but educations too.

Sir Nicholas Winton, the London stockbroker who quietly organized eight Kindertransports that saved 669 children, is also warmly remembered. One of the “Winton children,” future book and magazine designer Marion Feigl, developed agoraphobia in response to her trauma, even though she was comparatively lucky.

“It was very complicated,” Gold observes. “In spite of it all, and in spite of the fact that very few of these children ever united with their families again, most of them stayed unequivocally grateful to the country that took them in and often led very successful lives, both professionally and privately. But they also lived with tremendous guilt. My mother, I believe, lived with terrible guilt throughout her lifetime that she survived and her
family didn’t.”

At train stations, some children were threatened by Nazi guards with dire consequences if they dared take money or valuables out of the country. Reading about the guards’ viciousness calls to mind recent instances of cruelty toward children along the U.S.-Mexico border, a potent reminder of how history inevitably connects with the present.

“It is a painful connection,” Gold agrees. “It’s unimaginable today, and it’s unimaginable back in 1938 and 1939.

“Incidentally,” she adds, “the last transport, which had the most of children [about 250], was due to leave the day the war broke out. That transport did leave but it went in the opposite direction. So you assume you know what happened then.”

A brave few of the Kindertransport children risked deportation by hiding family heirlooms, such as the silver Kiddush cup 10-year-old Alfred Traum’s older sister Ruth smuggled out in her clothing, where their crippled WWI veteran father had buried it in her suitcase. The day the Kindertransport took them from Vienna was the last the Traums saw their parents.

Alfred did not know about the Kiddush cup’s rescue until 1958, when Ruth traveled from Israel to present it at his wedding. His essay about the cup and the Sabbath rituals it had centered during their childhood, and how their father’s example taught them “how to live with adversities and make the most of everything,” occupies four of the most touching pages in Gold’s book.

While researching, Gold Googled her mother’s name and unexpectedly discovered that during WWII, her mother had sent postcards to an uncle and aunt in neutral Switzerland, searching for information about her parents. Decades later, those postcards landed at a New York auction house, where they were purchased by a rare book and Holocaust memorabilia dealer who donated them to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“They tell very much of an Anne Frank story,” Gold says, “and they’re beautifully written. And very heartbreaking.”

Recently she took a train from Berlin to Leipzig, retracing her mother’s steps and thinking of her “the entire journey.” At her mother’s childhood home — a large building called “a Jew house” in 1938, now divided into five flats — she saw the stolpersteines, or stumbling stones, laid at her family’s behest outside the main entrance.

“Stolpersteines have been laid in various parts of Europe as a stark reminder of where Holocaust survivors once lived. I think there’s something like 64,000 of them now,” she explains. “We went to see the site where once stood what was known as the Great Synagogue. Today it’s a memorial to 140 empty architecturally made chairs; each chair represents 100 Jews of the total of 14,000 Jews that lived in Leipzig in 1939. We went to synagogue and we said the mourner’s prayer for my mother’s parents that night with whoever happened to be at the service. We were actually hosted by the mayor’s office, which was very lovely.

“It’s hard to imagine a city as beautiful as Leipzig is today that such horror occurred 80 years ago. It really is staggering.”

Gold says she is working on another book, about her mother’s postcards to Switzerland during WWII.

“How I stumbled upon them is a story unto itself,” she says. “And each postcard tells a very poignant story.”

Michele Gold discusses “Memories That Won’t Go Away: A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport” and participates in a panel discussion with Kindertransport survivors and descendants of survivors at 3 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 8) at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. Admission is free. Call (323) 651-3704 or visit lamoth.org.