“Can you imagine sending your children away — at any age?”
That’s exactly what the grandparents of Jackie (Lewin) Lewis did, she said, noting their courage.
For in the end, sending the children away most assuredly saved their lives.
The year was 1939 and Adolf Hitler not only had risen to power in Germany, but he had begun his systematic elimination of the Jewish population and others he believed didn’t fit into his master plan.
At about the same time, England’s governing bodies declared they would take in some of the children who could escape the clutches of the Nazi regime during World War II.
Among the children who would escape would be Lewis’ Aunt Ruth.
Lewis told the story of her aunt’s escape to freedom to a large crowd gathered at the First Congregational Church in Beloit Tuesday at a Society for Learning Unlimited class. The educational classes are presented each fall and spring and are geared for those 50 and older.
Ruth Lewin, who died at the age of 85 in October of 2011, shared information about those early, painful years of her life with her niece, but not until she was elderly.
It was then Lewis discovered a wealth of letters and a diary (all in German) her aunt had kept from 1939-1946, detailing what her life was like. Lewis, who had studied German, then began the process of translating the material over several years, she said.
In all, about 10,000 children were transported to England on what became known as the kindertransport, or the children’s transport. They came from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, about 1.5 million other children perished as a result of the actions of the Third Reich.
Those who escaped would travel by train and then by ship. Most, but not all, were Jewish. Their parents also had to pay a fee so their children wouldn’t be considered a financial burden, Lewis said.
At about the same time, Ruth’s brother, Walt, left for Scotland, found work there and waited for a passport and papers so he could emigrate to the United States. Walt would later become Lewis’ father.
So, Ruth was sent to Ipswich, England, leaving Germany at 8:30 a.m. on July 4, 1939. She would be sent to a boarding school at the age of 14. Her brother was in Scotland and their parents remained in Germany. The four corresponded by letter for years.
Ruth believed in the beginning that she would be reunited with her parents and that her stay in Britain would only be temporary. But the war effort soon pre-empted any plans for family unity.
Walt was able to head to the United States by 1940 and begin a new life.
In 1942, Ruth and Walt’s father died of a heart attack.
Correspondence of mail became more and more difficult and by 1944 it all but stopped for Ruth and her mother.
By 1945, their mother was believed to have perished at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Ruth and a friend were eventually taken in by a foster family in England and they stayed until 1946.
During her time there, Ruth became a stenographer.
After joining her brother in America in 1946, she moved to Rockford and Chicago. She also became a translator for the Nuremberg trials, Lewis said.
Some people wonder why the Jews didn’t leave Germany sooner.
In the 1920s, when Berlin was experiencing a cultural boom, Jews enjoyed the same rights as others living in the country, Lewis pointed out. Ruth was born in 1925, went to good schools, had a loving family and educated parents.
“They considered themselves Germans who just happened to be Jews,” she said.
By 1933, however, things changed after Hitler came into power. Life gradually became more and more restrictive.
Then, on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, came “the night of broken glass” when synagogues were burned to the ground and families like the Lewins were forced out of their homes and into small apartments. It was then Walt sought refuge in Scotland and arrangements were put in place for Ruth to escape by the kindertransport.
“Ruth herself wondered if she would have had the courage to do what her parents had done,” Lewis said.
In 1989, there was a reunion of children who had been part of the kindertransport. About 1,200 gathered in Britain. Most of the children who were sent away never saw their parents again.
Jackie Lewis lives in Eagle, Wis. and is on the Speakers Bureau List for the Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee. The title of her presentation is: “Childhood Lost: Escaping the Holocaust on the Kindertransport.”
For more information about the Society for Learning Unlimited classes in Beloit, visit the website: www.sluinc.org or call 608-363-2254.