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Survivor pays tribute to her hero

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 26, 2011 - 2:55 PM

For 72 years, Lisa Gumpel kept her story to herself, an incredible tale that involves Nazis, secret rescuers, parents making the supreme sacrifice for their children and emotions so painful that she still struggles with them.

"For a long time, I was determined not to get involved," said Gumpel, 85, who eventually settled in Minnesota after the war and now lives in the Twin Cities. "But I thought now it was about time to say something."

She has plenty to say, starting with how she and her two sisters were among 669 Jewish children who made it out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 just as the Nazis were tightening their grip on the country. Their rescuer was a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton, who also kept the story to himself until 1988, then went public with it only because his wife found a list of the children's names.

"He was knighted by the queen" when the news surfaced, Gumpel said of Winton, who is 101 and has been the subject of several books and a documentary, "Nicky's Family," that opened in Czechoslovakia in January. "We call ourselves 'Winton's Children.'"

She decided to share her story when she saw a short article about the documentary in the Star Tribune. "I said to myself: Finally, the Winton news has reached Minnesota, and Minnesotans should know that one of the Winton children is here," she said, adding that she thinks she's the only one who ended up in Minnesota.

Her story begins in Berlin, where she was the middle child between Laura, two years older, and Rosemary, two years younger. Her father was a World War I hero whose bravery was rewarded after the war.

"We were raised by nurses and governesses," Gumpel said. "I suppose you could say we were spoiled."

As Adolf Hitler rose to power, her father realized that his status as a high-profile Jew put the family at risk. He arranged for the children to move into a convent in Czechoslovakia.

"Laura was well-behaved, but Rosemary and I were little devils," she said, guessing that she was 11 at the time. "The nuns wore full habits in those days, and I remember them pulling up their skirts when they chased us."

With the situation growing more tense in Berlin, their mother, Grete, moved to Prague and sent for her children. Their father, Karl, fled on foot and eventually made his way to England, but the trip was so arduous that it left him mortally ill.

"My father felt horrible" about leaving his family, Gumpel said. "But there was nothing else he could do. He was in danger, and he knew it."

Heartbreak and help

Meanwhile, in November 1938, Winton was preparing for a ski vacation in Switzerland. But at the last minute, he decided to visit a friend in Prague. He was stunned by what he found.

"The situation was heartbreaking," he wrote in a diary that was discovered along with his other records. "The parents desperately wanted to at least get their children to safety when they couldn't manage to get visas for the whole family."

He returned to London and persuaded the government to let Jewish children relocate to England temporarily if they had a place to stay. He emptied his bank account on newspaper ads pleading for foster homes.

The youngsters traveled by train to the Netherlands, then took a ferry across the English Channel before boarding another train to London, where they were met at the Liverpool Street Station by Winton's mother. Eight groups made the journey between March 14 and Aug. 2, 1939. On Sept. 1, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the German-controlled borders of Czechoslovakia were closed.

Gumpel, who was only 13 at the time, believes she may have been on the last train. At that point, she'd already spent at least two years on the run and was facing an experience so wrenching that this part of the story still moves her to tears.

"People have no idea how devastating this was," she said. "Sure, there are movies and books and stuff. But to have your family torn apart. ... My mother saved our lives and died in the Holocaust."

That was at Lodz, a concentration camp in Poland. That's all Gumpel knows about her mother's fate. One of Laura's sons used Holocaust records to find the exact details, but she doesn't want to know.

"I told my sister that I couldn't stomach it," she said. "If there is something I could have done for her, perhaps. But knowing it only makes me feel more helpless. It reminds me of the anguish, all the worry we went through."

Her father lived long enough to confirm that his children made it to England, but he died soon afterward. The sisters ended up living with an older woman who was one of the few foster parents willing to take three siblings. The next thing they knew, the war they thought they had escaped was right on top of them.

"We were in the middle of the Blitz," she said of the nightly German bombing runs over the city. "It got to the point that we didn't even go down [into the bomb shelter], even though one night the school across the street was completely destroyed."

She shrugged her shoulders before adding, "We went through a lot of things, but so did everyone who survived the Holocaust."

When the woman who owned the house died, it became clear that the three sisters would have to split up, at least until the war ended. With her education having fallen by the wayside, Gumpel figured out a way to address both issues simultaneously

"Everybody needed domestic help," she recalled. "So I ran an ad in the newspaper." She laughed. "I remember exactly what it said: 16-year-old girl needs a place to eat and sleep and would be willing to work in exchange for an education."

She got an offer from a prestigious boarding school, which educated her, as well. "When the day was done, they would take me and two other girls who worked there and teach us the same things they'd taught the students," she recalled.

Life after the war

When the war ended, Laura stayed in London (where she still lives) while the two younger sisters emigrated to New York City (where Rosemary still lives). Gumpel trained as an X-ray technician and, after a brief stint in a New York hospital, moved to a similar job in San Francisco.

While working full-time, she went to college, eventually earning a Ph.D. in German linguistics. Later, she answered an ad for a position in her field at the University of Minnesota's campus in Morris, where she settled for the next 30 years.

Gumpel, who never married, moved to the Twin Cities when she retired in 1997. Retirement is a relative term; she's shopping her latest linguistics textbook to publishers.

A committee of one

Gumpel remembers being shocked in 1988 when the truth about Winton's one-man rescue operation finally came out. She knew of him as the chairman of the British Committee for Refugees From Czechoslovakia, Children's Section, the group that arranged the kids' trips. She didn't realize that he was the committee.

"Nobody knew that he basically did this all by himself," she said. "He worked so hard to save lives."

Winton married after the war, but he never told his wife about his rescue operation until she stumbled upon the records stashed in a box in their attic. He still adamantly denies that he's a hero, arguing that his life was never in danger and that he was doing what he feels every person should do: "Going out, finding and helping those who are suffering and in danger."

A London TV station arranged a party for him in 1989 that included some of the people he'd saved, but Gumpel couldn't make it. She finally met him when he visited Chicago a few years ago.

"He still treats us all like we're his kids," she said with a warm smile.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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