In November 1936, Chaim Weizmann — the best known Jewish leader of his time — observed that for Europe's Jews, "the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places they cannot enter."
Regarding the former, Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") marked Germany's departure from all civilized norms. From Nov. 9, 1938, on, nearly all German and Austrian Jews realized there was no future in their native countries. But Jews seeking refuge throughout the world were often thwarted in their efforts (i.e., the Evian Conference and the fate of the Wagner-Rogers "Child Refugee" bill in Congress).
A notable exception to the indifference and hostility was the Kindertransport — a nine-month effort that brought German, Austrian, Polish and Czech Jewish children to Britain, Sweden and several other countries. It was a rare prewar humanitarian act to provide sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi controlled countries.
Ultimately, the Final Solution would murder more than 1.5 million Jewish children.
The exhibit "Kindertransport — Rescuing Children on the Brink of War" (a project of the Yeshiva University Museum and the Leo Baeck Institute) tells the story. The American Swedish Institute (ASI) is hosting the exhibit through October in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the Greenberg Family Fund for Holocaust Awareness at Beth El Synagogue.
Kindertransports saved more than 10,000 children, but also had very distinctive and often long-term effects on the lives of the children and their parents. For children, separating from their parents and being uprooted from their childhood lives left emotional scars. For parents who acted with unimaginable courage to save their children, the trauma remained with them until their deaths, many in concentration camps only a short time later.
This no-win situation is but one example of the impossible choices that Jews faced during the Holocaust. This little-known history of the Kindertransport is at the same time remarkable, devastating and timely as we look out on today's world.
Creating stronger awareness of this important history, and deepening the educational experience, is "The Story is Here" exhibit at ASI, highlighting kinder (children) with Minnesota connections. There you will meet Benno Black, Siegfried Lindenbaum, and Kurt Moses.
Black, born in Breslau, Germany, was 13 years old and Lindenbaum, born in Unna, Germany, was 9 years old when they went on Kindertransports to England. Kurt, born in Tutz, Germany, was 11 years when he went on a Kindertransport to France.
As descendants of more than 1,600 years of German Jews, Black, Lindenbaum and Moses brought with them this profound history, first to their European safe havens, and ultimately to the United States.
For the journey, Black's mother packed him a suitcase filled with keepsakes to remind him of home: protractors, compasses and school notebooks which reflect his commitment to education (eerily, the notebook's last entry is "9 November 1938"), and a book of pressed flowers and plants labeled in German and with their scientific Latin name. He made the book with his mother who, like his father, Black would never see again.
He brought these keepsakes of German life to his adopted home in Northampton, England. In 1946, Black served in the British military. As a member of the Kings Rifles, he received a prayer book for Jewish service personnel which he brought with him during his tour in Tripoli.
A journey to America and ultimately Minnesota followed after World War II. His suitcase now bore the address of the Graetz family in south Minneapolis. The suitcase and other artifacts are on display at the American Swedish Institute through Oct. 31.
As a further illustration of German Jewish culture and literature, Black is the great-grandson of the historian Heinrich Graetz. The magnum opus of Graetz is his six volume "History of the Jews" first published in 1851 and translated into English in 1891.
While he settled in the U.S., Black continues to cherish his family's German Jewish heritage. Hanging in Black's house are family photos including his great-grandfather, Graetz; a Jewish wedding in Germany and a 2016 proclamation from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman declaring "Benno Black Day" in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In 1948, Black was selected to give a speech on behalf of his fellow citizens at their U.S. citizenship ceremony in Minneapolis. Black shared these poignant remarks which still resonate today:
"Each and every one of us who will receive our certificate here this evening had, I am sure, a different reason for coming to this country. But however different our reasons may have been we all had one thought in mind, to become free people in a free country, not to be persecuted by medieval cruelties, not every minute of the day to be afraid of being taken away from our families and loved ones, not to be discriminated against because of race, color or religion, but to live in freedom and to take part in the task of strengthening our democracy which alone is the source of a happy and satisfied life."
In Black's stirring words we see the impact good people can have on the lives of those seeking refuge from persecution. In the exhibits at the American Swedish Institute we can be inspired by stories of those who became beacons of light in a time of darkness.
Alexander Davis is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue. Steve Hunegs is executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Bruce Karstadt is president and CEO, American Swedish Institute.