For some, telling their stories is therapeutic. For others, it has caused unceasing nightmares.
About 10,000 Holocaust refugees made it to Britain on the Kindertransport, the ships and trains that brought Jewish children out of Germany, Austria and parts of Eastern Europe.
Last weekend some of the living kinder, as they call themselves, gathered at the DoubleTree hotel in Burlingame to tell their stories. While they shared with each other, they also focused on passing their experiences on to the next generation.
At one morning session, about 50 kinder gathered to discuss the consequences, both painful and healing, of speaking about the past.
“My parents put me on a train, never to see them again,” said Ilse Lindemeyer. “When I got there [to Britain], I wanted to jump into the river.”
Lindemeyer said she didn’t speak about her Kindertransport experiences for many years. When she did, it felt like “a dam broke,” and she couldn’t stop telling her story.
“Since then I’ve been speaking about it at schools,” she said. “But I’ve been having nightmares at night.
“Is it helping you, telling your story?” asked Eva Maiden, a family therapist with the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children Services, who moderated the session, with help from Anne Grenn Saldinger of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project.
“I don’t know,” answered Lindemeyer. “But I feel it’s my duty. I want them to know what happened to my parents.”
Others said that telling their stories was difficult at first but ultimately relieving.
“I was a sheltered child, so I wanted to shelter my children from that information,” said Ralph Molerick. “It was like a pressure cooker. It wanted to come out. When I told my story, suddenly it was like a relief valve. That’s why I gave my oral history.”
The kinder also talked about their experiences as parents, including the difficulty of raising children when they felt their childhoods were taken from them. While some kinder were later reunited with their parents, most never saw them again after leaving for Britain.
“I didn’t have a teen age,” said Bertram Herzog, now a college professor. “I don’t understand teenagers at all. I see it, but I have absolutely no empathy.”
Some had misgivings about how they raised their children, tying their behavior to their own harsh childhood and adolescent experiences.
“I gave them much more freedom than I should have,” said one woman. “I let my 16-year-old come and go whenever she wanted because that’s how it was for me when I was 16.”
While some kinder expected their children to act with the same maturity and independence as they themselves had at a young age, others regretted sheltering their children.
“We were always overprotective,” said Ellen Bottner. “We were neurotic, guarding our children.”
The kinder had widely varying experiences once they arrived in Britain. Lindemeyer felt she was a “glorified maid” in the eyes of the family that took her in.
Peter Plessner’s experience was quite different. He had lived in an orphanage in Germany, and in England was moved to a hostel full of Jewish children like himself.
“My life actually started to pick up in the hostel in England,” he said. “They were my family. Some of us were glad to get out.”
Some kinder were placed in non-Jewish families and brought up Christian. For Juliane Biro, dealing with her own identity crisis made sharing her past even more difficult.
“I went to a school for Catholic-Jewish kids,” explained Biro. “In a way I feel Jewish. But, I raised my child with no religion at all. I almost didn’t come here. I feel like I’m coming out.”
At the end of the session, the moderator Maiden encouraged the few kinder who had not yet permanently recorded their memoirs to do so. Later in the afternoon, the kinder generation joined their children and grandchildren to talk about their stories.