With anti-Semitism rampant and war looming, Ralph Samuel fled his hometown of Dresden, Germany, for safety in England. He was all alone.
Then only 7, Samuel was one of 10,000 Jewish children who escaped Germany and Austria in the famed Kindertransport.
Seventy-five years later, watching a play in Berkeley brought it all back.
Now an Oakland resident, Samuel joined several other Kindertransport refugees, along with their children and grandchildren, at a Nov. 17 matinee of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”
In the play, Mona Golabek portrays her mother, Lisa Jura, a young Viennese pianist taken in by British Jews during the war. It’s based on a 2002 book written by Golabek.
“She’s an amazing woman,” Samuel said of Golabek, a concert pianist who grew up in Los Angeles under the musical tutelage of her mother. “I’m sure with each performance she gives away a part of her soul.”
In the play, which has been extended at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Jan. 5, Golabek presents the story of her mother’s escape on the Kindertransport, and her years living in war-torn England. Throughout, her mother clung to music, and on stage, Golabek plays the same pieces by Bach, Grieg and Beethoven that sustained her mother’s spirit.
Seeing the play was an emotional experience for the refugees in the audience, as well as for Golabek, who met with the group afterward in a rehearsal room. In attendance were five Kinder (as they call themselves), eight from the second generation, seven from the third and one from the fourth.
Golabek sat in rapt attention as she listened to their stories, many similar to her mother’s. They came from places such as Vienna and Hamburg, and ended up in cities such as Sheffield and Liverpool. Some were fortunate, with parents and siblings later joining them. Others were not so lucky. All said the play brought back memories.
Ilse Eden of Berkeley, with her British accent still very much intact, recounted how she lived in London with the Schlesinger family. The family’s eldest son, John, later became a successful film director, with “Midnight Cowboy” and “Marathon Man” among his credits.
For Samuel, the story stretches back to 1938 when he left Germany. Unlike most Kindertransport children who traveled by train, he was evacuated by air, with his mother following three months later to work as a maid at the home they both stayed in. His father was murdered in Auschwitz.
At age 27, he immigrated to America, then had a long career in real estate development. In retirement, he has become active with the Kindertransport Association, which has about 600 members nationwide, and several dozen in the Northern California chapter. Under its auspices, he has spoken in scores of classrooms — in the Bay Area and in Germany — about his experiences.
“They knew they would probably not see their children again,” he said of the anguished parents who put their children on those trains to freedom. The majority did not, he added.
His adult daughter, Lisa Samuel, attended the play and meet-and-greet session with her own 10-year-old daughter.
“I thought the play was amazing,” she said. “[Golabek] did a brilliant job. She took what was a historical moment and distilled it into one story.”
As for Samuel, he was equally impressed with the play and by Golabek herself.
“When I speak to schools, often I get carried away or get slightly teary-eyed talking about it,” he said of recounting his personal story. “Here, this woman is doing it six or seven times a week.”