Imagine the agony of Jewish parents in Nazi Germany who put their youngsters on trains
to the United Kingdom just before the outbreak of World War II. And the fears of those children separated from their families and traveling on trains en route to live in unknown places with strangers whose language they did not speak or understand.
Still, they were the fortunate ones. After nights of violence against Jews in Germany and
Austria, the British government initiated the Kindertransport (children’s transport) program that gave safe passage and temporary homes to some 10,000 mostly Jewish children.
Three Montgomery County women who were among the rescued German children shared
their memories and the facts of their lives to date during a talkback session that followed the second of six performances of Sandy Spring Theatre Company’s production of “Kindertransport” at the Arts Barn. Diane Samuels’ 1995 play tells the heart-wrenching story of Eva, a fictional Kindertransport child, in vignettes at various stages of her life.
Hearing Liese Fischer, Anita Payson and Esther Starobin narrate and respond to questions about their real-life details and feelings added significantly to the theater-goers’ experiences. Despite their beginnings and concomitant loss of family and a normal childhood, these women survived to resettle in the U.S. and have families of their own.
Fischer, who now resides in Silver Spring, was 14 when she and her 15-year-old brother
left Kriegshaber, a district of Augsburg, Germany, on July 25, 1939. The siblings were placed with a family that ran a hostel for boys in Westgate-on-Sea in Kent; she lived with the maids whose job she took over when they went home at the start of the war. After her brother passed away—on her birthday in February 1940—Fischer went to Manchester to live with a cousin, eventually training and working as a nurse.
An uncle arranged for her to fly to Washington, D.C., in June 1947, and she soon moved to New York to live with an aunt, eventually marrying and having two children. Upon the deaths of her husband and son within nine months of each other, she moved to Maryland where her daughter and grandchild live.
Fischer’s parents died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
A train from Adelsheim, Germany, took 26-months-old Starobin to live with the Harrisons, a Christian family in Thorpe, Norwich, in 1939. Her three older sisters, who had arrived in the U.K. three months earlier via Kindertransport, visited occasionally during her eight years there; a brother, rescued from a camp, went to the U.S. in 1941 as part of the One Thousand Children. Their parents died at Auschwitz in 1942.
Starobin recalls a happy childhood with the Harrisons; in 1947, she left them reluctantly for Washington, D.C., first to live with an aunt and uncle, and then with her sisters. She studied education at the University of Illinois, married and had two daughters, who considered the Harrisons their grandparents.
Now a Silver Spring resident, Starobin eventually engaged with Judaism, celebrating an adult Bat Mitzvah and serving as president of a reformed congregation; she volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Payson, who lives in both Kentlands and Boca Raton, saw a newspaper announcement of “Kindertransport” being staged in her own neighborhood, and felt compelled to contact director Bill Spitz and become part of the panel.
On Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, Payson was 12 and living in her native Berlin; the next morning, when she walked to her private Jewish school, she found the building destroyed. Her parents sent their only child to live with her mother’s best friend who had escaped to Glasgow, Scotland. “I remember my parents’ pain and courage,” she said. Linda Schubert, Payson’s daughter, published her memoir in “Danger on My Doorstep.”
“Kindertransport” is on stage at the Arts Barn through Sept. 23. Visit artsonthegreen.ticketfly.com for tickets.