In the early spring of 1939, the elders of the Jewish Community, realizing that life in Danzig (present day Gdansk) was becoming increasingly restricted by the Nazis, undertook a heartbreaking project. By agreement with the Nazi officials, who had been elected to the Danzig government in growing numbers since 1930, the elders negotiated the sale of Jewish communal property, including the historic Danzig Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. They dismantled their synagogue and removed all signs of Jewish culture. The proceeds of the sales were put into a special bank account to finance the emigration of Jewish members of the community. JDC (The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) worked with the town to ship the Jewish artifacts to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The foresight of the Jewish elders saved their culture and many lives.
The foresight of my great grandparents, Frieda and Otto, is why my Zayda, his brother Siegfried, and his sister Ruth, were in Danzig in 1939 waiting to board the Warshava and go to England. On July 17, 1939 Frieda and Otto took Siegfried and Manfred to the train station in Zbaszyn. They managed to get on a list of 24 persons to go to Grodno. Miraculously, a man came running up, saying that both of the boys were on the list to get on the Kindertransport. At that point in time it was widely known that the Kindertransport was finished: no more children were allowed into England. My great grandparents made the difficult decision to send their children on the Kindertransport. My Zayda’s good friend was sad to leave his parents, so his mother did what any parent would do, she kissed him and kept him with her. They were both murdered.
The next day Frieda and Otto arrived in Grodno to learn there was no space for them. They stayed overnight and were on a bus to Augustow the next morning. My great grandmother had just said goodbye to her three children, had no place to stay, and had been living on straw mats for nearly a year. But in the letter she wrote to family in Palestine she said,
“The trip itself was lovely – all we saw were forests, water and sky. We’ve never seen such a beautiful landscape.”
Frieda’s ability to see light in the face of dark is a gift she passed on to my Zayda and one he has passed on to the world.
To honor Frieda, we went for a hike in Augustow before heading to Gdansk. As we walked along the Netta River we were all in awe of the beauty around us.
Two weeks after they left Zbaszyn, after a quick stop in Otwock, my Zayda, Siegfried, and Ruth were in Gdansk ready to board the Warshava, But they were told Ruth could not get on the boat. My Zayda ran away and hid. In part he hid because he did not want to have his head shaven. But as a 7 year old that just saw his parents fade into the distance on a train, he refused to go on the boat without his sister.
Ruth found him hiding and convinced him to get on the boat. She saved his life, telling him to go on without her.
Today, we returned to the same port where he boarded the Warshava 75 years ago. It was a place to celebrate for it was here that my Zayda and Siegfried were saved.
It was also a place to mourn for there were 1.5 million children that did not escape Europe.
We faced the water and said the Shehecheyanu. We faced Europe and said the Kaddish.