Reunions have healed Kinder, organizer says here

In less than 10 years, Bertha Leverton has become the devoted mother to thousands.

"I'm very emotionally involved with my Kinder," she said.

Leverton has spent the past decade bringing together fellow adults who were on the Kindertransport — the effort that saved 9,500 children, mostly Jews, from Germany and Austria, by sending them to Britain in the nine months before World War II.

As the founder of the Kindertransport reunion movement, the 75-year-old Londoner has organized two world gatherings and has begun work on a third reunion in London next June. She has inspired countless regional events, started an international newsletter, written a book, and documented the 3,500 Kinder found so far.

About 50 of them live in Northern California.

On a visit to the Bay Area with her sister, Leverton will speak tonight at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and Sunday at the "Remember the Children, Daniel's Story" exhibit in S.F.

Leverton, her sister and local Kindertransport coordinator Alfred Cotton — all of whom just came from a mini-reunion of about 75 Kinder in Washington, D.C., over the weekend — said their work over the past decade has transformed their lives.

For one, they have discovered an uncanny bond with hundreds of fellow Kinder.

Inge Sadan, Leverton's sister, said most of her closest friends now are fellow Kinder.

"We can understand each other — with just one word," said 68-year-old Sadan of Jerusalem, who heads Israel's Kinder association.

The Kinder are also finding some level of psychological healing. After decades of keeping their emotions to themselves, they are finally talking openly about their pain.

About 80 percent of them lost their parents to the Nazis.

Cotton, a 72-year-old Oakland man, was one of them. Before getting involved in the Kinder movement, he couldn't speak about his experiences — "even with my kids."

Now co-chair of the Northern California chapter of the Kindertransport Association, Cotton can also recall examples of knowing people for years before ever discussing their common bond.

Cotton, for example, knew Ralph Samuel for a decade before they realized they were both Kinder. Samuel is also co-chair of the Northern California group.

Leverton believes her volunteer efforts have mirrored the increasing need for Kinder to face the past. Most are now in their 60s and 70s.

As they grow older, she explained, the Kinder who pushed the memories down for decades are finally facing their trauma.

"We need quite a bit of counseling," said Leverton, a Munich native whose maiden name is Engelhard. "Now that we're retiring, it's all coming back to us."

The healing isn't complete, though.

"I have a big guilt complex," said Leverton. Unlike most Kinder, whose parents died in the Holocaust, Leverton's parents survived.

The guilt weighed so heavily that on a questionnaire sent out 10 years ago, she couldn't bear to ask other Kinder what happened to their parents."Now I'm asking," she said.

Kinder also deal with the stigma of being "lucky." Other children who lived through the war were either hidden on the continent, sometimes in horrendous conditions, or managed to survive the concentration camps.

"Somehow Kinder didn't really consider ourselves survivors. We were the `lucky ones,'" Cotton said.

Leverton said it's especially difficult for her to speak in front of the camp survivors because her experience wasn't as horrific as theirs.

"Every time I speak to camp survivors, I feel ashamed. I feel hurt, upset inside of me because I can't share their feelings…I clam up."

Leverton organized the first world reunion in 1989. It took place in London and attracted 700 Kinder. The third will take place in June 1999, again in London. About 700 Kinder have already signed up.

"I call it the last major one," said Leverton, who acknowledges an obsession with her group called the Reunion of Kindertransport. "I'm 75 now. I'm beginning to realize I can't go on forever. And I want to go out on a high, not a low."