Kindertransport survivors to gather in Burlingame

Since 1990, members of the Kindertransport Association have been meeting every two years in various parts of the country — but never on the West Coast — to share stories and reminisce about what was perhaps the most defining experience in their lives.

“Getting together with people who had the same experience is like getting together with family,” said Margot Goldberg, a Palo Alto resident originally from Germany. “I feel a certain closeness with these people, and that’s mostly what it is for me.”

For Goldberg and other Bay Area residents, the next association meeting will be much closer to home.

Called “Learning from the Past: Teaching for the Future,” the conference will take place in Burlingame from Friday, Oct. 22 to Sunday, Oct. 24.

“Some of us keep telling the people that it’s just as hard for us to come East as for them to come West,” said Alfred Cotton of Oakland, who has attended every reunion but one.

More than 100 people, including members of the second- and third-generation, are expected at the conference.

The Kindertransport refers to the some 10,000 children from Germany and Austria whose parents sent them to Great Britain in an effort to save them from Hitler’s Europe. Some were adopted by families who treated them like their own children, while others — like Cotton — were shuttled around from institution to institution. An estimated 80 percent of them, also like Cotton, never saw their parents again.

He spent most of the war in hospitals, as well as a hostel, and ended up sleeping on the floor of a synagogue.

Cotton estimates that there are about 60 of the child refugees — they refer to each other as “kinder,” the German word for children — living in Northern California, from Santa Cruz to the Sacramento area. About 40 of them will be at the conference.

While Cotton goes mainly for the camaraderie, he said there have been some highly emotional reunions between people who haven’t seen each other since their school days in England, and sometimes, even in Germany.

Guest speakers will include local Jewish historian Fred Rosenbaum, who will speak about Jewish history during the Gold Rush, and Walter Kohn, a member of the Kindertransport from Vienna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1998.

Bertha Leverton, the founder of the Kindertransport Association, is coming from her home in England.

As the kinder become older, an emphasis of the workshops — for the second- and third-generation — will be about telling the stories of their parents and grandparents.

“The reason there’s a lot of emphasis on this is because we’ve all gone through incredibly awful experiences, and we feel that somebody’s got to remember it, and we don’t know exactly how to go about it,” said Goldberg. “How do we remember this?”

The issue of remembrance is on many kinders’ minds, she said.

“There are some people who are saying that this never happened, but we have the scars to prove it,” said Goldberg. “It’s such an unbelievable part of history, that anything like this could happen at all. People don’t want to let go of it. Maybe they should, but it’s hard to know.”

Goldberg credited the association with giving the kinder the courage to talk openly about their experiences.

“It was very difficult at first, but after we formed this organization, it became a lot easier,” she said.

Many of the kinder know each other quite well by now, Cotton said, though at each conference a few more come who have never before heard of the association.

But the numbers are beginning to shrink, as well.

“I’m 78, and time is getting short,” said Cotton. “Unfortunately, we do lose some members every year, and not only that, but some of them cannot travel as far.”

The Kindertransport Association will meet Oct. 22-24 at the Doubletree Burlingame Hotel, 835 Airport Blvd. Information: Ralph Samuel (510) 231-0905 or Alfred Cotton (510) 547-2694.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."