The Yavneh graduating class of 2021 presented yet another captivating Holocaust production, the 44th since they were introduced by former Principal Rabbi Eugene Kwalwasser in 1977. The online presentation was aired on Tuesday evening, June 1. Entitled “Kindertransport,” the program explored the stories of four child survivors who were sent away by their parents to a safe haven in London before the outbreak of World War II.
For the past 20 years, Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, rebbe and Jewish history instructor at Yavneh, has researched and produced a presentation honoring individual survivors of the Holocaust, including Rav Yisrael Meir Lau; Jacob Frank, tailor for the infamous Heinrich Himmler; the Bielski brothers; and rescuers including Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Lithuania, and Adolfo Kaminsky, a teenage Jewish prisoner who saved 14,000 French Jews through his forged certificates. Working alongside Rabbi Burstein for the past 20 years as scriptwriter, acting coach and director has been Dominique Cieri. Yavneh Principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp and Assistant Principal Barbara Rubin lent their active and ongoing support to the production, as in years past.
The inspiration for this year’s production originated in 2006 when Rabbi Burstein was visiting family in London. There he met Bertha Leverton, a child survivor and president of the Kindertransport Commemoration Organization, who organized a world gathering of former Kindertransport graduates in 1999 that attracted over 1000 participants. For her work on behalf of Holocaust remembrance, Leverton was honored by Prince Charles with the prestigious Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) designation. The Warner Brothers 2000 documentary film “Into the Hands of Strangers” was inspired by that momentous reunion.
Leverton made aliyah 10 years ago and recently passed away at the age of 98. In selecting the Kindertransport as the theme for this year’s Holocaust production, Rabbi Burstein was uplifted by the statistic that all 10,000 German, Austrian and Czech children under the age of 17 who were transported to England to live out the war in safety fortunately survived. Of the 10,000, roughly 9,000 were Jewish and one-third were reunited with their parents after the war. Approximately 2000 to 2500 of these Jewish children were lost to Yiddishkeit, as they were harbored by non-Jewish families.
Rabbi Burstein shared, “The saga of the Kindertransport leaves us humbled and grateful that our children and grandchildren and hopefully future generations will be able to live lives as shomrei Torah u’mitzvot.”
The first two of the four Kindertransport survivors portrayed in the production were Reverend Bernd Koschland of London, whom Rabbi Burstein met in 2012 at a family simcha, and his older sister, Ruth Neuberger of Toronto. The siblings were born in the Northern Bavarian city of Fuerth, where they lived a rich, Orthodox Jewish life with their parents, who were very involved in the Jewish community. At the age of 8, Bernd studied Mishna with his father and learned to daven and leyn. After Kristallnacht, when their father was arrested and sent to Dachau, it became obvious that dark days were ahead. When the British Parliament arranged for children to be evacuated to London, the Koschlands sent their son on the Kindertransport in March of 1939 and their 15-year-old daughter Ruth shortly afterwards. The parents perished, probably in the Belzec Death Camp. They were never able to fulfill the promise of joining their children and allowing Bernd to “wear long pants” after his bar mitzvah.
In England, Bernd first lived in a hostel with virtually no Jewish education available. In 1942, he was transferred to a more Jewish hostel where he remained until 1948. Bernd became a Jewish educator as well as a rabbi in a United Synagogue Congregation. He married and had two children and currently has six grandchildren. In 2017 he was awarded the prestigious MBE designation by Prime Minister Theresa May.
Bernd shared, “The past is always with us but must never be a package that weighs us down. We must work for the present so that we can prepare for the future.”
Ruth lived in London, where she was reunited with Bernd. She volunteered for the British army as a sign of hakarat hatov to the country that saved her life. She later married and moved to Toronto. Ruth Neuberger is the mother of three, Judy, Naftali and Yaakov, the mara d’asra of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield. She is the grandmother and great-grandmother of many.
The third child portrayed in the production was Jenny Michael, who was interviewed by the Yavneh students in person, as she lives in both Teaneck and Israel. She is the mother of Naomi Mandelbaum, who recently retired from the financial office at Yavneh. Born Jenny Freeman in 1931, she and her four siblings lived in the thriving Jewish community of Frankfurt. As her parents were active in the Kindertransport, Jenny and her siblings were snuck onto a train headed for Switzerland, where they hid out in locked bathrooms so they would not exceed the quota of 100 children. They were later reunited in London with their parents in 1940 and made their way to the U.S. Jenny is the proud grandmother of 17 and great-grandmother of 15.
Erich Reich, the fourth child presented, was born in Vienna in 1935. In August of 1939, he was sent to London on a Kindertransport with his 10-year-old brother, Ossie. He was taken in by a non-Jewish family and raised as a Christian. When he was 11, their older brother Jacques came to reunite with them and return them to the Jewish community. He studied at the Hasmonean School in London, and at the age of 13 moved to Israel. At 18 he joined the IDF and served as a paratrooper in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Subsequently, he learned that his parents were murdered, his father in Auschwitz, his mother most probably in the Warsaw Ghetto. Erich opened a travel agency in London and worked devotedly for the Jewish community, raising over $75 million. In 2010, he was knighted by Prince Charles. His image was engraved into the Fred Meisler Statue featured in the memoir “The Boy in the Statue.” He is married with five children.
The students of Yavneh’s graduating eighth grade took part in every aspect of the one and a half hour production. They served as scriptwriters, actors, narrators, historians, musicians, interviewers and artists. Special thanks went to Michelle Kazan, art instructor, and Adam Bromberg, video producer and designer.
As in last year’s program, the evening concluded with Yavneh Connects, coordinated by Yavneh parent Claire Hirschorn. During this segment, 12 Yavneh eighth graders recounted the stories of their relatives or relatives of Yavneh faculty who perished in the Shoah and to whom they were “connected” by name or story.
Messages of gratitude were expressed by the students to the administrators and teachers who helped coordinate this memorable event for the students. Rabbi Knapp was thanked for “maneuvering the Yavneh ship through the stormy year,” and Rubin was lauded for “shepherding the program above and beyond expectations.” Rabbi Burstein was praised for “educating each student in his/her own way about the Shoah and helping them celebrate the lives of four child survivors.”
The program was recorded and can be viewed at http://kindertransport.abproductions.us.
By Pearl Markovitz