By Esther Starobin
I suppose our home in Adelsheim, Germany, was typical of the homes found in that small town. My parents used part of the house, and the remainder was rented to two ladies. Though I have no memory of it, I have heard my sisters talk of the small parlor that was off-limits to them. My oldest sister, Bertl, mentioned the very fancy doll that was kept there for show. It was not a toy to be played with by the girls. On the very detailed list of articles found in our home that the Germans compiled after our parents were deported in October 1940 there is listed “a doll.” Could this be the doll my sister remembers as being so fancy that she was not allowed to play with it?
Our family was permanently separated in 1939 when my three sisters were sent to England on the Kindertransport. They had been living in Aachen with two aunts after Jewish children were forbidden to go to the regular schools. In March 1939 they left for England without the opportunity to say goodbye to their mother and father. Our Aunt Hannah, my mother’s sister who lived in England, had found separate homes for them to go to upon their arrival in England. Later that year, in June, I too was sent on a Kindertransport to England. I went to live with the Harrisons in Thorpe. This placement had been arranged through the Quakers, who had worked with the Jewish community to bring the children out of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. The Harrisons were a devout Christian family who had hoped for a little boy to be a playmate for their only son, Alan. However, when that didn’t work out they agreed to take me.
Soon after I arrived in Thorpe I came down with scarlet fever and had to be kept in quarantine as was the custom at that time. Alan was not allowed in the room where I was but played with me through the window. Once I had recuperated I became a devoted follower of Alan, who was nine at the time. I have been told he quickly accepted me into his life and allowed me to go places with him. While I immediately accepted Alan, it took me longer to get used to Uncle Harry (Mr. Harrison). I was somewhat uneasy around him. It wasn’t clear what previous experiences I had had that led to this behavior.
While Alan was in school, Auntie Dot and I would often go into Norwich to shop and visit. In order to get to the bus stop we had to walk across an empty field. One day we met a woman while we were walking across this field to catch the bus into Norwich. In her hands she held a beautiful china doll. Auntie Dot spoke to her telling her that I had been sent by my parents to England to be safe from the Nazis. Without hesitation this woman handed me the doll.
What a wonderful gift! The doll’s eyes opened and closed as I moved her up and down; the painted features made her look so real. The doll, which I immediately named Betsy, had fingers and toes. I found it hard to believe someone just gave this wonderful toy to me. When we arrived home Auntie Dot gave me some leftover baby clothes and I began knitting items to supplement them. Betsy became the joy of my life! Unlike the doll in Germany, this doll was played with.
In 1947 when I hastily left Norwich to meet my sister for the journey to America, Betsy was left behind. I suppose she really would not have fitted into life in America. Also at ten, I was getting a little too old for dolls. Actually, once we were settled into my uncle’s house on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C., someone did buy me a doll. The only thing I remember about that doll was her name, Monica.
Once settled in Washington, my sisters and I lived with an aunt and uncle for a couple of years. After my sister Edith joined us in the United States, we moved to an apartment of our own. Bertl and Edith worked and made enough money to support us. Ruth was in college and worked to obtain room and board. By this time I was finishing junior high and entering high school. I had made one very good friend, Grace, in the first junior high I attended. We were more interested in clothes, boys, and grades than in discussing our families. I don’t think I ever really explained to Grace why I lived with my sisters, and she never asked. It was just the way it was. After high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend college and become a teacher. I married and had two daughters in the following years.
Of course, Auntie Dot, my foster mother, kept the doll, as she did so many mementos of our time together. When Alan, my foster brother, came over 16 years later as a Fulbright exchange teacher, he brought Betsy with him. I was delighted to have her again but kept her well hidden from the curious fingers of our young daughters.
Years passed, and I occasionally unwrapped Betsy to admire her beauty and remember the kindness of that English woman so many years ago. Eventually, the girls were gone from the house, and I had money to use for frivolous items. My friend Harriet and I went to visit the doll hospital in Ellicott City, Maryland. By now Betsy’s eyes had fallen back into her head and some of her fingers and toes were less than perfect. The doll hospital owner with ridiculous solicitousness asked if she might undress Betsy. She did so and began to tell me about her origins. Like me, Betsy came from Germany and was somewhat destroyed. However, the owner said she could be mended. So I left Betsy to be fixed and redressed.
When I picked her up, the doll looked new. She was splendid in her fresh outfit. Only when you looked carefully could you see the scars from the previous years.
©2011, Esther Starobin. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.