October 23, 2019
by Esther Starobin
My sister Bertl was always present in my life. Bertl was the person who guided our siblings and me to become a strong, cohesive family. She was opinionated and had a clear vision of what was right and wrong. Maybe it was her German birth. But she is gone now, as are my other three siblings. So, I ask myself, what are my obligations to keep the family strong and resilient?
My parents, through their strong beliefs in God and in other people, saved all five of their children from the Holocaust. My sisters—Bertl, Edith, and Ruth—and I were all sent on the Kindertransport to England when I was only two years old. From their letters, I know my parents truly expected family and others to step in and look after us. My aunt Hannah had immigrated earlier to London. Working as a maid, she knew many people and found separate homes for my three sisters. My parents were thankful and appreciative. A placement for me was found by the Quakers.
My brother had been deported to France with my parents and was in an Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants home, but when the opportunity arose for my brother to come to the United States, my father signed the necessary papers to allow it. Despite the hardships my parents suffered, family was important to them. Our parents looked forward to being with us again. Of course, this didn’t happen. Clearly, our inheritance from them is to prioritize family.
Through the years, many family members have written something about these experiences. My daughter in 1990 wrote a poem containing the lines:
For years these stories stayed hidden—
The past in Germany could not exist.
Questions appeared forbidden.
The cousins believed we would never hear
Stories of the children who are now our aunts.
Many years later, my older grandson, who was eight at the time, wrote in a book, “the only sound was the crying of children. It was around 1939, the kids were on the Kindertransport from Germany to England.”
These writings were followed years later by articles written by a niece describing her visit to Auschwitz with her mother, my sister Ruth: “Standing under the wrought-iron sign, I was several years older than my grandmother had been at her death. She was murdered as the mother of a nine-year-old son and four daughters, while I’d been privileged to watch my own sons grow to adulthood.” Tamar has gone on to write other articles about her mother, trips to hear my First Person interview at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and visits to the exhibitions there.
Some of the next generation, my parents’ great-grandchildren, have visited Adelsheim, Germany, my birthplace, and shared their impressions. Their visits have been informed by dedicated research and preservation by a German man, Reinhart Lochmann. One grandnephew talks about the incredible debt owed to Reinhart for what “he has uncovered about my family’s history in Germany before and after the Holocaust.” In a long article about his trip with his family to Adelsheim, another great-grandson wrote: “Until I saw that list, Adolf and Katie Rosenfeld were just names and stern faces frozen into the figures I’d seen on the single surviving photograph. Now, I was reading the complete list of everything they ever owned, and walking past their house, and visiting the site of their synagogue, and seeing their parents’ gravestones in the old Jewish cemetery. I’d connected with a history I didn’t realize was missing.” My grandniece’s husband wrote of visiting my sister Bertl’s birthplace. Reinhart, during this visit, showed Bertl’s daughter and her family pictures of her school and her classmates. We have learned so much about my parents’ life in Adelsheim and Korb through his dedication.
Finally, I want to share lines from a poem written by Ruth’s granddaughter about the Kindertransport:
I am now with my family in England
But things here are not too grand
I was split up from my sister
I really miss her
I feel like an unwanted guest . . .
Even this week, one of my grandnieces was interviewing me to learn about my father and grandfather’s religious practices and how they affected my religious practices. This question reminded me of how little of the real life of my family we know. It is clear from these snippets of writing and questioning that my family’s connection to the Holocaust is important to our extended family.
Last weekend, I was out with one of my nieces and I asked her what she thought my responsibility is as the remaining child of my parents. Her reply was that my role is to dispense the family history. But will that be enough to continue as a strong, connected family? I certainly try to do that even though, as the youngest, I remember nothing about life in Germany or my parents. I have learned a lot over the years as has my family, but it is research-based for the most part. As a visitor said to me when I was voluneering at the Museum, there are voids in what I know. But it is certainly true, I am keeper of the family factual history as related to my parents, their siblings, and the Holocaust. I do preserve this story through speaking and writing at the Museum.
Bertl’s persistence and love made a family that my parents would also have loved. I strongly believe that passing down the history that keeps our family connected is even more important. My question is who in the next generation will be the catalyst for the family? Is there a continuing obligation to my parents to make sure the family is strong? If so, is there something that I need to do to ensure that happens? It is the future that is important. It is only through the family closeness and contact that can I share our family history.
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