On Sept. 1, 1939, the last Kindertransport departed Nazi-occupied territory bound for England. From December 1938 to September 1939, an estimated 10,000 Jewish children ” from infants to age 17 ” were moved in sealed trains from Berlin, Vienna and Prague to the shores of northern Europe, where they caught boats for England.
One of those Kindertransport children, Ed Kaswan, now 78, eventually settled in Oklahoma City.
The Kindertransport Association estimates that about 25 percent of the children rescued in the operation found their way to the U.S. and Canada.
“I had an uncle who lived in the United States,” Kaswan said. “My father wrote him from Auschwitz ” I guess they could still do that then because the U.S. hadn’t entered the war ” and said, ‘Don’t forget my son in England.'”
After Kaswan left Vienna in 1938, both of his parents and his brother were taken to Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp run by the Nazis, where they were eventually killed. Eighty members of Kaswan’s extended family died during the Holocaust.
The Kindertransport was less an organized movement than a group of philanthropists, volunteers and Jewish and Christian organizations who scraped together money, lobbied governments and did everything within their power to rescue as many children as possible. The window of opportunity closed on Sept. 3, 1939, when England entered the war against Germany.
Once in England, the children ” who were mostly Austrian, German, Czech and Polish ” were “adopted” by sponsor families, placed in orphanages or shelters, or sent to work on farms. Most of the kids spoke no English, and all of them were without parents and siblings over the age of 17. In many cases, young children had to care for infant siblings.
Kaswan settled into London’s East End with a Jewish family named Bauer.
“They had been kosher butchers before I arrived,” he said, “but the Depression had wiped out their store. They were in their 50s, and their youngest daughter was 15. I was 8.”
The British families who sponsored the children had to pay 50 pounds sterling to provide for the children’s immediate necessities. It was a financial burden for some families, including the Bauers, but the United Kingdom was one of the very few countries still accepting Jewish refugees.
Jean Ashworth grew up in Manchester, England, the daughter of a coal merchant. Ashworth, now 75, was a small child when her father moved her from Manchester to Charlesworth, in Derbyshire, to avoid the Blitz, Germany’s relentless bombing of England. Soon after, her father started bringing home Kindertransport children.
“My father’s business was near the train tracks,” Ashworth said, who has lived in Oklahoma City since 1959. “After my mother moved to a village near Charlesworth, my father would come home every night with 10 or 15 Jewish children. I would wake in the morning and find them sleeping on the floor.”
Ashworth doesn’t recall her father ever explaining why he was bringing the kids home, but she does remember that her mother worked tirelessly to feed them and find homes for them.
“They would stay with us for a while,” she said. “My father had enough money to buy food on the black market. We used the food to feed all the kids. My mother did all the cooking. The day after they arrived, she would go from door to door, and village to village, asking people to take them in. People would say, ‘We haven’t space or money for them,’ and mother would say, ‘Well, they’re children, and they have to have homes.’ In the end, she found a place for all of them.”
Kaswan left England in 1948 to live with his uncle and two male cousins. He had been unable to finish school in England, so he returned to school when he arrived in the U.S. Unfortunately, he was forced to cut short his education again when his uncle was killed in a car accident nine months later.
“I had to get a job after my uncle died,” Kaswan said. “I didn’t finish high school until I was in the Air Force.”
From 1950 to 1960, Kaswan served in the U.S. Air Force, working on airplanes in Korea during the Korean War. After leaving the Air Force, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration.
“I worked at radar sites all over the country,” Kaswan said. “I was actually in Oklahoma City a couple times before I lived here. I moved here in 1980 to teach at the FAA academy, and then I retired in 1986.”
Kaswan met his wife, physician Judith Atlee Kaswan, in OKC. The couple had four children, two boys and two girls. Kaswan now has 11 or 12 grandchildren ” he said he should keep better count. His wife died 11 years ago.
Having his grandchildren around is a source of both joy and painful recollection for him.
“I never knew my grandparents,” he said. “My father was a bookkeeper in Austria. He worked for my uncle, the one who brought me to the U.S. My uncle’s sons are still alive, living in Buffalo, and they are the only family I have left besides my kids and grandchildren. I look at them and I wonder about my parents and grandparents. Who do I look like? Which one in my family that I never met or saw?”
Kaswan has told his story only once before outside his family, as a featured speaker at the 2003 Yom HaShoah Holocaust observance in Oklahoma City.
“I don’t like to talk about this,” he said. “It’s not an easy subject. I’m sure my children know my story, but I don’t remember actually sitting down and telling them the story.”
His presentation at Yom HaShoah lives on DVD, so Kaswan’s story will continue after he is gone, but he is skeptical about the value of storytelling.
“As I see human nature, people will deny (the Holocaust) anyway,” he said. “They see bones and skulls, they see the evidence, and they find a way to deny it. People believe what they prefer to believe. These things were never supposed to happen again, but then they happened in Bosnia, and they’re happening in other places.” “Greg Horton