Arrow-right Camera

Washington Voices

Small acts of good have big power

To say that I don’t have nightmares would be a lie. I dream about my parents all the time. The only facts I know are that they died in Auschwitz, and my sister and I didn’t. I am Elizabeth, twenty-one years old, attending medical school, child of the kindertransport, and survivor of the Nazi regime. These are my experiences, yet they are not for you to learn my legacy; but that of my family, the other survivors, and the persecuted who can no longer speak. This is a story, ultimately, about small actions and how they do make a difference.

When I was nine, I brought home the newspaper for Father. It was a cold, grey January day – the 30th to be precise – and on the cover it read that Adolf Hitler had been elected as German chancellor. Around April I started to notice the propaganda. On April 25th Hitler declared that Jewish students could make up no more than 5 percent of the total student population in any public school. Rebekah, a girl in my class and fellow Jew, had to leave. Her family moved to Poland that summer and I never heard from her again.

Small things started to happen. I was little, but I understood that our world was changing. There was the first book burning, the passing of the Nuremberg Race Laws, and the opening of concentration camps. I remember how fear, hatred, depression, apprehension, and grief seemed to cling to everyone.

My family consisted of my father, mother, my ten-year-old sister Rose, and me. The last time I saw my parents was May 2nd, 1939. To protect my sister and me, my parents told all of our neighbors, friends, and family that my sister was ill; and that she and I were being sent to live with our “grandparents” in what had been Austria to see if the countryside would improve her health. My parents, a doctor and a teacher, stayed behind in Berlin while my sister and I went to stay with an elderly Jewish couple we had never met before. While saying goodbye, I think we all knew that this might be a permanent separation. Mother gave each of us a gold necklace with the Star of David – one passed down from her grandmother, the other one from Father’s. Father gave us each three of his favorite books. I was fourteen and Rose was ten. My parents disappeared shortly after we left; two years later I received a letter from a former neighbor informing me that they had heard my parents had been arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Mercifully, Rose and I were accepted into the British kindertransport program the June after we left Berlin.

Rain was pouring down incessantly when my sister and I arrived in Harwich, England. We had traveled first to Vienna, then a port in Belgium; and finally, after two long days of travel, we were in England. The Chases, our foster family, were waiting. Dr. Chase was a doctor like my father and Edward Chase, his seventeen-year-old son, was aspiring to be a doctor as well. However the detail that will forever strike me about that day was Mrs. Chase’s eyes. They were deep evergreen, so kind and warm. I was exhausted that day from the worry, tragedy, and traveling. Mrs. Chase looked at me with so much love and compassion I felt like I exhaled for the first time in ages. The Chases were a Quaker family working with the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. They, like much of the British public, had supported the Kindertransport program that allowed so many of us under seventeen to immigrate to England.

After only three months in England, war broke out in September 1939. Dr. Chase went to serve; and when he turned eighteen, so did Edward. Mrs. Chase worked as a nurse in a hospital because most of the men had gone to war and so many bombings were taking place. Not only did she work, but she taught my sister and me English and raised us. At age eighteen, I decided I wanted to train to work in the medical field like my adoptive and biological fathers. Because so many of our men were off fighting, medical schools were slowly being opened to women. In ’43 I set off to become a doctor, in one more year I will graduate.

Many people have been asking for my thoughts now that the war is over. I suppose they can be summed up as this: never, ever let any injustice slide by, and never underestimate the power of a small action of good. Nazi Germany happened because we let our humanitarian rights be eroded. Everyone let another small law be passed, then another. By the time everyone woke up they were already living in hell. However I am alive because of small acts of compassion. The public of Britain rallied together to allow so many of us Kindertransport children into their country. Whenever I hear people talk about the insignificance of an act of good or bad I just want to scream. A wonderful day can be ruined by a harsh word and a million harsh words can do appalling things. But a smile, a Mrs. Chase at the end of long tragedy, can transform one’s outlook on life. A million noble acts could start a million chain reactions that could ultimately change the world. George Santayana, a philosopher, has said that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We cannot forget what has happened in Germany. To do so would disgrace the lives of millions now passed. We will mourn; we will remember; and we will take it upon ourselves to teach future generations the importance of little actions.

Click here to comment on this story »