Holocaust remembrance brings Kindertransport survivor to Spokane
He remembers his escape from the Nazis in glimpses and extended scenes, some parts faded or vibrant or gone altogether.
Steve Adler, now 83, was 8 when his parents loaded him on a train in Berlin, its child passengers headed for Great Britain. The rescue mission known as Kindertransport removed an estimated 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the months before the start of World War II.
Adler, a Seattle resident, will talk about his experience Sunday in Spokane to mark Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. He talked about what he remembers in an interview.
Adler remembers the assembly at his Jewish school in Berlin, where students were told to go home. It was Nov. 10, 1938, the morning after a wave of anti-Jewish violence known as Kristallnacht.
“By the time my brother and I got home,” he said, “there was a strange guy in the living room with my father.”
He remembers his mother sending them to a corner bakery to buy rolls, and he remembers his father clutching the rolls as the man took him away.
Then there’s nothing. From the moment the man took his father to six weeks later, his memories are gone.
Then … chocolate-covered bananas. One in each of his father’s hands. His father came home Dec. 23, Adler said, laughing at the strangeness of the coming-home gifts.
“I have no idea where he got (them),” Adler said. “It could have been a train station. They might have had a place where they sell stuff like that. Where did he get the money? I don’t know. Maybe he had some coins.”
His father had been beaten badly. His odor was foul.
Adler remembers that’s when his parents knew: They had to leave Germany.
He only knows the dates because his password is stamped with them: March 20, March 21. It was 1939.
One stamp says that he left Germany from the port of Hamburg. His parents must have put him on a train in Berlin, a ride of six hours, he guesses, from the port city. His brother, 10, wasn’t with him; the people running the Kindertransport had chosen only one Adler boy.
Adler has dim memories of walking onto an ocean liner. It arrived on the channel coast of France, in the port of Le Havre.
In France, all of a sudden, he remembers everything: “It’s literally like a curtain drawn away, and now I know.”
The ship crossed the English Channel and arrived in Southampton. Each child wore a badge with a number, to make it easier for adults running the transport to check them off on a ledger.
The children boarded a train to London. Each received a cardboard box with lunch.
A glass bottle of milk. Two slices of bread, an apple, and a metal tin with a key on top to peel away the lid.
“It was a slab of pink meat with some kind of a jelly coating on it,” he said. “We were all running our fingers over it and sniffing it. Somebody tasted it and said in German, ‘Oh, this is quite good.’ We all ate it. It was British corned beef.”
In a London train station – he believes it was Liverpool Street – the idea was that each child would have someone, a friend or family member, to grab them, hug them and kiss them, and take them away.
That did happen, over and over, until there were two boys left: a boy from Prague, and Adler. His father’s uncle didn’t show.
A man arrived dressed in a chauffeur uniform. He spoke with some adults at the station, who told the boys, in German, to go with the nice man.
“We rode in a limousine,” Adler said, “my reward for having been stood up.”
They arrived at a beautiful house in a fashionable part of London, on the edge of an ancient park called Hampstead Heath. Adler assumes a wealthy family had turned over the house to the Jewish community to house children.
Twenty kids were already there, ages 6 to 14.
The uncle showed up that afternoon at the beautiful house. He delivered no apology but brought a paper sack filled with chocolate bars, a supply of postcards and stamps, and a slip of paper bearing his address. He gave the boy a fountain pen and told him to write if he grew unhappy. He pressed bills into his hand.
“I ate all the chocolate immediately,” Adler said. “I found a place across the street and bought more chocolate bars. That’s how I dealt with my homesickness.”
He started wetting the bed. He stole coins intended for charity from a box in a recreation room. He confessed, reluctantly, to an older boy.
He said he asked his mother once whether he’d sent a postcard to say he was unhappy.
Oh, yes, she said. The address was legible, but the message washed away. “She said, ‘You must have cried all over the card.’ ”
War broke out. Adler and the other children were moved to a small town outside London. He was assigned to an unheated attic room, sharing a bed with an older boy – 13 or 14 – and it became his task to defend himself against his sexual advances.
In the spring his mother managed to get him moved to another town, to a place run by Quakers, where his brother had been staying.
He remembers a line of 15 or 20 children marching from their house to the Quakers’ church on Sunday mornings, where they sat quietly and learned Christian hymns, and then marched home again.
The brothers’ mother got them in August.
They stayed for a while in an abandoned orphanage in London, subject to the Blitz. Their father joined them, and they stayed a while longer.
His parents had been staying in London, in a place found for them by the great-uncle, then both were interned on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, between England and Ireland. The British decided they weren’t spies and let them go.
In November 1940 the family boarded a ship to America.
They had a sponsor in Chicago, a physician his father had met in Germany. The doctor helped his father find a job and the family an apartment.
Adler went to grade school and college, earned a doctoral degree in 1954 at Northwestern University.
His career in chemical research lasted more than 40 years. He has a wife and children and grandchildren.
Adler, who’s on the board of directors of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors and Descendants, estimates he’s told his story to 240 audiences, mostly students. He said he wants them to see that what happened to him – and his father – is as close to them as the bully in their classroom.
“We were treated differently because we were different,” he said. “We had a different religion. I can say this with absolute certainty: Most of the Germans in our time knew exactly what was happening. They knew my father was being taken to a concentration camp as much as I did, because when he arrived in that little town where the camp was, they marched him and all the others through the streets.”
His memory gaps trouble him, he said. But he doesn’t make up stories to fill them. What he remembers will have to do.
He explains this to students.
“And I ask the kids, ‘How many of you have had the same experience?’ ” he said. “And it’s amazing how many kids also have memory gaps, because we all go through difficult times.”