This week in Restoring Family Links: 05/23/2016-05/27/2016

This week in Restoring Family Links: 05/23/2016-05/27/2016

World Humanitarian Summit: From May 23 to May 24 in Istanbul, Turkey, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon initiated the first World Humanitarian Summit. The summit was convened at a time period when “protracted conflict, instability, and forced displacement are the defining features of the global landscape,” and when the growth of financial needs for these crises increases significantly. The summit thus urged world leaders, organizations, and others to take more actions to aid those needs as well as to prevent further human suffering. 

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This Week in Restoring Family Links 1/25/16 - 1/29/16

This Week in Restoring Family Links 1/25/16 - 1/29/16

On Wednesday, the world came together to remember and reflect upon the Holocaust and all of its victims. The United Nations General Assembly declared on November 1, 2005 that this annual day of remembrance would occur ever January 27, the day that Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945. The United Nations urges member states to observe this day every year, to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future such genocides from ever occurring again. President Obama marked the day by stating "we are all Jews", a quote told by Sergeant Roddie Edmonds to his German captors during the war; the president also encouraged the world to fight remaining antisemitism across the world, and affirmed the United States' support for the Jewish state of Israel. 

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This Week in Restoring Family Links News 1/11/16 — 11/15/16

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 1/11/16 — 11/15/16

This past Monday, long-awaited relief finally came to Madaya, a remote Syrian town on the outskirts of Damascus where more than two dozen people have starved in the past two weeks as a result of humanitarian blocking from pro-government forces. The last time Madaya received any form of aid was October 18, driving residents into such desperation that many have been trying to survive off of grass, leaves, and boiled water.   Madaya has garnered an immense international response, with many prominent figures speaking out about the state of horror there. UN Secratary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Thursday called the use of starvation as a weapon a "war crime", and relayed reports from UN teams that the residents of Madaya were "little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk"

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A Visit from Documentary Producer of "Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport"

Award-Winning Documentary Producer Deborah Oppenheimer (second from right) with International Services Team from the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region

Award-Winning Documentary Producer Deborah Oppenheimer (second from right) with International Services Team from the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region

In her acceptance speech during the 73rd Academy Awards, Deborah Oppenheimer praised Kindertransport survivors for their “honesty, eloquence and humanity.”  Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris won the Documentary (Feature) Category for Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.

Oppenheimer, whose successful producer/screenwriter television credits include “Family Ties,” “George Lopez, and the “Drew Carey Show” was at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region last month for a private screening of the award-winning documentary.

Inspired by the courage of the families who faced a horrifying present and uncertain future, Oppenheimer and Harris produced the film in memory of Oppenheimer’s mother Sylvia.  She was one of the 10,000 children up to age 17 whisked to England through Operation Kindertransport (Children’s Transport).  The rescue mission took place December 2, 1938 through September 1, 1939—a period between Kristallnacht and when Great Britain entered World War II.

This video memoir captured happy moments and harsh realities of Kindertransport, an operation that afforded legal immigration to Britain for the kids.  Using talking-head style interviews interspersed with historic footage, at least a dozen survivors recounted their lives from cared for and carefree to ostracized and isolated, from being “the center of the universe” to “realizing I was different.”  One interviewee said “The hurt was unbelievable. It cannot be described.” 

This “army of helpless children” came from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Danzig.  Approximately 1.5 million children died during the Holocaust. England was the only country willing to relax its immigration restriction.  The rescue plan was approved in the House of Commons during the term of Prime Minister Chamberlain.  The Nazis let the kids leave without packing any valuables in their suitcases.  In the documentary, survivors recalled thinking “my parents really love me and that is why they are sending me away.”  As they boarded the plane and trains, others remember their parents reassuring them with the words “We will follow; don’t worry.” The arrival location in England was Liverpool.  Children were dropped off at the rate of 300 per week “into the arms of strangers.”

“My mom would not talk about it when I was growing up so I never heard about Kindertransport,” recalled Oppenheimer.  Cancer claimed Sylvia’s life at age 65 and never got to tell her story.  Oppenheimer’s father found letters in a drawer and gave them to his daughter.  This set the producer on her quest to discover three things:  What is Kindertransport? What happened to her parents? What happened to her grandparents?

The Red Cross Connection

In conducting her research, Oppenheimer said there were 10,000 children so there should be 10,000 stories—good or bad.  Families of the relocated children found out that they could go to the Red Cross if they wanted to send messages.  They were allowed to write letters of no more than 25 words to enable them to be in touch with family and friends.  Oppenheimer was able to collect 1,000 letters between children, and between children and their parents.  “That was their way to be able to communicate.  It was their salvation to get letters from the Red Cross.  So, your organization was so important in a time of need.”  Some of the children felt that when the letters stopped coming, their parents may have been killed. 

Letters were Oppenheimer’s link to her mother’s past. “Red Cross messaging and tracing services are a lifeline especially if you are hanging on to every bit of information,” said Svetlana Fusekova, manager of International Services of the American Red Cross.  Oppenheimer praised the Red Cross for being a part in the lives of the Kindertransport kids.  She also praised the International Services staff for reaching out to her to ask if there could be a local screening of the documentary with her as a special guest speaker.

Lexicon and Beyond

What was a little-known mission of mercy is now part of the lexicon. In 2014, the Library of Congress named Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport as one of the 25 greatest movies of all time.  The Academy Award in 2001 was a force multiplier in raising awareness about Kindertransport.  Excerpts of the documentary are looped in Holocaust museums worldwide.

Oppenheimer noted that of the 10,000 children saved through Kindertransport, two went on to become Nobel Prize winners.  Many take pride in how their own families have grown, raising new generations.  Some survivors, like Hedy, remains an outspoken social activist.  Now in her 90s, she feels it is her duty to speak up.

In her 2001 interview in the New York Times, Oppenheimer said “For me, the power of the story is a 60-year perspective on loss and survival and what you do with that.”

For more information about Kindertransport:

"Into the Arms of Strangers" along with study guide and companion book.

Read American Red Cross Restoring Family Links blog about Nicholas Winton 

Visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum 

Visit The Kindertransport Associate  which will have their national conference this month.

Nicholas Winton and how he saved the lives of more than 500 children

Story by Shannon Vance, RFL Social Advocate & National Youth Council Member

Nicholas Winton photographed with one of the children he rescued in 1939.

Nicholas Winton photographed with one of the children he rescued in 1939.

In 1938, while the Nazi’s were fiercely planning their conquest of the European continent, Nicholas Winton was about to leave England for a ski trip. Convinced by his friend, Martin Blake, and the threat of European war,  he went to Czechoslovakia instead. Blake worked as an associate for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. It had been recently established to assist refugees that were created as a result of the German annexation of the Sudetenland. It was there that Winton would visit several refugee camps, filled to the brim with Jews and other political adversaries of the Nazi regime. He found the conditions to be atrocious.

Winton had heard of the creation of Kindertransport, which was a British effort to bring over 10,000 children from Germany and Austria to England where they could be safe from the horrors of war. Spurred by his certainty that the German tirade would continue throughout Europe, Winton put together a similar operation for children at risk in Czechoslovakia.

Working under the name of the organization Martin Blake worked for, Winton started taking applications from parents in need from his hotel room in Prague. Very quickly there were thousands of families lined up outside his newly opened office. The long lines became something of great interest to the Gestapo, forcing Winton to deal with confrontations and bribery. While he had only 900 children officially registered, he had details on more than 5,000.

With part of his adventure completed, Winton returned to London to figure out what to do with these children upon arrival. Time was moving quickly, but Winton managed to raise money to fund the children's transport. He found families willing to care for these new refugee children and spent every moment of his free time working towards bringing as many children back to England as possible. Ads were run in several newspapers and bulletins, appealing to the hearts of the British people. These children needed their help.

Hundreds of families volunteered to take children, while money came in from others. Anything that wasn’t covered by a donation Winton covered from his own pocket. He also forged visas for the children since dealing with conventional methods was taking far too long.

Only three months after his initial trip to Prague, the first transport of 20 children bound for London left on March 14, 1939. The following day, the German army began to occupy Czech territory and flying the children out of the country was no longer an option. Seven more groups left Prague via train; the last of them leaving on August 2, 1939. Winton and foster families would meet the refugees at the train station, finding they carried only a small bag and a nametag.

The final transport was 250 children. The largest group yet boarded their train on September 1, 1939. However, they never made it out of Prague. On that same day, Hitler invaded Poland and closed all German-controlled borders. Winton believes that many of those children perished in concentration camps. The final number of children saved is believed to be at 669. Those who survived and made it to Britain were orphaned by the war’s end. Many of them went on to become British citizens or emigrated to Israel or North America.

What many don’t realize about Winton’s operation is that he kept it a secret. For 50 years, he said nothing about the rescue; not even his wife knew. It wasn’t until she found a scrapbook, filled with names, pictures, letters from families and the like, that she asked him. He simply did not believe that they would be of interest to anyone after the war and suggested his wife throw them away. He continued to shake his head in disbelief when being compared to men like Oskar Schindler, who saved thousands of Jews by hiring them to work in his factory.

On September 1, 2009, exactly 70 years after the invasion of Poland ended his rescue operations, a special train left Prague to re-create this life-saving journey. On board were several of those who Winton saved, who refer to themselves as “Winton’s Children”, as well as members of their family. They pulled into the same train station they arrived at 70 years prior and were greeted by the same bright smile of Sir Nicholas Winton.

Sir Nicholas Winton passed away on July 1, 2015. He received knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 for his service to humanity. Listen to him recount his own story by visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, found here.