Returning ‘home’ after fleeing on the Kindertransport

Clevelander Thea Spiegel meets Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamovicz at Kindertransport reunion.

I recently accompanied my mother, Cleveland resident Thea Lange Spiegel, to a reunion of Kindertransport Kinder in Gdansk (formerly Danzig), Poland.

In late 1938, after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), the British government agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish children threatened by persecution in Europe, on condition that they not be accompanied by their parents. Initially children departed from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. In the summer of 1939, a total of 130 children left Danzig in four separate groups. At age 12, Thea was in a group of five children who left in early July 1939. Once in England, she lived in three different foster homes before being united with an uncle in London.

Thea’s father Jakob Lange was editor of the Volkstimme, a Social Democratic newspaper. He was an outspoken critic of the Nazis in Danzig in the late 1930s. As a consequence, Thea remembers many police raids of their apartment, designed to intimidate and silence him.

He was arrested the morning the war began, Sept. 1, 1939, and was murdered by the Nazis on Nov. 10, 1939, at the Stuffhof concentration camp.

Thea’s mother and two sisters later escaped to Palestine but were imprisoned by the British for five years on Mauritius. After World War II, they made their way to Palestine and were among the founding members of Moshav Moledet B’nai B’rith settlement.

Earlier this year, Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamovicz invited surviving members of the Kindertransport to his city for a reunion. The primary focus was the unveiling of a monument commemorating the Kindertransport at the Gdansk Railway Station. The broader purpose, apparently, was an attempt at reconciliation with the Kinder (refugee children) and to reclaim some of the cultural heritage of Gdansk lost under the Nazis and Communists.

The Kindertransport Monument is bronze, depicting five children of different ages, with suitcases and musical instruments, sitting or standing along part of a railroad track. Similar monuments were dedicated in London in 2006 and in Berlin in Dec. 2008. The Gdansk monument was created by Frank Meisler, one of the Gdansk Kinder.

Thea Spiegel was one of seven Kinder who accepted the mayor’s invitation and attended. Two were from Britain; one, from Israel; and four, from the United States. They were treated as honored guests. Collectively they removed the sheet covering the monument. Before the unveiling, there were speeches by Mayor Adamovicz, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Israeli Ambassador to Poland Zvi Ravner, and German Bundestag Vice President Petra Pau, among others. There was much local press coverage, and Thea’s picture along with two others appeared on the front page of the May 7 Gdansk newspaper. After the unveiling, everybody present placed a tulip on the monument.

Following the ceremony, Mayor Adamovicz hosted a banquet for the seven returnees, their families and dignitaries. Later in the afternoon, there was a ceremony at a partially restored Jewish cemetery, unveiling new matsevot (grave monuments) for two Torah scholars who died in the early 1800s.

That evening, there was a gathering with the Jewish community of Gdansk, where Felicja and Bronislaw Markun were recognized posthumously as Righteous Gentiles. All the dignitaries, including Mayor Adamovicz and Vice President Pau attended all these events.

The next morning, there was a meeting with students at The Gdansk University, where the history of Gdansk Jewry was explained, and the Kinder had an opportunity to tell their stories and answer questions.

After the university meeting, we were able, with the help of one of the mayor’s assistants, to find the apartment building where Thea grew up. She recognized the front door, although the inside of the building was different. For her, the trip was the realization of a long-held desire to return to her home once more.

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