Poetry of the Kindertransport

 

Karen Gershon

Poet Karen Gershon was born Kaethe Löwenthal, the youngest of three daughters of middle-class parents in Bielefeld, Germany, in 1923. Her sister Anne was born in 1921 and Lise in 1922. Her father, Paul Gershon-Löwenthal (b. 1890), an architect, served in the German army for many years and considered himself a German citizen for all intents and purposes. His wife, Selma (née Schönfeld, b. 1893), came from a traditional Jewish family. Karen’s maternal grandfather, Adolf Schönfeld, was head of the Jewish community of Bielefeld and the first of its members to be murdered by the Nazis.

The Löwenthals maintained a tenuous attachment to the Jewish religion and the Land of Israel. After the Nazis rose to power, Karen’s parents made sure that she studied Hebrew and prepared herself to relocate to Palestine through the Youth Aliyah Movement. From the age of thirteen, this sensitive young girl wrote poems in German, a language her mother once called “the language in which they curse us Jews.”

After the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938 (“Kristallnacht”), burning of synagogues and a wave of attacks on Jews, Karen Gershon and her sisters were sent to England with the Kindertransport. Lise went on to Palestine in 1939, while Anne fell ill and died in Bristol in 1943. Separation from her parents, who were deported to Riga on December 13, 1941, along with overall privation, a sense of alienation and loneliness and difficulty integrating into British society, which was at the time valiantly fighting Germany, affected young Karen and strengthened her character. Later, she documented the collective experiences of the refugee children in her best-known book, We Came as Children (1966), which sparked extensive comment and established her literary reputation in England. Her second documentary work, Postscript (1969), describes the fate of German Jewish survivors.

Karen had to work for a living and was thus unable to complete her studies. To maintain a roof over her head, she worked as a housemaid, in a flour mill, as a chorus girl and at all kinds of odd jobs until 1948 when she married Val Tripp, a primary school arts and crafts teacher. It took several years for Karen to master the English language and begin writing poems in English.

Source: Karen Gershon, Jewish Women's Archive, Shmuel Huppert; http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gershon-karen

 

The Children's Exodus

I.

It was an ordinary train travelling across
Germany which gathered and took us
away those who saw us may have
thought that it was for a holiday not
being exiled being taught to hate what
we had loved in vain brought us lasting
injury

II.

Our parents let us go knowing that who
stayed must die but kept the truth from
us although they gave us to reality did
they consider what it meant to become
ophaned and not know to be
emotionally freed when our childhood
seeds were spent

III.

When we went out of Germany
carrying six million lives that was Jewish
history but each child was one refugee
we unlike the Egyptian slaves were
exiled individually and each in
desolation has created his own
wilderness

IV.

This race-hatred was personal we were
condemned for what we were no one
escaped the ritual from which we rose
inferior the blood-guilt entered every
home till daily life was a pogrom we
who were there are not the same as
those who have no wreck to share

V.

Home is where some know who you
are The rescue was impersonal it was
no one's concern what use we made of
the years given us one should not ask of
children who find their survival natural
gratitude for being where ten thousand
others have come too

VI.

At Dovercourt the winter sea was like
God's mercy vast and wild a fever to a
land-locked child it seemed fire and
cloud to me the world's blood and my
blood were cold the exiled Jew in me
was old and thoughts of death appalled
me less than knowledge of my
loneliness

VII.

My mother sold my bed and chair while
I expected to return yet she had kept
me close to her till I saw our temple
burn it was not for her sake but mine
she knew I was unripe fruit and that
exile was a blight against which one
prepared in vain

VIII.

People at Dovercourt were gay as if
they thought we could forget our homes
in alien play as if we were not German
Jews but mealtimes were a market-
place when sudden visitors could
choose although we were not orphaned
yet a son or daughter by their face

IX.

My childhood smoulders in the name of
the town which was my home all we
were became no more than answers on
a questionnaire at Dovercourt we were
taught that our share of the Jewish fate
had not been left behind but was the
refugee life facing us

 

I Was Not There

The morning they set out from home
Iwas not there to comfort them
the dawn was innocent with snow in mockery-
it is not true
the dawn was neutral
was immune
their shadows threaded it
too soon they were relieved that it had come
I was not there to comfort them

One told me that my father spent a day in prison
long ago he did not tell me
that he went
what difference does it make now
when he set out
when he came home
I was not there to comfort him
and now I have no means to know
of what I was kept ignorant

Both my parents died in camps
I was not there to comfort them
I was not there
they were alone
my mind refuses to conceive the life
the death they must have known
I must atone because I live
I could not have saved them from death
the ground is neutral underneath

Every child must leave it's home
time gathers life impartially
I could have spared them nothing
since I was too young-
it is true they might have lived to succour me
and none shall say in my defense
had I been there to comfort them
it would have made no difference

 

Race

When I returned to my home town
believing that no one would care who I
was and what I thought it was if the
people caught an echo of me
everywhere they knew my story by my
face and I who am always alone
became a symbol of my race
Like every living Jew I have in
imagination seen the gas-chamber the
mass-grave the unknown body which
was mine and found in every German
face behind the mask the mark of Cain
I will not make their thoughts my own
by hating people for their race

 

 

Lotte Kramer

Lotte Kramer has been described as a “Holocaust poet” and it is true that she writes feelingly about the family and friends she left behind when she came to Britain in 1939 in the Kindertransport. But her canvas is much broader. She writes about the landscapes of modern Europe, about the Fen Country where she now lives and about paintings and literature. Her sensitive treatment of these subjects has been widely praised by other poets and readers alike. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Turning the Key is her thirteenth book – others include a bilingual volume published in Germany, a selection of her poems about the Kindertransport (published by the University of Sussex) and a selection of her poems translated into Japanese. There is also admiration among reviewers for her ‘Versions and Translations’ of the great German poets – Rilke, Hölderlin, Heine and Trakl. And there are many of her fine translations in this present volume.

For forty years what happened to Lotte Kramer was too hard to think about. She says “One knew, but memories were too painful to express.” Then she began writing poetry – and is still writing. It is a way of telling other people. “They need to know but I don’t know if they’ll learn any lessons. You get such terrible things happening now.”

Quakers helped Lotte to escape Germany. Her teacher negotiated a place for her and five other girls on one of the last Kindertransport trains from Mainz in July 1939. She left behind a large Jewish family. She waited for years, desperately hoping for news, before finding that her parents, aunts and uncles – twelve family members in all – perished at the hands of the Nazis. Through the Red Cross she traced her parents to Poland. They had been deported to a village near some death camps; the others had been sent to Auschwitz.

Lotte Kramer’s volumes of poems speak of her family; her father, a dramatist; of the traumatic parting from her mother; of arriving in England and those twenty-five-word Red Cross telegrams. She refers to a suitcase kept for years, “stuffed tight with mother-love and heartache.” And she writes about the unbearable time “when the ‘final solution’ became known as the unacceptable fact.”


Exodus

For all mothers in anguish
Pushing out their babies
In a small basket

To let the river cradle them
And kind hands find
And nurture them
Providing safety
In a hostile world:
Our constant gratitude.
As in this last century
The crowded trains
Taking us away from home
Became our baby baskets
Rattling to foreign parts
Our exodus from death.

Bilingual

When you speak German
The Rhineland opens its watery gates,
Lets in strong currents of thought.
Sentences sit on shores teeming
With certainties. You cross bridges
To travel many lifetimes
Of a captive's continent.

When you speak English
The hesitant earth softens your vowels.
The sea – never far away – explores
Your words with liquid memory.
You are an apprentice again and skill
Is belief you can’t quite master
In your adoptive island.

Myself, I’m unsure
In both languages. One, with mothering
Genes, at once close and foreign
After much unuse. Near in poetry.
The other, a constant love affair
Still unfulfilled, a warm
Shoulder to touch.

 

Sandra S. Corona

Poet's Statement: Children of the Jews boarded trains that ran from 1938 to 1940 were transported to London to escape the Nazi’s. Many never saw their parents again. Others, whose mothers did make it to England, were not always able to live as a family again as domestics (where most of the Jewish women found jobs) were not allowed to bring children into the homes of those for whom they worked; most of them lost their fathers.

 

Kindertransport

Hitler—more than a Prophet—God
swept Jews from the land where he trod.
Those with the Star of David
took a one way train to their doom.
Hitler, insane, turned rabid.
Everyone—his close staff—knew
of Hitler’s hatred for the Jew.
November ’38 children
took trains to London … escaped doom
but their foster homes seemed grim.
Those were dark times with little hope,
no silver clouds, some couldn’t cope.
In rural lands, early to rise
children still had worries, tears, gloom.
There were tears often in their eyes.
Some never saw Ma, Pa again.
Parents, in camps, were all has-beens.
Listen … ghosts whisper as we sleep
they’re still seeking Ma and Pa’s room.
Parents, in heaven, watch and weep.
Sacrifices let kids flourish.
Some, empty, felt merely nourished.
Ma’s empty arms still cradle, rock
in mansions above where they room.
Sacrifices of love still shock.
Kindertransport saved but a drop--
ten thousand kids. Camps took a lot
killing those with Stars of David.
Some Jews were hidden, others fought
this son of a Jew who turned rabid.

Copyright 2006 Sandra S. Corona