Oakton shines light on lesser-known Holocaust history
Dr. Phyllis Lassner of The Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies Writing Program and Gender Studies at Northwestern Universityspeaks about the Kindertransport program at Oakton Community College. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 1, 2012 4:58PM
It’s not the most widely told story of the Holocaust.
But Oakton Community College’s new Jewish studies program recently took a look at the Kindertransport program, a mission that saved mostly Jews before World War II as their world grew more precarious when the Nazis came to power.
Twelve days after Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” British Jewish leaders successfully pushed for the United Kingdom to accept Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe.
“The idea was to provide temporary rescue for endangered children by transporting them to Britain and placing them with British families and youth hostels,” said Phyllis Lassner of The Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies Writing Program and Gender Studies at Northwestern University.
The U.S. Congress though did not follow suit; they voted down accepting Jewish refugees because of concerns they would take away American jobs.
By the time war was declared Sept. 1, 1939, 10,000 children — 7,800 of whom were Jewish — were rescued by Britain from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Their story has not often been told — until recently.
According to Lassner, the most popular Holocaust literature has always focused on survivors, rescuers and heroes.
“That is stories that take us into the thick of Nazi atrocities but that seem to rescue us from total despair,” she said. “Only recently have we understood that precisely because the Nazis spread their dragnet so widely, those who survived outside the camps, ghettos and in hiding have stories that are crucial to our understanding the experiences and fates of the persecuted.”
One reason it took longer for the Kindertransport program to get its analytical due, she said, is because participants did not bear witness to later atrocities. They were subjected to “the anteroom of hell and not hell itself.”
But many of the rescued between November 1938 and September 1939 faced unimaginable loss and a startlingly new experience once they reached their destination. A 50th reunion of the Kindertransport kids in 1989 made them realize that their experiences of endangerment, rescue, exile and adaptation needed to be told in the framework of the Holocaust.
“As Jewish refugees in a nation desiring unity at the moment of its greatest threat, the experience of safe haven was often compromised by being considered enemy aliens or unassimable,” Lassner said.
Most of the children came without parents and those who did accompany them were not allowed to pursue the professional careers they had back home.
“No regard was given to the professional and technical skills that these people had to offer a nation that was in danger,” Lassner said.
Lassner’s talk on the Skokie campus was the first of several public events that will be part of the Jewish Studies program under Coordinator Wendy Maier-Sarti. It attracted both students and adults — some of them even Holocaust survivors.
For Lassner, contributions to literature and film about this side of the Holocaust are just starting to be seen. It’s an especially interesting species of Holocaust studies because it covers both the upside of rescue but also the deep post-rescue challenges that the Kindertransport children faced.
“Significantly, for the study of Holocaust rescue and survival,” Lassner said, “these struggles represent conflicted responses to their adaptations to a new cultural identity and home.”