The Sound of a Train Whistle
By Cleo Lampos
For five years, Bertha taught school in Birmingham,England. She wrote lesson plans, dictated sentences, encouraged written expression, calculated math problems and cared for the children in her class. Each student gained her attention and concern. As a Quaker, she respected the rights of the individuals in her charge. These years lay a foundation for the formidable task required of her later.
After serving as an educator, Bertha joined the ranks of administration. In 1921, she traveled toViennawhere she served in relief and reconstruction at the Quaker Centre. Her teacher’s heart led her to also supervise the clubs for young people. When assigned to theNurembergor Berlin Centre, she used her educational skills to converse with the youth of these cities. She developed a large network of contacts throughoutEurope. As she spoke to these nationals, her fluency in German increased. These years of experiences lay another layer onto the skill level required for the overwhelming task ahead.
In 1929, Bertha returned toLondonto take a position as administrative secretary of the German and Holland Committee of Friends. The goal of the centre was peace in Europe, which honed Bertha’s communication skills and provided more contacts. As all of Germany cheered, Hitler gained power of the country in 1933. With Hitler’s ascent, Bertha’s job changed to that of secretary of the Germany Emergency Centre. Now she faced the most important point in her life. Had she known what the future involved, Bertha may have collapsed.
Bertha assumed the responsibility of organizing Quaker help for Jews persecuted by Nazis inGermany,Austria,Czechoslovakia, andParis. She planned routes for Jews to flee to safe places, and then arranged for them to find work and housing inBritain. She helped procure the releases of many individuals, but she also succeeded in saving whole groups of children. In 1934 she established a school in Holland for one hundred Jewish children brought from Germanyand provided employment for German Jewish and Quaker teachers. By 1938, a trickle of refugees became a flood. Bertha administered a staff of 80 in a 25 room building filled with 14,000 files of Jews fleeing oppression. Bertha knew time ticked by too quickly for the Jewish children. She needed to act immediately. The Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass, catapulted her plan.
After the November 9, 1938 riotous attacks against Jews of Kristallnacht, Jewish parents became desperate to get their children to safety. Through the grapevine of contacts, Bertha heard their pleas. On November 21, Bertha obtained consent from a bill passed by the British Parliament to admit children to Great Britainon an emergency basis. The bill waived immigration requirements for unaccompanied children from infancy to age 17 if the providing agency guaranteed to find homes and fund the transportation of the children. Nine months prior to the outbreak of World War II, Bertha fought for the Jewish children trapped behind Nazi lines. Her life work, The Kindertransport, began.
Now, Bertha relied on the contacts she had made years before. She traveled to Germanyand set up a network of organizers who worked around the clock to make a priority list of Jewish children to form the first Kindertransport. Bertha’s teams sought teens in concentration camps or in danger of being deported. Children in Jewish orphanages, or whose families were too impoverished to keep them went on the list. Those whose parents already were in concentration camps were included. The guardian or parent of these children received a travel date and departure details for the train stations. They could take one sealed suitcase with no valuables. The children wore manila tags with a number on the front and their name on the back. Older youth carried and tended the babies and preschoolers on the train. All these arrangements needed to be carried out quickly. Bertha barely slept as the plan unfolded.
The first Kindertransport crossed Europe, then loaded the children onto boats that arrived inBritainon December 2. The last train made it through a hail of Nazi bullets to safety on May 14, 1940. When Bertha and her crew counted the passengers who rode the trains acrossEuropeto freedom, the tally exceeded ten thousand. All of the young immigrants were securely placed throughout the British Isle into homes who wanted to help in the war effort.
Just before the war ended in 1945, Bertha’s concern for children again drove her to action. She heard that in the wake of American advances, three hundred orphans were still alive in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia.With the assistance of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, the Jewish children were flown out.
When the holocaust ended and families needed to be reunited, the sobering fact emerged that many of the Jewish youngsters who rode the Kindertransport were their family’s only survivor of Hitler’s regime. The loving spirit of Bertha Bracey reached through the swastika to rescue the children of promise. She considered these little ones as the greatest rewards of her life.
In Other Words
“I would quote an American writer who said, ‘Religion is the hope that grows out of despair.’ One reason why our generation is not religious is that it has become too sentimental to be thoroughly pessimistic. It has never looked into the bottomless abyss, on the edge of which all citadels of faith are built.”
“Kindertransport was one of Great Britain’s kindest and most wonderful things.America closed its doors because it had a quota. ..Great Britain, a small country, took in ten thousand children. I have wonderful children and grandchildren, so have been very fortunate.”
Ellen Davies, Jewish woman who rode the Kindertransport as a child
“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany
“A righteous gentile instrumental in saving thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.”
The account of the Kindertransport is amazing, but caught my attention with the addition of a Quaker teacher orchestrating the evacuation. Bertha used all her teacher skills for the saving of children’s lives.
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Teaching Diamonds in the Tough (2012, Amazon.com)
Grandpa’s Remembering Book (2009, Amazon.com)
Release this summer: Second Chances (Amazon.com)