Finding ‘Vienna’s Lost Daughters’

In1938, the Kindertransport Meant Survival for Eight Viennese Girls, Now in Their 80s.

The Lost Daughters left to right: Weisbord, Berezow, Winkler, Whiteman, Perl, Orne, Edelman, Yachnes | Photo: Karl Ulbl

The parents of eight teenage girls had to make one of the toughest decisions a parent ever has to make, a decision they probably never contemplated, even in their wildest nightmares: to send off their children to live with strangers during a time of imminent war.

Many Jewish families living in Vienna did this between 1938 and 1939, when Great Britain was the only country that opened its doors to a flood of frightened children, pushed onto a train by their own parents, not knowing what would happen or if they would ever see their families again. Through the Kindertransport, a British refugee program for children under 18, about 10,000 children from Germany, Poland, Austria, and former Czechoslovakia, were saved from Nazi persecution that ultimately left many of them orphaned

The word Kindertransport resonates with the children who survived the war thanks to their parents will. It resonates to the same extent as the word Holocaust.  Like two opposites springing from the same source, the first meaning surviving the Nazi persecution against Jews that intensified on Crystal Night and the second meaning certain death.

The Kindertransport meant survival for eight Viennese girls, now women in their eighties. Their stories are portrayed in Mirjam Unger’s Vienna’s Lost Daughters, which premiered in Vienna on Mar. 23. Unlike most documentaries about the Holocaust, which take their viewers through a series of dates, famous events, important politicians and devastating images, Unger’s account is a very intimate encounter with the people who didn’t make the news or redraw the world’s map.

Instead, her camera follows these women through their daily lives, in which the shadows of the past are omnipresent. For many of these women, Vienna is still their emotional dwelling place, a city that holds both fond memories but also haunting images of the violent separation from their loved ones almost seventy years ago.

Rosalie Berezov, Anita Nagel Wiesbord, Hennie Edelman, Susanne Perl, Alice Winkler, Suzy Orne, Eva Franzi Yachnes, and Dorit Bader Whiteman, are first pictured in their everyday lives in New York City, the city where they ultimately settled after many grew up in Great Britain. The film ends with a trip to their former home in Vienna.

Many of seem to be torn by nostalgia for their home country. Perl comforts herself cooking a Sachertorte and passing on the skill to her granddaughter while Orne serves an Apfelstrudel to her family.  Most of them remember their German, although Eva Yachnes refused to speak it in the movie, as it reminded her of moments like when her father was dragged on the street by the beard while the Nazi perpetrators cursed and abused him.

Vienna’s lost daughters came back for the premiere and visited their former homes, reminiscing, and speaking with the press as well cultural and political personalities. At a meeting with Vice Mayor Grete Laska on Mar. 23, the women were still enthusiastic about telling their story and answering questions.

Each of the women had different reactions after coming back; yet many had returned even before the film was made.

For Susanne Perl, her trip was a way to make peace with the past. Before the war broke out, she wanted to see Tosca but her father said she was too young for the opera. “You’ll have plenty of time to see Tosca at the Vienna opera house,” he said. But Hitler crushed her dream, or at least she thought so for a while. By a stoke of fate, Tosca was playing during her first adult visit to Vienna. She bought tickets immediately.

“Well daddy, I’m seeing Tosca in the Wiener Staatsoper,” she thought, “and that made me feel good.”

Dorit Bader Whiteman encountered a political situation that was much more pleasant than the one she lived through. She and her husband came a few years ago and went to Heldenplatz. After telling her husband about when Hitler was there, busloads of people arrived and began streaming onto Heldenplatz. Whiteman found out the hordes of people were demonstrating for the legalization of marijuana.

“That’s a lot better,” she said as she smiled to the camera, “the difference is that Vienna hasn’t changed.”

“Things in the city are familiar,” said Yachnes after she visited her old apartment in Favoritenstrasse. But for her, what is most familiar about Vienna is the food and things like Schönbrunn and the Gloriette.

Alice Winkler, however, felt nothing on her return. She has pushed her memories away and says that she has taught her daughters to distrust everyone. “It was very important for me to have a family because I lost my family.”

Whiteman would agree. “The losses are too big,” she said, also one of Vienna’s lost daughters and author of three books written on World War II escapees The Uprooted, Escape via Siberia and Lonek’s Journey, “that you can’t say that you could ever forget or substitute for it.”

Although she admires the film, she says that an important aspect was shortchanged: “the emotional consequences that stay with you forever.” Vienna has a special duality entrenched to it as a place that even though one leaves from it physically, “the impact of the past and the present mixes all the time,” she said.

One of the emotional consequences from their experience is that many of the women are socially active, in cultural organizations but avoid politics.

“Patriotism makes me nervous,” said Yachnes. She appreciates the film for its tranquility. “It’s better not just to learn battle dates, but to see how big events affected little people.”

The number of documentaries on World War II can be very overwhelming, an avalanche of “Nie vergessen.” But according to Yachnes, a retired chemist, the trick to making a new one meaningful is to find the middle ground.

German and Austrian school children complain that 50 percent of their high school history class is spent on the years 1933-1945 in Europe. On the other hand, one still encounters the occasional German law students who don’t know who Hermann Göring was. Not to mention the Americans.

“I am always amazed at what [Americans] don’t know,” said Yachnes. “They don’t realize that there is civilization in the rest of the world.”  It is important to many of the women that the younger generations get the story of the “little people.”

Whiteman thinks the youth could understand the story of the Kinderstransport children simply by making an analogy with a tragic event from our days.

“The students today can think of it like a Tsunami,” Yachnes said. “You’re happy with your family one second, and then the wave comes and if you survive you’ve lost them and all your possessions and nothing will ever be the way it was.”

The women are all very positive thinkers, but they also are quite skeptical about sayings like “Nie wieder.”

“Never again makes me most cynical,” said Eva Yachnes, “because it has happened again, look at Darfur.”  She sees the media about how atrocities could repeat in certain regions of the world leaving “again millions suffer and die.”

Yachnes, and some of the others, have the feeling that no one does anything to prevent these things form happening. She looked around the room at group chatting with the vice chancellor and sighed, “I don’t want another crisis, just give me dull old everyday life.”

Despite her wish, Vienna’s Lost Daughters’ lives are far from common. They continue to be challenged by emotional wounds that will never heal. Alice Winkler, for example, suffered the greatest imaginable loss:  her mother was sent to Auschwitz.

This experience changes a person. You see it in the lives these women have chosen, in their families, their memories, and their message.  As Winkler said, “a son is a son until he gets a wife and a daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life.”

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