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April 27, 2010 > Ralph Samuel and the Kindertransport

Ralph Samuel and the Kindertransport

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Steve Charlton

"There are two kinds of Holocaust survivors," says Ralph Samuel, "those who won't talk about it and those like me who won't shut up."

Ralph Samuel, a Kindertransport rescuee, spoke to an audience at Temple Beth Torah in Fremont on April 11 as part of the Holocaust Remembrance Service (Yom HaShoah), sponsored by the Tri-Cities Interfaith Council.

"I thought it was wonderful to be asked to speak at this special service with clergy of various faiths," said Samuel.

Council participants included: Reverend Bob Ahrenkiel, Center for Spiritual Living; Dick Bayless, St. Joseph Catholic Church; Ken Hardman, Bay Area Family Church; Pastor Steven Kindle, First Christian Church of Fremont; Reverend Barbara Meyers, Mission Peaks Unitarian Universalist Church; Don Naylor, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Reverend Lauran Pifke, St. Anne's Episcopal Church; Monsignor Manuel Simas, Pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church; Don Anderson, and Rabbi Avi Schulman, Temple Beth Torah.

The Kindertransport was a rescue mission that took place prior to the outbreak of World War II. Kindertransport helped approximately 10,000 primarily Jewish children under the age of 17, get out of occupied areas of Europe, to be placed in British foster homes and farms. Most of these children survived the war, although the vast majority lost their families.

The pinnacle of anti-Semitism in pre-war Germany was on November 9, 1938 with "Kristallnacht," the night of broken glass. It was the organized burning and destruction of Jewish synagogues, centers and businesses on one night. Several hundred Jewish men were also rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

In direct response to what had occurred in Germany, the British Parliament debated and decided on November 21, 1938, to accept unaccompanied children from infants to the age of 17, for temporary admission.

These children, predominately Jewish, came from Nazi Germany and the occupied areas of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland and the free city of Danzig.

Most were transported via train from Vienna or Berlin and then put on a ship to England. Ralph Samuel remembers that he was one of the few put on an airplane. "Their parents gave them up knowing that their own fates were sealed and they probably wouldn't see their children again," said Samuel. The children were placed in British foster homes, families, farms and hostels.

Ultimately Kindertransport, also known as the Refugee Children Movement, ran out of funds at the end of August 1939, right before the declaration of war. Ultimately 10,000 children's lives were saved during this brief period of time. After the war, most found out that their parents had been killed. In total, six million European Jews, including 1.5 million children were killed by the Nazis.

Ralph Samuel recounted his personal experience as one of the Kindertransport children. He had been born in Dresden, Germany in 1931. Known for its beauty, Dresden was often called the "Florence of the Elba." Growing up Samuel had always considered himself a German first, and being Jewish second, until at the age of seven and a half, when reality hit. Samuel had to say good-bye to his mother and was put onto an airplane in Holland, and flown to England. He wore a cardboard placard around his neck with his name inscribed on it, "like a package being delivered," he added.

Samuel was met at Croydon Airport by Mr. Samuel Epstein who had selected him from a list, based on the similarity of their names. They both had the same first names and Epstein's young son Peter's middle name was Ralph. So it was indeed "pure, sheer luck," that he was fortunate enough to be among those chosen, according to Samuel.

"I was treated like a member of the family," he said. His mother, Ellen, wrote and told him how bad things were getting in Germany. She wrote to Mr. Epstein to ask if she could work for him. So, in March 1939 his mother was hired as a live-in maid and came to England. Samuel ate his meals with the family, while his mother would serve them. She would speak to him in German, but he would respond in English. With the rapid ease of learning reserved for the young, Samuel had picked up English quickly within a few months, although he had not spoken a word of it when he had first arrived.

In November 1939, Samuel's father was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, and then released after six weeks. In November of 1942, Samuel's father was sent to a work camp and in March 1943 he was deported to Auschwitz where he died at the age of 49. Samuel's grandmother was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in August1942 and died the same year at the age of 66.

The Epsteins lived in Wimbledon, but Samuel was soon evacuated to the countryside, along with another three and a half million British children, to escape the expectation of bombing when war broke out in 1939. Samuel stayed in a small market town, called Guildford, living with the Epstein's son Paul and others at the Manor home of a wealthy woman, Mrs. Strachey, whose late husband was related to the famous Victorian writer, Litton Strachey.

Religious services were held in a cow shed in Guildford and Samuel even had his Bar Mitzvah (religious ceremony for boys at age13, marking their passage to adulthood) there.

Samuel's mother asked if she could come out to Guildford and help tend to the children, after visiting one Sunday. She was hired as the governess and in that way could be near her son. "It was nice having her there;" said Samuel, "but the other kids resented me."

Speaking about his experience, Samuel said, "It still amazes me that (Jewish) parents would put their kinds on a train, knowing they would never see them again." The overall majority of kids never saw their parents again, as they were killed in concentration camps.

After the war, Samuel's mother continued to live in Guildford, while he left to finish his education at the London School of Economics. "My mother had come from a very wealthy family in Dresden and came to England with nothing and made a life for herself and me," said Samuel.

His mother had a sister, Hilda, who had survived the war by living in Shanghai and then later moved to the United States with her husband and son. The sisters hadn't seen each other for 15 years, until Ellen was invited to attend her nephew's wedding.

Upon her return to England, Samuel's mother told him that Hilda had offered to sponsor him if he would like to move to the United States. "I realized that I might not have another opportunity and decided to do it," said Samuel.

So, at age 27, Ralph immigrated to the United States. He hated New Jersey, where his aunt's family lived. "Eventually, I moved to Washington, D.C. and loved it and never looked back. I worked as a Land Economist, made many friends, got involved in the community, and had a good life." He married and had two daughters.

In 1962 Samuel moved to California, where his mother joined him and spent the last 15 years of her life near him in Oakland.

Samuel has a unique connection to our region. As a Land Acquisition Specialist, he worked for many different agencies in the Bay Area. He was with the East Bay Regional Park District for over 10 years and during his tenure Samuel helped purchase part of Mission Peak as well as the land required for the widening of Alameda Creek. He finished his career with BART in Land Management, and retired in 1997.

Samuel is involved with various Kindertransport groups, helped found the NorCal Chapter of the Kindertransport Association and has organized reunions. He also volunteers in the Speakers Bureau for the Holocaust Center of Northern California. A Kindertransport reunion is planned for October 15 -17, in Arlington, Virginia.

Samuel remains close with his foster brother, Peter Epstein, the son of the people he stayed with during the war and Peter's younger sister.

Currently, travelling throughout Israel, Italy and Germany on a speaking tour, Samuels says, "I continue to tell my story to honor the memory of Mr. Epstein and more importantly the memory of the one-and one half million children who were murdered by the Nazis."


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