Every spring, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, those who died under Nazi persecution are honored in ceremonies throughout the world; and those who survived it recall what they experienced. Anita Weisbord is among them.
When Hitler’s army forcefully annexed Austria to the German Reich in March of 1938, Weisbord’s homeland suddenly became unrecognizable. Born in Vienna in 1923 as the youngest of three in a loving, Jewish-Austrian household, she was shocked to see the fanaticism and bigotry of Austrians wearing swastika armbands and chanting of “Hitler awake, Jews perish!”
“That was the end of my childhood as I knew it,” recalls Weisbord today, “Overnight, Jews became non-persons. We lost all our rights.”
While numerous Austrians, especially Jews, tried to emigrate, Nazi officials made the process extremely onerous, leaving many Jews trapped. Little help came internationally, and during November on Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish businesses in Austria, like those in Germany, were violently attacked or burned to the ground.
The Nazis seized many Austrian Jews that night, among them Weisbord’s father, who was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. “You’re taught to call the police when a crime like that happens,” says Weisbord now, “but you couldn’t call the police, because they were part of the anti-Semitic campaign. There was absolutely nothing you could do except praypray for your relatives and for yourself.”
Help came for Weisbord in late 1938 through Kindertransport, “Children’s Transport,” a program created in Great Britain to save endangered Jewish children in Germany, Austria, and the Czech lands, placing them in temporary British homes. When her mother heard about it, she immediately submitted her daughter’s name with the proper authorities, and her transport was approved.
On March 13, 1939exactly one year after the Nazis took over her countryWeisbord’s mother escorted her 14-year-old daughter to the train station, where she saw her off to Britain. The separation was traumatic: “To this day,” she says, “I can still remember both of us pressing our hands and faces against the train’s window pane, but being unable to physically touch.”
She also remembers the intense argument her mother and aunt had when her aunt refused to send her own children on the Kindertransport. “What kind of mother are you?” her aunt said emotionally to Weisbord’s mother, “How could you abandon your child like that?”
But for Weisbord’s mother, it was an act of desperation, to try to save her child from Nazi persecution, in hopes of being reunited later. It was an agonizing decision every family in the Kindertransport faced.
Arriving in England, young Weisbord was taken in by a generous Christian widow who cared for her as one of her own. The two grew close, and Weisbord would sometimes accompany her guardian to her local Baptist Church. “I remember how peaceful that church was and how absolutely wonderful the people there treated me. At the same time, I knew I was Jewish and would remain so for the rest of my life.”
Fortunately, Weisbord’s sisterwho had been too old to apply for the Kindertransportwas able to escape Austria and join her. For the next five years, the two remained in Britain, completely cut off from their family. They knew their brother had been able to join the Foreign Legion, but had no idea what had become of their father in Dachau, or their mother in Austria.
When the War ended they both watched in horror as the newsreels showed images of Hitler’s countless victims. They feared their parents were among them. Four months later, they received a letter from the Red Cross. “We were terrified to open it because we knew what it might say,” recalls Weisbord.
To their relief and amazement, both parents were alive and safe in Hungary, and the entire family soon reunited in England. However, an estimated 60-70 percent of the parents of the children saved through the Kindertransport were killed by the Nazis. Their aunt, uncle, and cousins who had remained in Austria also died.
Weisbord eventually married and moved to America, where she rebuilt her life. But her wartime experiences are a continuing source of reflection, especially the argument between her aunt and mother:
For a long time I grieved over their argument, and wondered who was right. . . . Not until I became a mother myself did I realize that they were both right. . . . I always say that my mother gave birth to me twicewhen I was born, and the day she had the strength and foresight to place me in the Kindertransport. But I also understand my aunt’s refusal to send her children awayfor what is more natural than a mother’s desire to hold her offspring close? And what could be more unnatural than leaving them with a stranger?
Weisbord knows her aunt’s decision to keep her family in Austria tragically cost them their lives, but “it was a decision borne out of hope and love. The same is true of my own mother’s decision.”
Weisbord’s testimony has been recorded by researchers and historians, and she is part of the acclaimed documentary on the Kindertransport, Vienna’s Lost Daughters. Not long after she came to America, Weisbord joined many charities and interfaith groups, hoping to inspire good will and social harmony within communities: “Growing up, I saw how easily hate can spread, and how easily it can destroy a civilized people. The least I can do is teach others about its dangers, and resist new outbreaks of it.”
Like many Holocaust survivors, Weisbord often wonders why she was spared out of the six million Jews who perished. But instead of allowing those thoughts to overwhelm her, she says, “I’ve tried to focus on giving something backto my community, country and the world.”
A previous version of this article stated that an estimated 90 percent of the parents of the children saved through the Kindertransport were killed by the Nazis. A more likely estimate is that 60-70 percent of Kindertransport parents were killed.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.