A generational Sophie’s choice for Berlin Jewish parents in 1938-39

A generational Sophie’s choice for Berlin Jewish parents in 1938-39

Reflecting on the terrible choice made by Kurt and Grete Paechter in 1939 to send their children away on the Kinder transport while staying behind themselves to tend to their aging parents, the parallels to our Ringel family situation are evident. 

Elly Ringel was a first cousin once removed from Kurt Paechter, her grandmother being the older sister of his father. In both families, in light of the Nazi persecutions, the older generations were loathe to consider leaving their German homeland,

That was true for Elly’s mother Betty Katz Wohlgemuth, as it was for Kurt’s mother Friederike Meyer Paechter, and also for Kurt’s in-laws Salomon and Rosa Landau.

All of these people were 60 years old or more by the late 1930s. At this time, they probably could have escaped Germany in some fashion if they had chosen to. They felt they were too old to start life over in another country. Some still didn’t believe things would get as bad as they later did. 

For the middle generation, adult Berliners with children and parents, this presented a terrible choice. Do you go with your children and have an opportunity to have a new life, or stay with your parents who need your support in their declining years?

The choice was not so stark for Elly as for Kurt and Grete for a simple reason. The Kindertransport did not become an option until after Kristallnacht, by which time Elly had already opted to leave Germany, together with daughter Helga, by other means.

We believe that was in October 1938. On November 8-9, the outrages of Kristallnacht occurred. In its aftermath, the British parliament authorized a temporary, emergency evacuation program for unaccompanied children fleeing Nazi persecution. 

The first Kindertransport was on November 30, 1938. The program transported about 10,000 refugee children from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland until September 1, 1939, when it was discontinued on the first day of World War II. 

Also in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Kurt Paechter was rounded up and imprisoned for several weeks at Sachsenshausen near Berlin. When he was released, the urgency to save his family intensified.

Now in January 1939, the Kindertransport had become an option. It was meant to be a temporary program. The kids would go now and you could join them later, when and if you could make it out. In the meantime, the children would be fostered with English families.

We don’t know if Kurt and Grete expected ever to see their children again when they sent them off on that transport. In fact, they did not, though it is possible they could have communicated by mail in the next several years. 

One wonders how Helga’s life would have been different if the Kindertransport had begun operating a few months earlier.