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Touched by the Kindertransport journey

Vera Coppard-Leibovic still gets chills when she thinks about 1935.

Living in Berlin with her parents, the 9-year-old, then Ilse Vera Rosendorff, wouldn't come to terms with what happened that night until decades later.

"In 1935 we had a raid on our house," said Leibovic. Three brownshirts -- men in the traditional Nazi uniform -- ransacked the family home while Leibovic's father was out.

"That was my first experience of real fascism, because three of them had my mother in a corner of our hall covered with rifles. And that's a picture I'll never forget. Then they got themselves drunk and played Nazi songs on our piano, and by about 3 o'clock in the morning, they left."

Three years later, after German Jews had lost most of their rights under mounting persecution, the evening of widespread riots known as Kristallnacht struck. Leibovic's family had to act fast. After some quick thinking and shrewd maneuvering by Leibovic's mother, she managed to find passage away to England for her daughter as part of the Kindertransport program, a movement that spirited some 10,000 Jewish children out of eastern European nations in the lead-up to World War II.

Leibovic will discuss her story as part of a panel discussion at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Central Library, along with University at Buffalo professors Carrie Braemen, Maxine Seller and Saul Elkin. Elkin's Jewish Repertory Theatre will produce a play on the subject titled "Kindertransport," starting Nov. 29.

The journey away from her parents marked one of the most harrowing moments in Leibovic's life. She left on May 23, 1939.

"The streets were bedecked with swastikas and the Italian flag, because Mussolini was coming to Berlin within a day or two," Leibovic said. "When we got to the meeting room, there were 100 children and 100 parents."

When the names of two children in the room were not read during a roll call of those slated to leave, the mother of the children couldn't bear the thought of her children remaining in Germany, where they would almost certainly be killed during the Holocaust along with nearly 200,000 German Jews.

"The mother went hysterical, because she realized her children wouldn't be going and we were all ushered out of that room as quickly as possible, but not before I'd seen -- there were Nazis in each of the four corners of the room, each with an Alsatian [German shepherd] and they came upon her and used truncheons and the dogs were ripping her clothes. That was my last view of the platform."

Leibovic's mother had arranged for her to live with a Quaker woman in Falmouth, England, and later in Letchworth, north of London, where she went to school until she was 14. Thereafter she worked as a dressmaker's apprentice, married when she was 19 and had two children, who still reside in England.

A number of documentaries, films and plays deal with the Kindertransport movement -- one small glimmer of hope during the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. A documentary, "Into the Arms of Strangers," was released in 2000, and the play, by Englishwoman Diane Samuels, had its off-Broadway premiere in 1994.

For Elkin, the play he'll direct explores issues that continue to pose important questions about identity and memory, questions still unresolved some 60 years after the end of the war.

"Obviously, history never goes away, and interesting plays find a new history," Elkin said, speaking not of the resurgence of fascism but of a renewed debate about immigration that mirrors that in England during the war. "I think it's in the nature of plays that deal with social issues that if they're well-written, the world will turn and the issue and the play will coincide again."

The play, set in suburban London in 1980, follows the story of a woman named Eva -- a Kindertransport survivor -- her daughter Evelyn and granddaughter Faith. When Faith and Evelyn start digging through Eva's attic, they uncover traces of her past that were purposely hidden from them.

That issue, of tearing open the wounds of the past and sharing a painful history with your descendants, is at the heart of the Kindertransport story.

"The parents thought that they were making their children's lives safer by not revealing their own past," said Leibovic, who despite her own reservations, has been upfront about her past with her two daughters. "In spite of everything I've told her, [my daughter] is still digging into the past."

Leibovic came to Buffalo after marrying her second husband, Nick Leibovic, an emeritus professor of biophysics at UB and a World War II refugee himself, originally from Lithuania.

The play, Elkin said, is "about memory and the way in which we retain memory. . . . We hang on to the past, and for good reason: because it is our context at certain times."

As for the effects of the play and panel discussion?

"What comes out of all of this is kind of maybe another kind of communication for a family who comes to see the play," Elkin said, echoing Leibovic's sentiments. There will be several special performances of the play for children, with educational materials distributed to assist teachers, parents and students to talk about the play's wide-ranging implications.

Ultimately, the story of "Kindertransport," like that of Leibovic and her thousands of compatriots, is a struggle to honor that past while protecting the future. It's a challenge for Leibovic, but remembering the power of her mother's abiding love -- amid all the trauma of her harrowing childhood -- brings at least a degree of comfort and reconciliation.

When Leibovic's parents arrived in England -- two of the few lucky ones to survive and reunite with their children -- the war commenced shortly thereafter, on Sept. 3, 1939. The British government, in an attempt to eliminate the possible threat of German infiltration, set about rounding up and sending to internment camps German Jewish men who had not enlisted in the British armed forces.

Leibovic's mother engineered a plan to save her husband from the British camps.

"On Friday, the police had knocked on the door and said that the next day, my father would be fetched to be interned, and my mother said my father had a heart condition. He had a heart as strong as an ox, but nevermind," Leibovic said. When the police came, Leibovic's father looked a sickly gray and her mother insisted on going in his place. She was taken to court, where she filibustered in front of a judge, in a badly broken English affectation, and was eventually sent away by the flustered judge, who "just wanted to get rid of her."

"When I asked my mother what was the matter with my father, she told me she had woken him up at 2 in the morning, told him to make her a cup of tea and have one himself, and put a sleeping drug in his tea. So he was completely knocked out."

"Without her," Leibovic said, "I don't think any of us would have survived."



A panel discussion on the Kindertransport movement will take place at 5 p.m. Thursday in the Central Library, 1 Lafayette Square. The event is free. For more information, call 688-4114, Ext. 334, or visit


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