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Memories of fleeing Nazis as a child Images from 1939 haunting as woman relives escape by train when she was 12

The powerful visual images have taken up residence inside Vera Coppard-Leibovic's mind for more than 70 years. They'll no doubt remain there until she takes her last breath.

The haunting images -- all associated with Nazi atrocities and humiliation of Jewish people -- speak to an era that's back in the news, as the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of a triumph of the human spirit, the Kindertransport.

For 10 months, starting in December 1938, 10,000 children escaped via train from the Nazi regime overrunning Europe.

Coppard-Leibovic was one of those 10,000.

For three days, the 12-year-old Vera and her mother waited in line for a permit to take the train out of Nazi Germany. Then, in May 1939, she and her father were ushered into a room in Berlin, where 100 children were waiting to take the Kindertransport.

In each corner of the room, a black-shirted Nazi stood guard with a German shepherd.

After all 100 names were read, two children were left. Their mother became hysterical. So the four Nazis unleashed their dogs on the woman, before the children were rushed out of the room.

"What pain that woman must have gone through to take her children to the Kindertransport and find out that they weren't on it," Coppard-Leibovic said in her Eggertsville home. "All I remember were the woman's screams and the dogs tearing at her clothing."

Seventy years later, the sight of a German shepherd brings back that image in vivid detail.

That day, May 23, 1939, the children were taken, without their parents, to the train platform, where the mood was subdued. Most had been told they were going on holiday to a fabulous new country, but many apparently realized they might never see their parents again.

Some parents, aching to say one more goodbye, followed the train to the next station.

"I saw these children putting their hands out [the train window] to their parents, and I saw the parents putting out their hands to their children, but they were not allowed to touch."

Later, watching newsreels after having settled in England, Coppard-Leibovic replayed that scene in her mind.

"I was reminded of those outstretched hands whenever I saw the outstretched hands of people taken on trains to the gas chambers," she said.

The other visual image dates from 1935, when Coppard-Leibovic was only 9. Eight to 10 men in Nazi brownshirts broke through the chain lock on her family's front door, when her father was away at a medical meeting. The men told her mother they had come to find papers hidden in the family garden.

Her mother, a feisty one, replied, "Here are the spades. You do the digging."

Meanwhile, three of the men forced her mother into the corner, holding rifles on her.

"That's a picture that never will go out of my mind," Coppard-Leibovic said. "Whether it was smashing windows or kicking someone who was Jewish, it was degradation all the way along, because we were not considered human beings."

Coppard-Leibovic, now 83, survived, living most of her life in England. Unlike most of the other Kindertransport escapees, she was able to reunite with her parents later in England.

Much later, in the early 1990s, after raising a family, she went through a difficult time, wondering why she survived when so many others didn't. She remained determined not to be defeated by that survivor's guilt.

"You get on with your life, whatever happened, because whoever tried to destroy you must not succeed," she said.

She married, had two daughters, co-founded a business, held several jobs and volunteered with the Jewish Refugee Committee in London. Her first husband died in 1979, and she moved to the United States in 2000.

She has held various volunteer jobs here, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Holocaust Resource Center. In 2005, she married an old friend, Nicholas Leibovic, a professor emeritus in biophysics at the University at Buffalo.

Some people who survived the Nazi atrocities can't tell their stories. But Coppard-Leibovic believes in retelling hers, even if it means reliving those terrible times.

"One reason I think it's so important that people learn about the Holocaust is that genocide is happening in different parts of the world now," she said, adding that the Holocaust was different, a systematic attempt to destroy a whole race.

How long will she talk about what happened to her?

"I doubt if I'll be around for the 100th anniversary [of the Kindertransport]," she said, "but if I am, I'll still be telling my story."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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