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  • Escaping the Holocaust: Stories from the Kindertransport

    Near a cluster of trees, Joel Darmstadter shifted in his chair and folded his arms. A poster, taped with black-and-white copies of old family photos, slipped onto the grass. In an interview following his presentation at the 2016 Folklife Festival’s On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today tent, Joel attempted to trace the flux of emotions he experienced as a young Jewish boy in Germany. He spoke cautiously, always aware that his journey from Mannheim to Manchester had been a matter of luck and good fortune.

    In the late 1930s, the Kindertransport relocated thousands of refugee Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Great Britain. After the brutal attacks of Kristallnacht in 1938, Joel and his older brother left Mannheim and traversed waters teeming with hidden U-boats to England. “I can remember, quite clearly, what it was like eating Kellogg’s cereal for the first time. But the rest…” He waved his hand. The more harrowing events of his childhood stand distinctly apart from his memory.

    Heavy pauses punctuated much of our conversation, particularly when Joel shared raw truths that he learned only later on in life. In the spring of 1940, he and his brother traveled to Rotterdam, Holland, to reunite with their parents and leave, together, to New York City. Only three weeks later, the Nazis invaded Holland—effectively foreclosing any other departures and trapping other Jewish refugees in the country, including his maternal grandparents. In 1943, they were deported to Sobibór, a concentration camp in Eastern Poland, where they ultimately perished.

    “It’s hard not to think about my own life with everything that is going on now.” Joel leaned forward, arms bracing the sides of his chair. His expression—and his words—grew heavier as he condemned what he calls the “utter unwillingness” of American politicians to institute wide-ranging support for Syrian refugees. He believes that the victims of political upheaval and social unrest primarily involve families, children, and other citizens trying to live normal lives.

    While eternally grateful for the help he had received as a young boy, Joel also wished that the same compassion could be shown for the refugees of today.

    Editing and production: Michelle Mehrtens
    Videography: Andrea Curran, Lillian Schneyer

    Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Brown University, where she studies English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

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