By DENISE FLEISCHER
Eighth graders at Algonquin Middle School in Des Plaines, IL, quietly filled the LMC on Feb. 10. They were aware that the author would speak about a 12-year-old girl from Germany’s life when the Nazis were in power. Fern Schumer Chapman, who wrote four books about her mother’s Holocaust refugee experiences and her mother, Edith, were guest speakers.
The students heard about bullying of the highest degree: racial discrimination leading to death in concentration camps. They learned that Edith Westerfeld’s father was a businessman. Since 1721, generations of his family had lived in the same home in Stoclstadt, a town in Rhine River Valley. Being the only Jewish family, they were subjected to the German government’s legalizing discrimination against Jews. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi policy of anti-Semitism was supported through posters, marches, and national radio broadcasts. Life became difficult when the rights of Jews were eliminated. As the Nazi organization came into full power, the Jewish families realized that if they remained in Germany they would not survive. Fearing the growing reality, arrangements were made to seek a sanctuary for their children away from the Nazi regime. The One Thousand Children Project meant shipping their children half a world away without communication, to live with their families or with a foster family in America.
“My mother was too young to understand the program that brought her here in March of 1938,” said Chapman, who was a journalist for Chicago and national based publications. “Children were mailed across the ocean. The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society sponsored my mother coming to the country. There were also Lutheran and Quaker groups that offered their support to the project. The British saved 10,000 more through their program.”
Through the rocky, cold passage, the young shipmates traveled to New York. During the voyage, Westerfeld befriended Gerda Katz. Katz’s journey would take her to Seattle and Westerfeld to Chicago. After a 15 ½ hour train ride, Westerfeld arrived in Chicago and the home of her Uncle Jack and Aunt Mildred. Because she was unable to speak English, she was placed in O’Keefe Elementary School’s first grade class. By 14, the American government identified her as an enemy alien. Through Movietone news she saw how the Jewish businesses were destroyed in Germany and from a friend’s letter, that her parents were killed in a concentration camp. Still, she survived, married, had children. Years later, after her daughter began writing books about her and the two began speaking at schools, something incredible happened. Students that had learned about the special friendship of the two young shipmates decided to reunite them through Internet research. This lead to the reunion of Gerda and Edith in Seattle. It became a mission the students would never forget. For more information, log on to www.fernschumerchapman.com.
This article was reprinted from the Journal and Topics Newspapers.