Journey to a New World: Edith Maniker’s Life After the Kindertransport

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 3:47pm

Today marks the 84th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the rescue operation that beginning in 1938 helped nearly 10,000 Jewish children escape to the United Kingdom from Germany and Nazi-controlled territory in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. 

A young Edith Grunbaum was among the children ferried to safety. She told her story to USC Shoah Foundation in 1998 in testimony now housed in the Visual History Archive. Last year, she interviewed for Dimensions in Testimony, the interactive biography exhibit that enables people to ask questions that prompt real-time responses from pre-recorded video interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide. 

In commemoration of World Kindertransport Day, Edith’s DiT interview has been integrated into the Institute’s award-winning iWitness educational platform and USC Shoah Foundation’s Grace Nielsen shares the Kindertransport child’s remarkable story.

A noisy, buzzing cloud of uncertainty filled the train car where eight-year-old Edith Grunbaum sat, among hundreds of other children, on the first leg of her journey from Leipzig, Germany to London, England in July 1939.

Excited and only a little afraid, Edith thought about her suitcase packed with a new wardrobe made by her seamstress grandmother and her parents’ promises to see her again soon. Her trip from Leipzig marked the beginning of an extraordinary journey that would take her to a multitude of temporary homes over the next eight years.

Prior to 1939, Edith’s world had revolved around her family, friends and the Carlebach school in Leipzig. Her father was a printer who often took her to the synagogue across the street. Her mother made gefilte fish and chicken soup with noodles for Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

During the November Pogroms of 1938, Edith watched a blazing bonfire of Torahs and prayer books from her apartment window. From then on, her life in Leipzig had more rules, and although her red hair and blue eyes concealed her identity, she was not allowed to tell anyone she was Jewish or to go into certain stores.

Soon after, her parents, aunts and uncles made the difficult decision to send Edith and her cousins out of the country.

Edith’s 15-year-old sister, Paula, left two weeks before Edith’s journey began. As Edith walked her older sister to the train station she saw their father cry for the first and only time. Her four cousins also left for England that summer, with her Aunt Clara handing her seven-month-old baby girl, Zilla, to a stranger on the train, hoping for her safety.

The train on which Edith was placed in July 1939 took her first to Holland, where she boarded a boat to England. Once there, she took a train into London, where she stayed in the home of her mother’s cousins, Rose and Jack Jacobson. She shared a bed with their youngest daughter and went to a local school, quickly picking up English. Paula had been placed in London with another relative.

When World War II started in September 1939, the British government evacuated all London children to the countryside. Edith was relocated north to the home of two single Christian women in Oakham. Despite knowing that she was Jewish, they brought her to church every Sunday. She attended school in the basement of a church until December 1939, when she returned to the Jacobsons’ house in the capital.

Back in London, Edith attended school until June 1940. It was then that the Germans began the Blitzkrieg bombing that forced nine-year-old Edith into air raid shelters every night. At first the sisters received letters from their parents detailing their attempts to travel to Palestine, but the correspondence soon faded, to be replaced with impersonal notes from the Red Cross informing them that their parents had made it as far as Salonika, Greece.

As the Blitz intensified, Edith was once again evacuated from London along with other children. This time she was sent to the home of Lady Clementine Waring, a wealthy woman in Salcombe who employed cooks, housemaids, gardeners and chauffeurs. She stayed in the servants’ quarters with two Jacobson children and put on her best behavior for tea with her Ladyship every Sunday. Although there was no need to conceal her Jewish identity, Edith nonetheless struggled with admitting that she was German.

“[I]t's very hard to be a young child in England, during World War II, when everybody's father or uncle or brother is away fighting the war, fighting the Germans, and you tell them you're German. So, even though I was Jewish and would have been killed had I been in Germany, this is not something that children—other children—would have thought about,” Edith said in her testimony.

By September 1942, children were permitted to go back to London. Edith returned to stay with the Jacobson family for several months before Rose packed up her clothes and took her by bus to the Jewish Refugee Committee. “[She] put down my suitcase and said ‘here!’ and left me,” Edith said.

At 12, Edith was placed in an Orthodox Jewish refugee hostel in London. Feeling lost and increasingly unhappy, she borrowed money from another child to call her sister Paula. Through a cousin’s connections, the pair were placed in the home of Florie Hart, and for the first time since 1939, Edith and her sister, by then 19, were able to live together again.

Florie and her family showed Edith and Paula genuine kindness in an unstable world. However, the sisters’ glimpse of normalcy was cut short after four months when a bomb landed in their street, causing the Hart family home to collapse. Once again, Edith was forced to start over.

Paula began working and rented a room for the two of them in London. Anxiety and tension rose as they listened for the dreaded sound of V-2 rockets and, even worse, the silence that precipitated them. The Jewish Refugee Committee subsequently sent the sisters to live in another refugee hostel, this time in Cambridge. There, the committee reunited them with their cousin Zilla, the baby their aunt had left in the hands of a stranger on a Kindertransport train in 1939. Zilla was now five.

Edith, Paula and Zilla stayed at the Cambridge hostel until the end of the war. On V-E Day, Edith watched the hostel’s residents erupt with a mix of emotions: bonfires and dancing along with the somber cries of those who realized they might never again see their families. Soon after, Edith discovered that her father had died in Dachau concentration camp and that her mother had disappeared.

From 1945 to 1947, Edith, Paula and Zilla lived in a small apartment. They then traveled to the United States, where they stayed with an aunt and uncle in Detroit. Zilla was subsequently adopted by a family in New York.

In the U.S., Edith, then 16, stood in awe of soda fountains like she’d seen in movies and bountiful supermarkets which contrasted with the strict rationing she’d experienced in England. Paula worked at a clothing store and Edith at a cleaner’s. The pair pooled their money for rent for their new apartment and saved ration coupons for clothing. Slowly, Edith’s world stabilized and in 1952 she met her future husband, Aaron Maniker. The pair married a year later.

Edith and Aaron settled down in the Detroit area and had three children: Allen, Terry and Marci. She worked with emotionally impaired children in the Southfield, Michigan school system. After her retirement, she became a docent at the Zekelman Holocaust Center and worked with Kosher Meals on Wheels and the Michigan Jewish AIDS Coalition.

Edith’s view of herself as a Holocaust survivor changed after a Kindertransport reunion in England in 1989.

“[O]ne of the rabbis there who, when I talked to him about that, said to me: ‘you were eight years old. Would you have survived if you had stayed in Germany?’ And I said, ‘of course not. The Germans killed…any child that was under 14 years old that was of no use to them.’ So he said, ‘Well, you are a survivor.’”

Edith, now 91 and a widow, still tells her story to audiences. She has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Paula passed in 2017, at the age of 93.