Book review - Part of the Family - author Jason Hensley

Book Review

Part of the Family

Would you rather keep your children with you, knowing it meant putting their lives in danger, or send them away to safety, knowing you may never see them again?  This was the terrible choice that many Jewish parents in Nazi Germany faced.  It must have been painfully clear to them what was looming in the years ahead, that they were willing to send their children to another country, to stay with people they had never met, to give them a chance of survival that they often could not hope for themselves.  One of the survivors, Suse Rosenstock, says: “I’ve looked at each of my children as they’ve reached the age of eight.  I have three … I looked at each one of them and wondered if I could have that strength to do what [my mother] did”.  Another, Ingrid Wuga, remembers boarding the train to begin her journey to England, and seeing one father lifting his little girl out through the train window, deciding at the last minute that he could not part with her.

Brother Jason Hensley, the author of Part of the Family, is the principal of the Christadelphian Heritage School in Simi Valley, California.  As part of his research into teaching senior students about the Holocaust, he recognised that one of the simplest and most powerful ways to study a historical event is to examine the stories of individuals.  This is partly what led him to write this book, researching and collating the stories of ten Jewish children who were sent from Nazi Germany to live with Christadelphian foster families in Britain.

In the first part of the book, Hensley provides a short background of Christadelphians and their involvement with the Jews.  Unlike some other religious groups (notably Catholics), who regarded them as Christ-killers and often openly supported Nazi policies, Christadelphians have always seen salvation as “of the Jews”.  No other religious group as a whole set out to support and sponsor them the way the Christadelphians have – not for humanitarian reasons or to try and convert them, but simply out of respect and love for God’s chosen people.  The Christadelphians expected the restoration of Israel long before the Zionist movement began, and the whole community raised money to support Jewish groups that attempted to settle in Palestine from the mid-1800s until the 1930s.  In the years following, they watched with concern the growing persecution of Jews in Germany, and soon began raising funds and resources to support Jewish refugees fleeing from Europe instead.  When the ‘Kindertransport’ began, many of them saw it as another opportunity to help. 

The Kindertransport was an organised rescue effort that was set up by the British government to transport Jewish children out of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the months leading up to the Second World War.  It was established shortly after Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’), a huge organised pogrom that spread across Nazi Germany in 1938, revealing to the world Hitler’s evil intentions towards the Jewish people.  Through the Kindertransport program, around 10,000 Jewish children were transported out of Nazi-occupied countries and taken into foster homes, farms and hostels across Britain.  Of these, around 250 were taken into Christadelphian homes.  This book tells the stories of ten of those children. 

Each story is different, but they all contain a similar narrative thread.  Each time, the author gives some historical background and context, then recounts each person’s experiences, supported with letters, photos, maps and snippets of their recollections in their own words.  There is a common theme of happy childhood disrupted by growing anti-Semitism, coming to a head with the terror of Kristallnacht, which many of the children experienced firsthand.  They all recall the pain and confusion of leaving their home and family for an uncertain future in a new country.  Many of them could not speak a single word of English.  Several went on to experience suspicion and animosity in wartime Britain due to their German heritage, even though, as Jews, they were the furthest possible thing from Nazi sympathisers.  Despite this, they all warmly speak of the kind welcome they experienced from their Christadelphian foster families in England.  These families often tried to help them contact their own family members or to bring them to England, although very few attempts succeeded.  In most cases, the transported child was the only member of their entire family that survived the Holocaust. 

This book highlights the generosity of the Christadelphians who took in a child during the difficult war years and their willingness to truly live by the principles they believed.  Many of them volunteered, even though it placed considerable financial strain on their own family.  One couple did so, even though their own son had recently died and they were still struggling with their grief.  In one of the stories, a teenage girl who had come to stay with a family, Ursula Meyer, found herself in a terrifying situation where she was suspected of being a German spy and threatened with a pistol.  Her foster father, Norman Sawyer, stood in front of her and said “you shoot me first”.

All of the transported children kept in touch with their sponsor families after the war and all of them remain deeply grateful.  None of them were pressured into following the family’s religious beliefs, although several chose to be baptised of their own accord after coming to an understanding of their faith.  They all speak with respect and love of their foster families, and of Christadelphians generally, as wonderful people with strong moral values and kind hearts.  All of them, no matter their circumstances or backgrounds, were made to feel ‘part of the family’.

This wonderful, moving book brings life to history by telling the stories of a few individuals whose lives were touched by the terrible events of the Holocaust.

Sarah Burney, Enfield South Australia

 

This review was first published in the Lampstand magazine for November - December 2016

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