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Germany to compensate Kindertransport survivors

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The children of Polish Jews arrive in London in 1939. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S69279/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Germany will compensate survivors of the Kindertransport with a one-time payment of just over $3,800 each, the Claims Conference announced on Dec. 17.

The Kindertransport brought over 10,000 children from Germany, Austrian, Czechoslovakia and Poland to the United Kingdom between Kristallnacht and the start of the Second World War. The Claims Conference’s Kindertransport Fund will begin processing applications on Jan. 1.

The Claims Conference, which was set up to negotiate compensation for victims of Nazi persecution, estimates that around 100 Canadians will be eligible to receive the funds.

Martin Maxwell is a 94-year-old Canadian survivor of the Kindertransport who plans to apply for compensation. Born in Vienna, he was 14 years old when he left his native Austria on New Year’s Eve, 1938, to go live in England. As orphans, he and his older brother were both prioritized to go on the Kindertransport. But of their three little sisters, who weren’t able to take it, only the youngest survived the Holocaust.

The Kindertransport monument at Liverpool Street Station in London. (Wjh31/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

Maxwell still remembers the young girl who was put next to him and his brother on the train out of Vienna.

“She said, ‘Mommy, mommy, please don’t send me away. I’m going to be good from now on, I’m going to do my homework, I’m going to do everything you tell me.’ A lot of these kids thought they were being sent away because they didn’t behave,” said Maxwell. “The mother got so upset, she took her off the train. And her father says, ‘No, dear, you have to go back on the train. We promise we will be back in London in a few weeks and we will be reunited.”

Of course, the majority of the children who were put on the Kindertransport were not reunited with their parents, because they were murdered in the Holocaust.

The train from Vienna took Maxwell to the Hook of Holland, where his prized stamp collection was stolen by an assessment officer. From there, he took a ship to England, where he was adopted by a British Jewish family. (He’s still close to that family to this day. Some of them will be visiting the Maxwells in Florida over the winter.)

A few years later, Maxwell became a glider pilot for the Royal Air Force and helped bring the first soldiers to Normandy the night before D-Day, before eventually ending up in Canada.

Maxwell believes Kindertransport survivors are owed compensation because of how their lives were disrupted. Maxwell did not get the chance to finish high school when he was growing up, but received his diploma in an honorary ceremony at the York School in Toronto when he was 86 years old. He doesn’t think the compensation announcement means that Germany has paid its debt, but he also doesn’t hold the crimes of past Germans against the current generation.

Martin Maxwell when he was 22 years old.

“I think they owe us this and they owe us more, but at least they did this, so that’s something,” Maxwell said. “I’ll probably give most of it to charity.”

Not every survivor can give that money away, however. According to the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, there are 2,250 Holocaust survivors living in poverty in the GTA. For those who are eligible for this kind of compensation, it can make a meaningful difference in their lives.

Edit Kuper and Pinchas Gutter, the co-presidents of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, believe that the message the German government is sending by agreeing to compensation does matter.

“As survivors, we are pleased that the German government is offering support to Kindertransport refugees. This one-time funding, however modest, is a meaningful recognition of the experience of thousands of children who – although saved from the Holocaust – were painfully and permanently separated from their families,” they wrote in an emailed statement.

Frieda Korobkin, a Kindertransport survivor and the mother of Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, is torn about how she feels about the compensation.

On the one hand, “if (the money) helps a survivor who today is 90 years old and is having difficulty with their health and needs a caregiver, and this will help them to hire a caregiver, it’s better than nothing,” she said. But of course, “there’s no way that anyone can be compensated for the death of parents or any family member who has been murdered … no amount, let’s say it would be 10 times the amount or 100 times the amount, it would be the same thing. It has no bearing on the crime.”

Korobkin was one of the many children whose parents were killed in the Holocaust. As Korobkin remembers it, she landed in England on Christmas Eve, 1938, when she was just six years old. She had two older sisters and an older brother, but was separated from them upon her arrival.

Martin Maxwell
Martin Maxwell

Once in the U.K., she was forced to move about often, from a Jewish family in London, to a series of gentile farmer families, to a home for Jewish boys in Cardiff, where she was reunited with her brother and one sister, to a Jewish school that had been evacuated to the small town of Shefford, where the residents were surprised that the Jewish evacuee children didn’t have horns.

After the war, Korobkin made aliyah, returned to England and eventually made her way to the United States, where she met her husband. She now lives in Los Angeles. In 1973, a mass grave was found in what was then Yugoslavia that included her parents and paternal grandmother. The grave was disinterred and the bodies were given a proper Jewish burial in Vienna.

It’s been 80 years since she last saw her family members who were killed in the Holocaust, but Korobkin has felt their loss every day of her life.

“They deprived children of a normal upbringing – of their childhood. How can you compensate for that? There’s no way to measure compensation. I hope that whatever is decided on amounts, and what has been decided in the past, doesn’t make the governments of those countries feel that now they have clean hands. Because they don’t.”