2007-04-11 / Local News

Child of the Kindertransport

Purdue professor tells his story
By Jennifer Archibald Staff writer

Connecting with his past Dr. Joseph Haberer holds up a photo of himself as young boy. At age 9 1/2, he boarded a ship with several hundred other children and was transported from Nazi Germany to England. Comet photo by Jennifer Archibald Connecting with his past Dr. Joseph Haberer holds up a photo of himself as young boy. At age 9 1/2, he boarded a ship with several hundred other children and was transported from Nazi Germany to England. Comet photo by Jennifer Archibald Dr. Joseph Haberer was one of the 10,000 children rescued from Nazi Germany and transported to England in 1938-1939.

This mass humanitarian effort was called Kindertransport (kinder in German means children).

Haberer said most of the children were Jews, and most never saw their parents again.

He told his story last week to an audience of mainly seventh and eighth graders at Carroll Jr.-Sr. High School.

Haberer was four when the Hitler regime came into power. He said his father was employed by the government as a clerk. When Hitler took over, Haberer's father, and all other Jews, were fired.

"It was during the Depression. We were very poor," he said.

His family lived in southern Germany.

"There was only a small Jewish community there - 10-20 families," he said.

When he started school, he said he and one other child were the only Jewish children there. The other children were in the Hitler Youth, where hatred of the Jews was taught.

"There was a lot of bullying going on," he said.

At first, Jews were allowed to leave Germany, but Haberer said his family was too poor to leave. Jews were supposed to form their own schools, but there were too few in Haberer's community to do that.

"What are we going to do with Joseph?" his parents asked.

As the persecution of the Jews became more and more intense, Haberer said there was huge outrage in places like England and the U.S. The British government passed a law, allowing Jewish children to come to England as refugees. Jewish communities in Germany and relief organizations abroad coordinated the rescue operation.

Haberer said there were two British stipulations - the children couldn't bring their parents, and they couldn't be a burden to the taxpayers. They would stay in foster homes or hostels (orphanages).

"I was in that first transport," Haberer said.

At age 9 1/2 he boarded a train and then a ship, along with several hundred other children.

They arrived in the cold of winter and slept outside that night in cabanas.

"They gave me a hot water bottle, and by morning it was a block of ice," Haberer said.

He got an infection and had to be hospitalized - separated from all the other children, and speaking only German.

The whole ordeal took a toll on the young boy.

"It was too much for me. I shut down. I have no memory of the next two and a half years."

He said he went to a series of hostels, eventually arriving at a Jewish Orthodox hostel.

Early on, he was able to receive letters from his parents. One letter from his mother informed him that his father had died. He clung to hope that he would someday see his mother again. But that day never came. She was killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

Haberer said one day he "woke up," and knew he had problems.

"I was seriously depressed," Haberer said. "In those days, you didn't know about psychologists, etc. You were on your own."

"I rode a bike and tried to talk myself into feeling better. I became a voracious reader, and read selfhelp books. A free public library - it was what saved me."

"The other thing that kept me going was that I wanted to make a difference, to make an impact."

He decided he wanted to be a teacher. He said he had been an extremely poor student in the technical school he attended, and by the time he chose a profession, he was told, "Joseph, you're not smart enough to be a teacher."

He became an apprentice to an accountant, destined to never become a teacher in England.

Then he heard from relatives in America, asking if he wanted to come and live with them.

He joined his relatives in California, and went to San Francisco State College - a teacher's college. Eventually he got his master's and PhD. Now living in West Lafayette, he is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Purdue University and Emeritus Director of Purdue's Jewish Studies Program.

Haberer said his purpose in coming to Carroll was not just to tell what happened to him 60 years ago.

"What happened then has relevance today," he said. "Genocide is alive and well."

He cited modern day atrocities in places like Rwanda and Darfur.

"Kindertransport demonstrates what can be done," he said.

He pointed to Fort Wayne as an example.

"I read where they are taking care of Darfur refugees," he said.

Haberer said even students can help in stamping out hatred and prejudice.

"If you encounter prejudice, speak up," he said. "Don't just sit there; say something or do something."

He also told students, "Don't sell yourself short. You can do more than you think you can do."

Haberer said it was a long time coming, but he can honestly say he has recovered from his past.

There's an organization made up of kinders. Haberer said they met in England and then formed regional organizations. He is president of the Midwest Chapter.

Haberer said children of the Kindertransport are now in their late 70s or early 80s.

"I still keep in touch with a couple of the kinder I was with," he said.

Carroll English teacher Danna Bonfiglio teaches a yearly Holocaust unit and invited Dr. Haberer to speak.

Return to top