For the first time since they published their book "And Then There Were Four," Ellen Stein, Marcelle Robinson, and Lisa Klein sat before a roomful of youngsters to describe their wartime experiences. The three women speaking at the Midland School in Rochelle Park told how their families had fled for their lives in the face of the Nazi juggernaut that enveloped Germany in the 1930s. The fourth author of the book, Daisy Roessler, lives in Israel.
Since they have generally spoken only with adults during their book promotion tour, the authors said they were at first apprehensive about addressing some of the issues raised in the book. Nevertheless, they added, they were also excited.
Barbara Weiner, Stein’s daughter-in-law and a teacher at the school, arranged the event, together with her husband, Larry, a history professor at Rutgers. Their goal, she said was for students to experience "living history."
According to the presenters, talking to the public "revives our spirit. It’s fun," said Klein, who explained how being "upfront and personal" meant much more to people than just talking to them about the Holocaust in an abstract way.
"[That doesn’t] allow students to connect with the total person. Students need to know who you were before the war, and what you accomplished after the war. Otherwise, you can’t make them understand or empathize."
A former fashion designer, Stein was particularly outspoken. She described how painful it was to walk the streets after Hitler came to power. She told the students how a Nazi officer and his daughter had come into her family’s apartment and confiscated their material lives. Life was particularly tough for her, she said, because her sister had blonde curls and green eyes and looked like a stereotypical Aryan. When people saw them walking together, they would ask her sister why she was holding hands with a "Jew pig."
"I knew because of my coloring that I would be called names every time I left the apartment, so after a while, I just stayed home," she said. "My sister stayed home for my sake, and it hurt that it had to be so."
As the Nuremburg laws went into effect, Stein and her family knew that they had to leave, as quickly as possible. Just days before the war began, when Ellen was 13, they managed to escape to England, aided by the captain of a fishing trawler. "Now that we were out of Germany, I knew I could begin to plan for a life with a future," she said.
Robinson’s family were non-observant Jews who lived "outside" the normative Jewish community, she said. Nevertheless, they realized that they, too, would be targets and fled to London. Then a young girl, Robinson rejoined her parents after being sent out on a Kindertransport.
The speaker used dark humor to describe the bombing attacks and the different types of bomb shelters people used to protect themselves from Hitler’s nightly bombardments a topic that seemed to intrigue some of the boys in the audience. She described how her father sat through one attack while sitting in a bathtub filled with water. "If the fire bomb fell on me, the water would put it out," he told his daughter.
Robinson noted that some German Jewish refugees changed their names and became translators for the British Armed Forces, while others joined the Home Guard. Yet, she said, the refugees also became targets for anti-German sentiment, since some people weren’t able to differentiate between the German enemy and those who had fled the country.
Klein, at age 13, was sent on a Kindertransport to London, while her parents searched for a way to leave. While she was in London, they received entry visas to the Dominican Republic and fled to that country, after a stop at Ellis Island. She was soon able to join them in Cuidad Trujillo. The family moved to a poor Jewish settlement and lived there for seven years, during which time her father died. Nevertheless, the family survived by working, renting out two rooms in their house, and receiving funds from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In 1946, an aunt in America was able to bring them to the United States.
According to principal Mark Mongon, the presentation was only one facet of the Holocaust education program at the Midland School. He said that it is the school’s mission to make sure that the stories of the Holocaust are told in context, so that the children learn many of its lessons, "from caring about their neighbors and speaking out, to taking personal responsibility for their actions."