Beyond the Kindertransport

Viennese children arrive in London on the Kindertransport. PHOTO ©AUSTRIAN NATIONAL LIBRARY (Repressed Years: The Austrian Railways and National Socialism Between 1938-1945, Exhibition)

By Frederick Koppl ’52

Most people come to Thunderbird to study global business. Not me. I came in 1950 because campus photographs showed two swimming pools in a desert oasis. As a young Polish immigrant and World War II veteran selling electrical testing equipment in frigid Illinois and neighboring states, the promise of year-round sunshine appealed to me.

I first read about Thunderbird in a lobby magazine while waiting for a client on a sales call. The article showed images of pristine swimming pools surrounded by palm trees and grass, which looked more like a country club to me than an institute for international trade. “Perfect,” I thought. “I could use a vacation.” Thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights, everything would be free. While my classmates attended lectures and wrote papers, I would relax poolside and soak up the sun. I knew admissions officials probably would expel me after one semester for academic failure — but that would be plenty of time to recuperate from the harsh Chicago winters and rethink my life.

World War II had taken a deep personal toll, and I needed time to reflect. I was a child when Hitler came to power, but old enough to grasp what it meant to be Jewish in my birthplace of Danzig, an independent city-state that rejoined Poland after the war. In August 1938, during the height of the anti-Semitic pogroms in Danzig, my parents sent me to attend school in Bodenbach/Podmokly on the border of Germany and the former Czechoslovakia. The journey of 900 kilometers was not far enough to escape Hitler’s reach.

One month after my arrival, Nazi agents negotiated the infamous Munich Agreement, which permitted the German annexation of the Sudetenland region of the former Czechoslovakia. When Hitler’s army marched into the area, I left for Prague to stay with my grandparents. What happened next remains difficult to describe. My grandparents put me on a train in March 1939 when I was 16 and sent me to England to live with strangers. Many other children came with me. We left Prague by special transport and headed north through Poland to the port of Gdynia. Then we boarded a freighter to Harwich across the Baltic and North Seas.

The rescue mission, called the Kindertransport, eventually saved about 10,000 Jewish children from the Holocaust. My foster parents, Arthur and Dorothy Williams, were Quakers who helped me start life anew in a foreign land. One month after my journey from Prague, Hitler took over the rest of the former Czechoslovakia. My grandparents were taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the garrison city of Terezín, where they died. My father died of natural causes during the war, leaving only my mother. We were eventually reunited after the war, but our relationship was forever changed.

When people read the Biblical story of Moses, they often gloss over the pain his mother surely felt when she placed her baby in a basket and sent him away to live with strangers. This is just one detail in the narrative: “And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein, and laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.”

My mother and thousands of other desperate parents and grandparents experienced similar pain firsthand during World War II. The children of the Kindertransport also experienced the pain of separation. We struggled to reconcile feelings of anger, betrayal, guilt, sadness, confusion, gratitude, relief and even joy.

The Quaker practices of tolerance, social engagement, pragmatism, community spirit and love helped in my healing process. The only thing I could not identify with was my foster parents’ absolute pacifism. All Quakers were conscientious objectors to the war and, as such, freed from military service. With my childhood experiences from the pogroms in Danzig, not being prepared to fight evil seemed like a sacrilege. My feelings have softened since then, but those were my emotions at the time.

Shortly after reaching adulthood, while in the United Kingdom, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. My unit landed in Le Havre, France, in November 1944. When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, I was serving with the 3rd U.S. Army in southern Germany. I stayed for another year in the army of occupation before receiving an honorable discharge at the rank of sergeant.

The great wartime leader Winston Churchill helped shape my sentiments after the war. On Sept. 19, 1946, he spoke in the Great Hall at the University of Zurich about the tragedy of Europe. He made a plea to all Europeans to start working toward a unified Europe, and I became a pacifist and bridge builder in the spirit of my foster parents. This history is part of the baggage I brought with me to the Thunderbird “country club.”

I did more than swim and sunbathe in Arizona, of course. My therapy also included playing bridge. But I never went to class. Then one Tuesday early in the semester something unexpected happened. I laid out my towel in the usual spot and waited for some poolside company to appear. But nobody came. The whole campus seemed deserted. Did I miss a U.S. holiday? Did somebody die? An hour later a few classmates reappeared, and I called to the first person I could find. “Hey! What’s going on?” I asked. “Where is everybody?”

“We were at Bill Schurz’s lecture,” my friend replied. “Sorry you missed it.”

I knew William Lytle Schurz was president of the school. He was a founding professor who filled the president’s office when Lt. Gen. Barton Kyle Yount died on July 11, 1949. But what was so special about his lectures that he could turn the campus into a ghost town? I decided to investigate. The first class I attended startled me. I discovered that Professor Schurz, who spent years in South America during the war, could captivate audiences on just about any extemporaneous topic. He would step to the podium, think for a moment and then say something like: “Today I am going to tell you about the Araucan tribe in Chile.” Then he would talk for an hour and make it fascinating.

Students filled every seat in the largest hall on campus — and then sat in the aisles on the floor — to hear every word. No other professor could hold class during these lectures because everybody wanted to listen while the diplomat, scholar and businessman imparted his wisdom. Professor Schurz also cared deeply about the Thunderbird family. He knew every student on campus and got involved in their lives. For many of us, he became a father figure. This is reflected in his graduation message the first year I attended.

“I persist in getting emotionally involved about all of you and having a personal stake in your futures,” he said. “It isn’t just because you have been living so close to me all this year and because I have had something to do with training you to live abroad. Maybe it is partly because so many of you will be going to places where I have lived and for which I have a deep nostalgia. So I live vicariously in the cities where you will live. … You will be a part of my far-flung family, and I hope to hear from you as if you were really sons and daughters of mine.”

This was more than I bargained for when I came to Thunderbird! I started going to class, writing papers and studying with my classmates. When I graduated in 1952, I started my own global career in the footsteps of Professor Schurz. My first job after leaving Thunderbird involved sales for the A.O. Smith Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, covering the west coast of South America from Cali, Colombia, to Santiago, Chile, selling oil country goods and irrigation equipment. I discovered a new world full of possibilities the day nobody came to the pool.

Frederick Koppl ’52 has worked as a sales professional and manager in Latin America, Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia. He is retired and lives in Munich, Germany. This story is based on details shared in spring 2011 with Daryl James, Thunderbird Director of Editorial Content. Koppl also shared a version of this story at the 2010 alumni reunion in Bad Ischl, Austria.

The Refugee Children Movement and other organizations cooperated before World War II to bring about 10,000 unaccompanied children to England by train, plane and freighter.

  • Nov. 15, 1938: Jewish leaders petition British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to ease immigration requirements for unaccompanied refugee children.
  • Nov. 22, 1938: The British Cabinet passes a bill to accommodate the refugees. Efforts begin to identify at-risk children and to locate foster families.
  • Dec. 2, 1938: The first rescue mission arrives at Harwich, England, bringing 196 children from a Berlin orphanage burned by the Nazis.
  • Dec. 10, 1938: A transport from Vienna carries 600 children.
  • March 1939: Transports from Prague are hastily organized after Nazi forces invade Czechoslovakia. Fred Koppl ’52 boards one of these trains.
  • Sept. 1, 1939: The last Kindertransport leaves Germany on the same day Nazi forces invade Poland. (Another transport attempts to leave Prague on Sept. 3, 1939, but is turned back. The mission survives underground until May 14, 1940, when a freighter from the Netherlands carries the last known group of child refugees to England.)
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