Thousands of blank manila tags cover the red back wall of the American Swedish Institute's Osher Gallery. They look like something one might find on items at a retail store, but in fact they represent the identification tags worn by children on the kindertransport — the trains that rescued nearly 10,000 children from Nazi Europe.
Still, more than 1 million Jewish children perished in the Holocaust. A two-part exhibit at the American Swedish Institute brings these stories to light. Beth El Synagogue and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas are helping to present "Kindertransport: Rescuing Children on the Brink of War," organized by Yeshiva University Museum in New York and the Leo Baeck Institute in Berlin.
Taking it a step further, "The Story Is Here" in ASI's Turnblad Mansion highlights three Minnesotans, including 95-year-old Benno Black, who made it out on kindertransport.
Susie Greenberg of the Jewish Community Relations Council first learned about kindertransport during her freshman year of college, on a visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Her parents set up the Greenberg Family Fund for Holocaust Awareness at Beth El.
"Five years ago they saw the film 'Nicky's Family,' which tells the story of Briton Nicholas Winton, who took kids from Nazi-occupied Prague on the kindertransport," said Greenberg, who grew up in Golden Valley. "When they heard about the show, my parents said that they'd love to put their fund toward something with kindertransport."
From there, the Jewish Community Relations Council reached out to the American Swedish Institute; the council was part of ASI's annual holiday show in 2017. "There was an artist in the community who is Swedish-American and also a member of the Jewish community, so she had done things like make a menorah out of the Swedish dala horses," said Ingrid Nyholm-Lange, ASI's director of experience.
Although not intended as a traveling exhibition, this is the show's third stop after the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan. This leg has a unique focus on the 500 kids who went to Sweden on the kindertransport, with an added section titled "The Swedes Saved My Life."
The show begins with a loop of black-and-white films showing children departing Prague, arriving in England and boarding buses to a refugee camp north of London. From there, the show is divided into eight sections that tell the story of the kids who fled Germany and its annexed territories in Austria and Czechoslovakia following the Kristallnacht attacks against Jews in November 1938. Artifacts include a prayer book with charred fragments of a Torah scroll and wood saved from the Torah Ark at a Berlin synagogue by 14-year-old Marianne Salinger.
Filled with objects and minimal text, the Osher Gallery feels like something between a thrift store and a cemetery. There's a sense of things that lost their way and were found again: A pair of bears, clad in overalls and hooded coat made by two girls in a suburb of Munich. An anti-Semitic book titled "The Poisonous Mushroom," used to instill Nazi ideology in young Germans. A Jewish star necklace that was sewn into a child's clothing, because jewelry wasn't allowed on kindertransport.
Sections focus on the difficult decision parents made in registering their children for the train that would probably save their lives while their families tragically perished, and the pain of reuniting after the war, which at times was not joyful. There are also four brief oral histories told through phone receivers attached to display cases.
Some objects are more heart-wrenching than others — in particular the last letters that parents wrote to their children before they themselves were shoved on trains and taken to death camps.
Alfred Bader, who had been spirited out of Vienna, received this message from his mother, Gisela Reich, before her murder in November 1942: "Be careful with your health and life, do not do anything dangerous. … My beloved child, may God guard you and protect you in all your ways, and give you Eliyahu Hanavi [Elijah the Prophet] as a guardian."
But while parents feared for their lives, the kids who made it out heard something different.
"Our parents made us feel good about leaving, like we were going on a vacation," says Lucy Lang, who escaped Vienna, in one of the oral accounts. "I had no idea what they felt."
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437