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A Child Saved From the Nazis Gets to Pay Back His Benefactors
Kurt Herman was just a little boy when three American Jews plucked him out of Nazi Europe, and whisked him to safety.
He didn't know what group the three represented, but even at 9 years old, he knew enough to credit the trio with saving his life.
Now, 67 years later and living in Philadelphia, Herman knows his benefactors well. In fact, he was recently named president of one of the organization's chapters -- Brith Sholom's Kraus-Pearlstein Lodge.
Herman, one of 50 Jewish children rescued by Brith Sholom during the war, considers the opportunity to lead the group that saved him one he "could not turn down."
Sitting in his living room on a recent weekday afternoon, he reflected on a childhood interrupted by the Third Reich.
Things were "all right," in his hometown of Vienna before the Germans took over, he began, leafing through a folder of old newspaper clippings and black- and-white photographs. But when Germany annexed Austria in 1938, non-Jewish peers suddenly became schoolyard bullies, and the two-mile walk each morning became "open territory for harassment."
"My main question, my dad told me, was: 'What did I do? Why is this happening to me?' "
As word spread that Jewish men were being kidnapped, the family -- mom Martha and dad Heinrich -- struggled to stay ahead of the Nazis. Herman's mother walked him to school, so her husband wouldn't have to venture outside. During neighborhood raids, Herman's father hid in the closet or fled to a cousin's house across town.
According to Herman,"every spare moment of time was spent doing everything to try to get out." His mother went as far as going through the telephone company, trying to call everybody listed in America with the last name Herman.
"It entered our minds to leave together, but we didn't care," said the son. "It was -- 'leave any way you can.' "
Herman's uncle escaped first, boarding a boat to Shanghai, China. His father and grandparents headed for Cuba, but after being denied entry, wound up displaced persons in France.
When Herman -- still in Vienna with his mother, aunt and cousin -- heard of a children-only passage to America, he applied for the chance to flee.
Just a Publicity Stunt?
Herman and the 600 or so other children who responded met with Brith Sholom representatives Gilbert Kraus, a lawyer from Philadelphia; his wife Eleanor; and Robert Schless, a pediatrician. Fifty children -- 25 girls and 25 boys -- between the ages of 6 and 12 were given visas, thanks to money and diplomatic sway provided by American Jews.
"When I got picked, you know what [I] did? I went to the store ... and bought chewing gum to practice how to chew, so I wouldn't be different," he said. "We heard Americans chew gum."
For the Nazis, the departure of 50 young Jewish kids was nothing more than a publicity stunt, he said. Moms were not allowed to cry, nor could they wave, since it might look too much like they were making the "Heil Hitler!" sign reserved only for full-class German citizens.
Clutching his passport -- stamped "J" for "Jew" and bearing the Nazi insignia -- he boarded the USS President Harding and headed for America. When the boat docked in New York City in June 1939, 50 wide-eyed orphans scooted off to a camp in Collegeville, Pa.
"So there we were, these 50 kids, escaped this hell over there," recalled Herman. "No school, no parents. It was like ... fun," he said, his eyes lighting up.
He began learning English, how to salute the American flag and all about baseball. Herman ordered ice-cream -- one of the first words he learned -- every chance he got.
By summer's end, Herman and a fellow campmate were told that an adopted family -- the Leonards -- awaited them. The two packed their bags and headed to Allentown, Pa.
The home they entered -- a 10-bedroom mansion, complete with a maid and a butler -- presented another world to the boys entirely. Herman described it as a "very formalized" sort of life, where dinners were served promptly at 7 p.m.
Yet Herman adjusted, growing particularly close to his foster mother, Rose.
"I've got two moms," he'll tell you, even today.
Herman's birth mother reached U.S. shores in November, moving to Allentown to be near her son. Herman's father arrived in the spring of 1940.
With the family reunited, Kurt Herman moved out of the Leonard household, and into an apartment building with his birth parents, aunt, uncle and cousins. Herman's grandparents didn't make it out of Europe in time; they died in Auschwitz.
For awhile, the Holocaust receded from Herman's story.
He graduated from Allentown High School in 1947, and went on to study business at Penn State University. He married his camp sweetheart, Rosalyn Landesberg, entered a career in finance, had three daughters, and eventually, eight grandchildren.
After about two decades in the private sector, Herman decided to apply his skills to the Jewish world. He became finance chief of Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia, and later for the Jewish Ys and Centers, working in these positions for a total of 21 years.
Though he didn't know it at the time, some of Herman's co-workers were the same Brith Sholom members responsible for his rescue from Europe. It wasn't until 1972, when the Northeast Jewish Times ran an article on the Brith Sholom 50, that he learned the truth.
Today, as the head of a lodge within the Jewish fraternal organization, Herman runs monthly meetings, plans social events and spearheads charitable projects for his Philadelphia-based chapter.
He also enjoys basking in his role as the organization's "poster boy."
"He's introduced as one of the kids," confirmed Rosalyn Herman. "At 76, he's one of the kids."