A Train to Life

Yad Vashem is built around the stories of people. Henry Foner is one of them. Born June 12th, 1932 as Heinz Lichtwitz in Berlin, he left Germany in the winter of 1938/39 as one of 10,000 children saved from the Nazi terror through Kindertransporte.

Henry_FonerAt the intersection of Georgenstraße and Friedrichstraße, Berlin, there’s an almost life-size sculpture of children depicted in bronze – five cast in dark metal, two in light. Seven boys and girls gaze in different directions, facing different fates. More than two million children lost their lives in the Holocaust. 10,000 were saved by the Kindertransport to England.

“It started with the Kristallnacht”, he remembers. On the night of  November 9th, 1938, SA paramilitary forces destroyed Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. Hundreds of Jews were murdered, thousands incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. “After that night everybody realized that there was no future in Germany for Jews.” Foner’s family had lived in Germany since 1560 and gained Prussian citizenship in 1736. From Kantstraße 30, Berlin-Charlottenburg, the family ran a printing house. There are still books out there produced in Max Lichtwitz printing.

Foner’s father arranged for his son to be part of the Kinderstransport. Originally the children were to be brought to then British Mandate of Palestine, but several groups opposed. In the end Great Britain agreed to grant 10,000 Jewish children permission to stay in their country for two years – assuming, hoping that after two years time there would be no more need for their protection. It was mostly Jewish families all over the country who offered to take children in.

Falling into Another World

Foner doesn’t remember the last time he saw his father. He has no memory of the parting. “The older children always drew pictures of the goodbye, but I don’t remember”, Foner says. The train journey, however, he portrays in much detail. How they were sitting in the compartments, scared and unsure what was about to come. How the train stopped at the border to the Netherlands and men in uniforms searched their luggage. And how the train stopped again after the Dutch border, how ladies with white hats entered and passed around rolls and sausages. “It felt like we had fallen into another world.”

After their arrival in Hoek van Holland they took the fairy boat to England. From Liverpool Street Station he took the train to meet his new family. A family that he couldn’t speak with. They didn’t speak German, he didn’t know any English yet. With a few words of Yiddish they managed to communicate. In this new world the name Heinz Lichtwitz attracted attention. Attention, that may be dangerous. So Heinz Lichtwitz became Henry Foner.

Postcards to a Little Boy

Six year old Henry went to school, got adjusted to his new life. The only means of contact with his father were postcards. Almost every other day Max Lichtwitz sent them, asking about his son’s life, health, sending greetings, kisses and prayers. On Henry’s seventh birthday father and son talked for the first and only time. Scheduled days before they were to talk in the evening. The phone rang. When Henry answered he recognized the voice, but he couldn’t understand what the man on the end of line was saying. “I had lost all my German”, Foner explains. So the postcards continued in English.

The last of them was written on August 31st, 1939. One day before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, before World War II began. From this point on there were no more postcards. They continued to communicate via Red Cross telegrams, limited to 25 words. Eventually those stopped, too. Max Lichtwitz died in Auschwitz in 1942.

A New Home

Henry Foner never became Heinz Lichtwitz again. “He died a long time ago”, says the 83 year old. Foner visited Germany after the war. His uncle who was trying to rebuild the family home and business invited him. Sometimes he went for business. But he never thought about moving back. Studying chemistry he came in touch with his original mother tongue again. But his German stayed lost, too.

When Foner visited Israel for the first time, he met his wife Judy on a train. “It was the best train ride of my life. Life is all about luck”, he smiles. The Foners have been married for over 50 years and moved to Israel in the 1960s. Maybe it was just luck that Henry Foner’s life was saved through the Kindertransport. Luck that his life’s story is symbolized by the light bronze figures at Friedrichstraße, that he took the train to life. There were so many trains to death.