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Bittersweet Memories of the Kindertransport kid

Memories of England ...Paul Kohn with Eugene and Mr and Mrs Morton
Memories of England ... Paul Kohn at the coast with Reverend Morton
Young refugees in England: Paul Kohn and Eugene Gunz with their boxed gas masks

Paul Kohn addresses ESRA audience in Herzliya

Genteel smiling Paul Kohn is a familiar well-liked figure in Herzliya Pituach. With a shock of white hair and a mellifluous British accent, Paul, it is clear, is the quintessential Englishman.

Paul Kohn is somebody else. English, it turns out, is his third language. Born in Vienna, German was his mother tongue, Hungarian his second. Paul did live in England - for ten of his 83 years. 

Paul and Rev. Morton play chess in the garden at Chatteris in Cambridgeshire

In 1939 when he was eight years old Paul became one of the 10,000 Kindertransport children whose lives were saved by Britain in the nine months preceding the outbreak of World War II. As the world marked the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht and of the Kindertransport program which it engendered, Paul told how his story fits into history.

Paul's early childhood paralleled the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism. By the time his parents made the heart-wrenching decision to ship their only child half a continent away, the family had been deported from Austria and was living illegally in Bratislava. 

Following the shock of the Kristallnacht in November 1938, the British Parliament agreed to a humanitarian program to accept children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. It would open its doors to unaccompanied minors for whom guarantors had posted bonds.

Many sectors of British society raised funds and participated in the rescue and sanctuary. Paul singled out for mention the Quakers, the Methodists, and charitable organizations such as the Lord Baldwin fund, and righteous gentiles.

Paul, aged 6, with his parents in pre-war Austria

 Shoes were donated by Marks & Spencer, boxing gloves by a sports manufacturer, castles were offered as dormitories, and a British cabbie scooped up and sheltered refugee boys stranded in Liverpool Street Station until homes could be found for them. Most of the children were boarded with foster families throughout England until the end of the war.

Paul himself was one of the so-called Winton boys, the 699 children smuggled out of Czechoslovakia by then 29-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton. Dubbed the "British Schindler," Winton kept his heroism to himself; it came to light only 45 years later when Winton's own wife stumbled on papers documenting the rescue.

Paul's parents escaped Europe too and eventually made it to Palestine. Paul was reunited with them ten and a half years later when he arrived in Israel in 1949. Paul was one of the approximately 2000 Kindertransport children whom he estimates came to live in Israel, most of them to kibbutzim where immigrants from English speaking countries had settled. Israel became Paul's lifelong home. 

Paul reporting for The Jerusalem Post. In the foreground is the familiar figure of Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion
The boys enjoying English comic papers
Paul and Eugene in Chatteris in 1942

Asked to name the heroes of the Kindertransport, Paul felt it was the parents who had had the courage to ship off their small children, perhaps forever. In fact, the children did survive, but 70% of them never saw their parents again.

Among the outstanding British families who took in foreign children were the Reverend Charles Morton and his wife, who cared for Paul Kohn for over five years. The childless couple lived in the small town of Chatteris in eastern England. Morton, the pastor of the Zion Church, was fittingly a strong Zionist. The Mortons treated Paul with kindness, sensitivity, and respect for his religion. Paul maintained contact with them after the war, visiting them and donating trees in their honor to the Kindertransport Forest established by the Keren Kayemet. Paul's parents also met the Mortons. Seventy five years later, Kohn affectionately brought to life the years he spent in the Morton home.

Paul downplayed his own role in his dramatic biography, but others hearing and knowing him might venture that Paul Kohn's life-affirming personality contributed in no small part to his own good fortune.

Hilary Gatoff, who attended the Kohn lecture, learned documentary filmmaking in an ESRA course and made a documentary film based on the Kindertransport program. Gatoff can be contacted at 09 961 0108 to arrange viewing of Kinder Exodus 1939. 

 

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Thursday, 06 October 2022

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