By Jan L. Apple
A Haverford woman who escaped the Holocaust through the Kindertransport program shares her story through a theater group’s performances.
Anne L. Fox was just 12 years old when she stood at the train station in Berlin awaiting the arrival of the Kindertransport that would take her to London — far away from the hatred, the unthinkable acts of the Nazis — and the only home she had ever known.
That day, Dec. 28, 1938, remains seared into her memory. With a small suitcase in hand, Fox held tight to her parents, Marta and Eugene Lehmann. In the wake of Kristallnacht — the name given to the night of anti-Semitic atrocities committed six weeks earlier — they registered her for this life-saving mission sponsored by the British government. Her best friend, a gentile girl named Dorit, was also there to say goodbye.
Fox, who still vividly recalls how, for days after Kristallnacht, the city’s synagogues continued to burn — including the one her family attended for High Holidays — was one of about 100 children under 17 to board that day’s transport; in all, 10,000 children would be saved through the Kindertransport program. She did not know this was the last time she’d ever see her “Mutti” and “Vati,” as she affectionately called her parents.
Fox, now an 89-year-old Haverford resident, relived these memories last month as she sat in the Elkins Park Middle School auditorium with 350 sixth-graders to watch a performance of My Heart in a Suitcase, an adaptation of her 1996 memoir of the same name. The show, which she has seen many times with audiences the same age as she was when fleeing Berlin, was staged by ArtsPower (artspower.org), an educational theater company in Cedar Grove, N.J., and Manhattan that produces original, literature-based musicals and dramas. A grant obtained by one of the school’s social studies teachers, Lise Marlowe, made the local performance possible.
Now in its 10th season, My Heart in a Suitcase, which traces the young Anne’s life from the summer of 1938 through an increasingly fraught time in Berlin, culminating in her fateful departure, has been performed in 33 states. “The actors have become my family,” Fox said during an interview following a talkback session at the school. “I’ve gotten very close to them.” She feels the same about ArtsPower’s founding co-directors: identical twin brothers Gary and Mark Blackman, and artistic director/resident playwright, Greg Gunning.
Over the years, “the response to the show has been overwhelming,” said Gary Blackman, who contacted Fox in 2004 for permission to adapt her book. “We had been searching for Holocaust literature when we found Anne’s story.”
Gunning initially discovered another book, Ten Thousand Children, which Fox co-authored with Eva Abraham-Podietz. Gunning worked closely with Fox as he wrote the adaptation of My Heart in a Suitcase, which was chosen because it revolved around her story — Ten Thousand Children told multiple first-person tales of Kindertransport children.
“We knew there was a great deal of love within the Lehmann family,” said Blackman. “Anne’s closeness to her mother and her mother’s optimism were of interest to us. We also identified with her father’s frustration and feelings of desperation.”
As the sound of broken glass — signifying Kristallnacht — intensified and the synchronized pounding of marching soldiers echoed throughout the theater, the students were silent. Some shed tears, watching the Lehmann family huddled in their apartment as the world outside shattered around them.
“I was about 7 when Hitler came to power,” said Fox, a mother of two and grandmother of four, during an interview. Her father lost his job as an international banker because of Nazi laws forbidding Jews from being employed in many professions like finance. “Jews couldn’t own businesses, they couldn’t go to the movies or swimming pools.”
One day, when Fox went to school, her teacher was wearing a Nazi armband and told her she was no longer welcome there.
“My father lost an arm in World War I fighting for the German army,” said Fox. But not even passionate loyalty to his fatherland and a bloodshed-earned Iron Cross could outweigh his Jewish heritage.
Fox recalls the telegram from her brother, Günter, urging her parents to “get Anne out of the country as soon as possible.” Günter, nine years her senior, had been in England on a student visa.
Fox lived with several English families before and during the war, and attended a boarding school in Shropshire along with other Kindertransport children. “A girl needs her mother,” Fox replied to a student’s question after the performance about what it was like to live with strangers. Some families were warmer than others, she recalled, but none could replace her parents.
She held out hope that she’d find her parents. After the war, she scoured a Red Cross list of survivors, but didn’t see their names. Ultimately, she discovered that her father died in Theresienstadt; her mother was killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; she, her brother and one aunt were the only members of their entire family to escape the Holocaust.
In September 1945, Fox was working at a public library in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. “One day, this handsome American soldier walked in looking for a book,” recalled Fox. Three months later, she and Frank Fox of Philadelphia were married.
“The show really hit home,” said Roberta Jacoby, social studies teacher for gifted students. For her students, she added, knowing Fox was in the audience truly brought history to life.
“I felt Anne did something very bold,” said Molly Cohen, 12. “All the children were brave. I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
For Alec Lempert, 12, whose great-grandfather survived the Holocaust, the performance also struck an emotional chord: “If I had been in the same circumstance, I would have refused to leave my parents. It would be too difficult.”
Petra Morffiah, 12, empathized with Fox, revealing that she lost a sister: “I feel really sad that Anne had to leave her family. I don’t know why anyone would do that to someone else.”
And Jaden Sky Greenbaum, 12, found the show eye-opening: “It really makes me think how lucky we are to live here in Cheltenham Township. In Nazi Germany, if you weren’t the perfect Aryan, you could just be killed. This could happen today if we don’t learn from these mistakes.”