In a new book, a member of an obscure Christian sect has set out to document a chapter in the Holocaust that brought Jews and Christians together, not in belief or even friendship, but as one family living under the same roof.
Following Kristallnacht in November 1938, Britain, the only willing host country, began the Kindertransport, taking in over 10,000 Jewish children from Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. Conscientious objectors and shunners of politics, the Christadelphians, an obscure Christian sect, were unlikely hosts, but in the face of the growing evil that threatened the Jews, they decided to take action. Their participation in the Kindertransport saved 250 Jewish children from almost certain death.
The Christadelphians were, and remain, an obscure branch of Christianity. There are about 50,000 Christadelphians today who follow the 19th century teachings of John Thomas. With no central authority, different groups vary, but all Christadelphians are Biblical Unitarians, emphasizing the Bible as divinely inspired. Daily Bible reading is a central part of their religious devotion.
According to Christadelphian belief, the Hebrew Bible is truly about the Jewish people, bringing a recognition that God made eternal promises to Abraham, and fostering a desire to work on the Jews’ behalf.
Jason Hensley, a Christadelphian school principal from California who recently authored a book about his co-religionists’ part in the Kindertransport, claims that it is this Bible study that brought them to a greater affinity towards the Jews. So great was their love for God’s Chosen People that they saw Jewish children as their own.
He named the book “Part of the Family”, because that was the phrase he heard almost every time he interviewed a survivor who was saved by the Christadelphians.
The book project came as a result of Hensley’s visit last year to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC for a national conference of educators. Hensley was so affected by what he learned that he created a Holocaust course in his school. The message from the conference that impressed him most deeply was the reminder that the Holocaust is not about statistics, but about individuals.
“Every person has a story,” Hensley told Breaking Israel News. He sought out the Kindertransport survivors for interviews, eventually connecting with 35, and was amazed at what he heard.
Hensley’s book tells the unknown story of the Christadelphian families who took in Jewish children and cared for them as their own while allowing them to maintain their faith. Hensley interviewed ten of the survivors saved by the Christadelphians.
One of those survivors was Ursula Meyer, nee Eichmann, who left her family at the age of 14 in Westfalia, Germany in August 1939, one month before war broke out. Her parents watched the Kindertransport train leave. It was the last time they would ever see her. She was received by the Sawyer family, Christadelphians who lived in Birmingham, England.
Ursula told a moving tale of her relationship with the Sawyers. At the height of the Blitz, Birmingham was heavily targeted by German bombers. Windows had to be covered so no light could show. A passing warden saw the reflection of car headlights on the Sawyer’s windows and thought someone inside was signalling the Nazi bombers, directing them to their target. He broke down the front door, saw a German teenage girl, and assumed she was a spy endangering the entire city. He drew his pistol and pointed it at Ursula. Her adoptive father Norman Sawyer stepped in front of her, saying, “You shoot me first.”
At the end of the war, Ursula, like almost all of the Kindertransport children, was left without parents. Out of 35 people interviewed, only two ever saw their birth parents after the war.
“Kindertransport was meant to be a temporary measure. The families had volunteered to take the children in until the danger passed,” Hensley explained to Breaking Israel News. “After the war, when the children realized they had no family, they had to go to the family and ask, ‘Can I call you mom and dad?’” In every case, the families agreed.
In a number of cases the children of the survivors thanked Hensley. “They wanted their parents to talk about it but they didn’t. It was too painful. One of the survivors was going through the pictures from the war and her grown daughter said that she had never seen the pictures before.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of the story was the fact that though the children were placed with devout Christadelphians, almost all of the survivors retained their Jewish identities – with the help of their Christian families.
“Almost unanimously they said there was no religious pressure,” said Hensley. “Often the families helped them keep a connection with Judaism, and in most cases the kids went back to Judaism after the war.”
While the story of the Kindertransport is not a new one, Hensley’s book uncovers a previously unknown, Biblically-motivated aspect of that story: a community of Christians whose firm belief in the Hebrew Bible was the direct catalyst for the saving of hundreds of Jewish lives. By welcoming these Jewish children as a “branch” on their Biblical family tree, the Christadelphians represented the roots of today’s growing movement towards mutual respect and a sense of brotherhood between the two faiths.