The School that Helped Children Heal from the Holocaust

In the Avigdor School magazine, dreams of becoming a princess stand alongside memories of starvation. The magazine offered an outlet for the memories of Jewish children after World War Two.

Jewish children arrive in London with the Kindertransport, February, 1939

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the need for Jews to flee from Europe became increasingly urgent. Following the violence and destruction of Kristallnacht in 1938, the extent of the threat to the Jewish people became even more clear.

A group of Jewish community leaders in the UK approached the British government with a plea to help the Jews of Europe. Among them were Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, a community leader and one of the unsung heroes of that dark time, who saved countless lives before, during, and after the Holocaust, at great risk of losing his own.

After the approval of the Kindertransport by the British government, thousands of refugee children were quickly removed from danger and put on trains bound for England. The Jewish children were taken in by volunteer foster homes across the country. Jewish, Orthodox children found themselves suddenly living in non-orthodox or non-Jewish homes, their own culture and heritage slowly fading into distant memory.

Concerned for the heritage of these children, Rabbi Schonfeld took it upon himself to find alternative housing options for the orthodox children where their religious practices and traditions would be followed.

A group photos of the Jewish Secondary School in Shefford, 1941. Photo from “Throw Your Feet Over Your Shoulders- Beyond the Kindertransport, (2008)” by Frieda Stozbeg Korobkin.

As London prepared for war, children were sent from the city to the countryside to ensure their safety. Rabbi Schonfeld sent many of the Orthodox Kindertransport children to the Jewish Secondary School (JSS), which had moved to Shefford after the start of the war, to provide them a safe haven where they would be surrounded by Jewish life, culture and studies.

After the war, the children and the Jewish school moved to London where the JSS was renamed the Avigdor School. It was at this time, in 1946, that Rabbi Schonfeld began helping child survivors in displaced persons camps in Europe. The Avigdor School became home to these children who had survived the horrors of the Nazis and needed a place to start over and begin to heal.

Illustration of the Avigdor School included in the school magazine.

Already home to British children and the German refugee children, the addition of the Polish refugees created an entirely new dynamic at the school. Frieda Stolzberg, one of the children who escaped on the Kindertransport and later met Rabbi Schonfeld, described the experience of the melting pot that was the Avigdor School after the arrival of the refugee children in her memoirs, “Throw Your Feet Over Your Shoulder”:

“We old-timers referred to the newcomers as ‘the Polish children.’ Some of them were wild and unmanageable because of their wartime experiences. Many of them suffered from nightmares and were often found sleepwalking,” she described.

“Our feelings towards the Polish children were somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, we regarded ourselves as British by now and felt superior to these foreigners who spoke an ugly, guttural language. Their arrival upset the equilibrium and routine of our lives causing tensions and resentment.”

The staff and administrators struggled to find a way to contend with the trauma that came to the school with the child survivors. They decided that, as a method of healing, the children would be allowed to express and share their experiences and their stories, to let out the pain they were experiencing, in an attempt to begin to heal. The children would not be stifled- rather encouraged to remember, to write, and to tell their story.

The Avigdor School Magazine published ahead of the Jewish New Year in 1947.

The Avigdor school magazine became a space for students to express themselves and share their experiences. The issue prepared ahead of the Jewish New Year in September 1947 shows the dichotomy and contrast of experiences between the different groups of children living and studying together following the Holocaust.

In the section of the magazine dedicated to original articles and poems written by students, a poem written by a young girl who dreamed of being a princess, feasting with her valiant prince stands alongside articles by survivors of the war writing of their fears and experiences. Another article written by Frieda Stolzberg related the great successes of the Avigdor teams at sports day: “Well done Avigdor! The shield is ours again this year”. Just a few pages after it, we find a testimony written by an author identified only as G.S.:

“We could not stay any longer in Italy because it was very dangerous for us, now that the Germans had overrun the country and would take us to concentration camps….Now we are in England but I think I shall never forget our troubles which we had to bear for nearly 8 years.”

“The Jewish Tragedy,” an excerpt of testimony from the Avigdor School Magazine.

The stories of the horror faced by these children came to life in their writing. In a piece entitled, “The Jewish Tragedy,” another student wrote of the experience of being transferred to the camps in a cattle car.

“I shall never forget the scene, when one early morning, German offices came to us, into the Ghetto. We were ordered to pack a parcel…Ten minutes later we were taken to the station and put into a cattle-wagon in which there were already 95 persons… Three days and three nights we could not sleep even standing; children were crying all day long; they cried for thirst, hunger, sleeplessness and wariness until we reached our destination, Auschwitz, many people died.”

Pages 18 and 19 from the Avigdor School Magazine

On the opposite page of a poem penned by a girl named Edith on her love for the glorious season of winter, where snowballs and sledding are a source of joyful cheer, an unknown author shared a painful poem entitled, “The Death of a Rose,” in which a flourishing rose was ruthlessly plucked from a blooming bush and left for dead.

“When with quick step from that spot he hastened,
The rose dropped to the ground unknown
Where it lay quite crushed and broke, all its beauty gone.
 Longing-longing for the rose bush where it had happily grown.

A wild thing destroyed by the hand of man,
His fault that it now lay in this everlasting sleep
From which it never again would wake on huge and dirty rubble heap.”

The seamless juxtaposition of these realities, from the excitement of a child ahead of the jolly days of winter to the crushing memories of another who had been stripped from their source of life, exhibits how the school magazine provided the children with an outlet – regardless of their history or experiences.

The magazine became a place for the child survivors to share their memories, their experiences, the horrors they faced and to, on some small level, begin to heal. The administrators at the Avigdor School worked to create a unique and open environment of solidarity and understanding that brought the children from the different corners of Europe together all working towards the same goal of recovery from loss, pain, and trauma following the worst tragedy ever faced by the Jews of Europe.

For more on the experiences of Frieda Stolzberg, read, “Throw Your Feet Over Your Shoulders- Beyond the Kindertransport, (2008)” by Frieda Stozbeg Korobkin.

This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection in the National Library of Israel.

The Story of a Dying Community: A Diary from the Amsterdam Jewish Community at the End of WWII

An anonymous Jew describes the last months of World War II in Amsterdam. This city, once a large and vibrant Jewish center, turns into a ghost town before his eyes, while he and a handful of Jews try against all odds to survive.

In the pages of a diary, we come face to face with the perseverance of an anonymous author and his fellow survivors who, even in the most difficult of times, work to give their fellow community members a decent burial. Hidden between the lines of this unknown writer’s diary is the story of their great strength and bravery as the writer prays for one thing: “That peace will come soon so that I may finish writing this diary and present it to the community secretary. Amen. So be it.”

But who is the author? What happened to him? We have no answers to these questions. Perhaps our readers will help us discover his identity.

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish population of The Netherlands numbered approximately 140,000. The mass deportations of Jews to the concentration camps began in mid-1942 and continued until the end of 1944. In less than two years more than 100,000 Dutch Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazis.

This anonymous diary, which we are presenting here for the first time, offers a detailed, first-hand account of the final months of the war at a time when very few had survived the liquidation of Amsterdam’s Jewish community. In these few pages, we are exposed to the courage of those who survived.

“Nothing could prevent us from burying the dead”

One of the subjects that the writer describes at length is the great difficulty of burying the dead. At that time, it was impossible to get hold of a horse and wagon or any vehicle for transporting the dead and it was nearly impossible to find wood for a casket. Nevertheless, this writer, with the help of a few remaining friends, made enormous efforts to overcome those difficulties.

“Nothing could prevent us from burying the dead,” writes this survivor in his diary.

He describes one incident in January 1945, when the snow was so high that “it was impossible to remove the dead.” He writes an update two months later, that he was able to procure a hand-wagon on which to lay the bodies and bring them to burial.

“I hope that peace will come soon”

These were indeed the last days of the war, but the reality, as noted, was extremely harsh. The writer describes in brief the events unfolding around him in the Jewish neighborhood that was almost completely uninhabited. One day the windows of the Jewish orphanage were shattered and another day citizens broke into the abandoned homes of the Jews in order to take their furniture to use for firewood. The heavy snow had collapsed the roof of the synagogue, and by the end of January the writer prayed for just one thing: “I hope that peace will come soon so that I may finish writing this diary and give it to the community secretary. Amen. So be it.”


In the midst of all this horror, we learn about a few people who somehow tried to live their lives. In entries written at the end of 1944, the writer tells that the few remaining people tried to gather in the Great Synagogue and adjacent study house but were prohibited from doing so. He also tells of how the Jews, who numbered less than the ten necessary for a prayer quorum, decided to gather for communal prayer in a private home. He also describes a pleasant coffee break enjoyed by all.

Help us solve the mystery of the author’s identity:

It is difficult to determine the identity of the writer who chronicled the lasts glimmers of Jewish life in Amsterdam on the eve of liberation, but there is no doubt that he survived the war as he continued to write up to, and even after that day. The only clue in the diary that may help identify him is the information that he was “appointed in place of Jacobson.” We know nothing about this Jacobson, except that he was in all probability an Ashkenazi Jew, and that he was sent “to the East” on 3 September 1944.

Feel free to browse the rest of the pages of the diary presented here and perhaps you – the readers – and especially members of the Dutch community, will help us to solve the riddle of the author’s identity.

Update: Has the identity of the author been discovered?

In November 2018, we received an email from one of our readers, Yochai Copenhagen, who wrote to us on behalf of his mother Channa who is 94 years old. Yochai wrote as follows:

“We tried to go over the diary and based on the bit we managed to read (and the information included in the article), my mother has a good feeling (though she is not certain of course), that the man in question is Mr. Salomon Coutinho who was the administrative director in the Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) in Amsterdam before, during, and even after the war. He left behind no children when he died. My mother remembers that her husband, may his memory be a blessing, (Yakov Copenhagen, my father) who in the 1960s was a librarian in the Etz Haim Library in the community. He met Salomon and learned about his background. Yakov told her that Coutinho was an undertaker during the years of the war and survived the war (even I met him after the war during my childhood) thanks to his wife who succeeded in convincing the Nazis that she was English or not Jewish. With this explanation in hand, the couple managed to travel freely in Amsterdam and was not forced into hiding (the diary shows that he continued to work as an undertaker even during with winter of 1944 when most of the Jews were already deported to concentration camps. The dead seem to be Jews who died in hiding. Some of the names of the dead listed are familiar to my mother).

At the request of Yochai and Channa, we have sent them a high-quality scan of the diary. With this, maybe- just maybe- as Yochai wrote, “we will find more clues.”

Abba Kovner and the Jewish Avengers

"Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!"

Abba Kovner (back row, center) with members of the FPO in Vilna, 1940's

When the Nazis infiltrated Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941, they established the Vilna Ghetto and rounded up the Jews of the city. Between June and December of 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 40,000 of Vilna’s Jews, herding them to the forest of Ponar. It was there, in the forest, that the Nazis forced the Jews to dig their own graves. Once the digging was complete, the Nazis shot the Jews and buried them in the freshly turned earth. Their bodies have remained there to this day.

On New Year’s Eve of 1942, Abba Kovner published a manifesto in the Vilna Ghetto whose message has become infamous:

“Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe…We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!”

Abba Kovner in 1940s Vilna. Photo: From Yad Va’Shem

Practically overnight, the Vilna Ghetto partisans formed a militia under the name Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (The FPO – Eng: United Partisan Organization) of which Abba Kovner was one of the leaders. Among the fighters was the poet Avraham Sutzkever and student activist Vitka Kempner.

“We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter,” the battle cry of the Vilna Ghetto partisans, spread far and wide. The organization, nicknamed Ha Nokmim (“The Avengers”), was considered a valiant group in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

When the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the Avengers fled to the woods and continued their fight against the Nazis and their collaborators until the bitter end of the Second World War.

Once the war was won and the the Nazi camps were captured and liberated, the magnitude of what the Nazis had done came to light. Kovner and his Vilna partisan compatriots traveled to the Ponar forest and, after seeing the murder perpetuated there, Kovner was stunned by the extent of the destruction. He continued traveling through the countryside that had been liberated from the Nazis and saw the cold industrialization of murder that was perpetrated at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.

Abba Kovner with a Partisan Delegation, 1971. From the Dan Hadani Collection in the National Library of Israel

Kovner’s desire for revenge became all-consuming and he began penning a plan for action. It was then that Kovner founded a secret organization of likeminded people called Nakam (“revenge”).

“… We have taken it upon ourselves not to let the world forget by performing the necessary act: Retribution. It will be more than revenge; it must be the law of the murdered Jewish people! Its name will therefore be DIN [the acronym of Dam Israel Noter, means “The Blood of Israel is Vengeful” – and “din” itself means “judgement”] so that posterity may know that in this merciless, uncompassionate world there are both judge and judgement.”

The ultimate plan for revenge? To kill six million Germans.

Kovner’s grand plan to poison a German reservoir never did come to pass, but in the spring of 1946, the Nakam group poisoned bread meant to feed S.S. unit prisoners in Stalag 13 in Nuremberg, which was under American authority at the time. The Nakam group infiltrated the kitchens of the POW camp and brushed 3,000 loafs of bread with arsenic.

The outcome of these events and what actually occurred as a result of the actions of Nakam is widely disputed.

In the decades following the Holocaust and the founding of Nakam, Kovner settled in Israel, married Vitka Kempner, published poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew, was a founding member of the Museum of the Jewish People, and was awarded several prizes for his work and legacy, among them the Israel Prize.

Left to right: Isaac Bashevis-Singer, Nekhama Lifshsitz, Abba Kovner, Reuven Rubin, Avraham Sutzkever, Esther Rubin in Israel, 1969. From the Avraham Sutzkever Archive at the National Library of Israel

The desire for vengeance burned within Kovner’s heart for decades, and though he and the Nakam group never fulfilled their ultimate plan for revenge on six million Germans, he and the rest of the surviving partisans of the Vilna Ghetto played a crucial part in telling the story of rebellion and heroism during the Holocaust.

More Information about Nakam and Abba Kovner’s involvement can be found in Dina Porat’s “The Fall of the Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner“.

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Who Stood With the Orphans When the Nazis Came?

Meet Doctor Henryk Goldszmit who refused to leave the Jewish orphans to face the Nazis alone.

Janusz Korczak, in the yard of the orphanage, the Ghetto Fighters' House Archives

Warsaw, Poland, the interwar period.

Doctor Henryk Goldszmit makes his way to the Jewish orphanage he founded on Krochmalna Street. As he passes through the gates, he is greeted with the joyous cheers of excited children, happy to see the kind doctor return once again.

In the Polish landscape of the early 1900s, this orphanage was considered atypical compared to other orphanages of the time. Dr. Goldszmit, an advocate for children’s rights, created a system wherein the orphanage was governed by a children’s parliament and courthouse. The parliament set the rules that everyone, including the staff, had to follow. Every child was also fully entitled to summon to court any resident of the orphanage who had injured or harmed them in any way – including the warden and the doctor himself.

Beyond having administrative and judicial power equal to their caretakers, the children in this orphanage received special attention from the institution. This included a higher level of medical treatment, proper nutrition, and most importantly, they were treated warmly and humanely, their dignity and rights were upheld and they were treated with remarkable understanding and patience for their emotions.

Janusz Korczak at the orphanage. Photograph by A.Y. Poznansky, 1930. From the From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the NLI.

Doctor Henryk Goldszmit was not just a successful and well-regarded doctor; he was a war veteran, an accomplished philosopher, storyteller, author, lecturer, host of a popular radio show, and the founder and editor of a popular newspaper written entirely by children.  He was also a well-respected researcher and educator. Despite his many accomplishments and achievements, few know his true name. Most people know him only by his pen name: Janusz Korczak.

In 1937, as the flames of anti-Semitism spread across Europe, Korczak was forced to give up his many high level positions and end his involvement in the Polish orphanage that he ran alongside the Jewish orphanage. He penned a letter expressing his desire to leave Poland and move to the Land of Israel: “I have made a decision: I would like to live out my final years in the Land of Israel, for the time being in Jerusalem. There I will learn the Hebrew language in order to move to a kibbutz after a year.”

His vision for the future never came to fruition despite having visited Israel several times. Korczak remained forever faithful to the children of the orphanage and thus, remained in Poland.

Zrubavel Gilad, an Israeli author and poet, visited the orphanage in Poland in 1938 where he had the chance to experience the unique atmosphere the doctor had created for the young orphans. “When we entered the home we were greeted by loud cheers from the joyful children- the standard exuberant welcome for the beloved doctor,” Gilad recounted.

In 1940, the Jewish orphanage was forced to move from its comfortable and familiar home on Krochmalna Street to the Warsaw Ghetto. The orphanage became crowded and cramped as the number of orphans in the small residence nearly doubled. There, in the shadow of poverty, hunger, desolation, and the spreading plague of typhoid, Korczak fought daily to ensure his children at the orphanage had enough food to live a decent life in as much as the circumstances allowed.

Inside the walls of the ghetto, Korczak continued to run the orphanage with his unique philosophy, producing cultural events and special activities such as concerts and plays to keep the children busy, entertained and happy.

Janusz Korczak with the children of the orphanage.

On the 5th of August, 1942, Korczak was forced, along with 192 children and the 10 members of his staff, to leave the safety of the orphanage and march to the main square of the Warsaw Ghetto where they were to board the train to the Treblinka death-camp.

The well-renowned and beloved doctor was offered an escape, a chance to save himself from the inevitable death that faced the passengers of the train. Instead, Korczak marched, head held high, alongside the orphans, as they drew closer to the final ride of their lives.

With a child on each side, and a child in each arm, Korczak marched towards the train, refusing to leave behind the Jewish orphans. They marched together, the children and their greatest friend and advocate.

The witnesses of this scene who survived to share the experience expressed a feeling of unbearable sadness, despair and complete helplessness at the sight of the innocent children and their teacher as they were led to their deaths. They described the doctor, leading the crowd, proud and dignified. One of humanity’s gentlest and most noble figures was ultimately murdered, during that dark and cruel chapter of human history.

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