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The Diary of a Young Girl

Alan Sadovnik, a faculty member at Rutgers–Newark, is reunited with a school notebook of his late mother that recounts her childhood escape from the Nazis. By David W. Major • Photography by Nick Romanenko

 

Alan Sadovnik
Alan Sadovnik’s mother, Ruth Haas, was saved by Kindertransport, a series of rescue efforts initiated after Kristallnacht that brought as many as 10,000 Jewish children to England in order to escape the Nazis.

Ruth Haas was all of 11½ in July of 1939 when she tearfully stood on the platform of the railway station in Berlin, hugged her parents and sister good-bye, and climbed aboard a train that was the first leg of her odyssey to a strange new place called England. She was being saved by Kindertransport, a series of rescue efforts initiated after Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) that, from 1938 to 1939, brought as many as 10,000 Jewish children, most of them living in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, to England in order to escape the Nazis.

Once in England, one of the few nations to accommodate Jewish refugees, she lived in the seaside city of Hull, not knowing a word of English. During the year of 1941 while attending school, she took to documenting her life—in Berlin, in Hull, and later in the Yorkshire countryside, where she lived when the relentless bombing by the Luftwaffe forced an evacuation of the city. Four years later, Haas was miraculously reunited in New York City with her parents and her sister, who had been living in Brooklyn after fleeing Germany in 1941. She was among the lucky 10 percent of Kindertransport survivors who ever saw their parents again.

The existence of Haas’s school notebook, written in large part to help her learn English, had been unknown to her only child, Alan Sadovnik, who today is a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor at Rutgers–Newark. But he learned about it, and more about his mother’s courageous young life, when he was contacted last summer out of the blue by Rebecca Morrison, a woman living in Berlin. Her father, an antiquarian book dealer, had come upon the schoolbook in Hull and bought it, taken by the neat penmanship on the cover: “Twice a Refugee, by Ruth Haas.”

“Could this be your mother?” Morrison wrote.

“When I received the email, chills ran down my spine,” says Sadovnik, a professor of education, sociology, and public affairs in the Department of Urban Education and in the School of Public Affairs and Administration. “My immediate reaction was pure amazement and joy.” He was overwhelmed with gratitude that Morrison had been able to reach him by simply conducting a Google search of “Ruth Haas,” which had kicked up a link to an archived story published at Rutgers in 2004 about Sadovnik’s remembrance of the Holocaust and his mother’s survival of it. And he was overjoyed to learn the notebook still existed, something that his mother had never mentioned to him or had revealed in her memoirs, her oral history testimony for the Shoah Foundation, or public speaking engagements. Among other revelations, Sadovnik learned that his mother, upon arriving in England, met King George VI, the subject of the Academy Award-winning movie The King’s Speech, only moments after getting a hasty tutorial on how to curtsy.

Two weeks after his correspondence with Morrison, Sadovnik received the notebook, poring over it several times with his wife, a historian, as they compared its contents with what his mother had publicly revealed about her life. In December, he donated the school notebook to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Among the other effects of his mother’s that he gave was his grandfather’s Iron Cross for service in World War I, received in 1934, decorated with a swas­tika, and accompanied by a proclamation signed by Adolph Hitler. Sadovnik says it had always been important to his mother, who died in 2007, that the memory of the Kindertransport not be forgotten. After all, her parents, facing a “Sophie’s Choice” of their own, had sent their younger daughter to England, hoping that at least one child would survive.

The past nine months have been emotional for Sadovnik as he again relived his mother’s childhood past. “Coming a little over three years after her unexpected death, it made me sad but, at the same time, happy to have had the honor of being her son,” he says. “It brought back the memory of the day in Hull in 1995 when we sat in tears in the bomb shelter that saved her life many times, with the realization that England provided a safe haven during a time in which she did not know if she would see her family again.”  •