Oprah Winfrey, now living in LA, has returned to Metro Chicago for the first episode of her new OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) series Lost & Found.
“Lost,” in this case, was a young German-Jewish girl named Gerda Katz, who sought refuge in America in 1938. The person who had long since despaired of finding her was Edith Westerfeld, another German-Jewish girl who met Gerda on the ship that took them both from Bremen to New York. Upon arrival, Edith was sent to Chicago, Gerda was sent to Seattle, and years apart turned into decades.
Eventually Edith had a daughter who became a journalist. In 1991, Edith asked her daughter, Fern Schumer Chapman, to return to Germany with her, so they could visit the town where she had lived with her parents and siblings so long ago. When they returned, Chapman wrote a book about their trip (published in 2001), and then a few years later, she wrote a fictional account of her mother’s voyage to America (published in 2010). Like the memoir (Motherland), Chapman’s “novel” (Is It Night or Day?) won many awards, and she began speaking to students all around the country.
But in one suburban Chicago classroom quite near to Chapman’s home on the North Shore, the students did more than listen, they decided that they would find Gerda, and they did.
This is a truly touching story, beautifully told-with both laughter and tears-by Oprah’s Lost & Found team. But even more remarkable to me is that by reuniting Edith and Gerda, they have also found a Holocaust story that I had never heard before.
I remember seeing the British film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, and I remember being very pleased when it received the Oscar for “Best Documentary” in 2001. But I don’t remember asking myself if there was an American counterpart to this story; I think I just assumed that if there has been, I would already know about it.
Luckily two other American women, Iris Posner and Leonore Moskowitz, were spurred to action; their copious research revealed that approximately 1,400 children left Germany much the same way the Kindertransport children did, but they arrived in the United States much more covertly. How and why this is the case you can discover for yourself by reading about the organization they founded called The One Thousand Children.
I bring all this up as a reminder that this first episode of Lost & Found isn’t merely life-affirming; it also pushes us to ask important questions about how immigrants have really been received in the United States throughout our history. Why were Edith and Gerda lost from each other for so long? The answer is complex, of course, but perhaps at least in part it results from Americans having buried the story of these refuge children because it was too painful to acknowledge our own part in it.
So kudos to the students of Cathleen O’Boyle’s class at Madison Junior High School in Naperville for showing us once again that the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust are far from over.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/3/13)-Special for the JUF News