When Henry Frankel was just six years old, he left his parents behind in Nazi Germany for a new life in the United States.
The Edison resident was one of almost 1,400 Jewish children spirited to safety through a little-known cooperative effort of American-Jewish organizations that mobilized around Kristallnacht in 1938, whose anniversary will be marked Nov. 9-10.
Once here they were placed with Jewish foster families with the understanding they would be returned to surviving parents after the war.
Frankel said he was one of the few children lucky enough to have a parent emerge from the Holocaust. He was reunited with his mother, Martha, in New York; his father, Adolf, died in a concentration camp. Most of the other children were eventually adopted by their foster parents.
Today, Frankel serves as national president of One Thousand Children, an organization dedicated to spreading word about the covert operation, which was kept a secret to circumvent the isolationist and anti-Semitic attitudes then prevalent in the United States.
“It was kept pretty quiet,” said Frankel, who as a child was known as Heinz. “It was still the Great Depression and anti-immigration attitudes were severe.”
Frankel is retired from engineering management at IBM. The recipient of a patent for a device separating different types of plastics for recycling, he also taught at Rutgers University and served as treasurer of the Rutgers Hillel board.
The 78-year-old Frankel himself was struck by the achievements of many of his fellow refugees, who went on to attain success as, among other professions, engineers and physicians. Also among the OTC youngsters were legendary concert promoter Bill Graham and Jack Steinberger, who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1988.
The organization was begun in 2000 by Maryland artist Iris Posner, who was curious about whether there was an American equivalent of the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 Jewish children escaping the Holocaust to Great Britain. With the help of a friend, Leonore Moskowitz, she eventually identified close to 1,000 children sent to the United States.
Some 200 of them attended the group’s first reunion in Chicago in 2002.
“Many of the children had no idea about their background,” said Frankel, even if they knew they were adopted.
In 1933, an organization called German-Jewish Children’s Aid was formed in the hope of bringing over up to 40,000 youngsters, who were not subjected to the usual red tape required of adults. However, social workers in Germany were resistant to the idea, funding was tight, and finding enough foster families in the United States proved difficult. No major public appeals were made out of fear the attention would fuel additional anti-Semitism. As a result, by 1938 only 351 children were under its auspices.
The plan might have been abandoned if not for the Kristallnacht pogrom on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which reenergized the coalition of Jewish groups.
Frankel’s parents left for Stuttgart, hoping their own child would be selected to go to America. On Feb. 29, 1940, Henry arrived in Baltimore. He was placed with an elderly woman for a short time before going to live with Charles and Bernice Hoffberger and their young daughter, Sue.
“That was the beginning of a long relationship with the Hoffberger family,” said Frankel. “Their daughter is like a sister to me, and I am still very much in contact with her. She is still in Baltimore and we get together quite often. Mr. Hoffberger was like a father to me. Every holiday he would have me come down to Baltimore.”
Martha Frankel managed to escape through Portugal, which was still admitting Jews, and came to New York from Lisbon in September 1941 aboard the last transport to make it out.
OTC’s archives are housed at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, and the organization is featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
Frankel said one of his goals is getting word out about this little-known facet of Holocaust history.
“Some of these children were teenagers during this period, which means they are now in their 80s and 90s,” he said. “We are now trying to build a strong second generation group.”