Freddie Traum reached out the rail car’s window and held his mother’s hand as his train left the station in Vienna.
When he let go, she trotted along side the car for a moment as it picked up speed. When she finally stopped, he remembers seeing her small figure receding at the end of the platform.
He was 10 years old. His mother’s name was Gita. He never saw her again.
Alfred “Freddie” Traum, now 89, a retired telecommunications engineer from Silver Spring, Md., was on a “Kindertransport,” an operation that began 80 years ago, on Dec. 2, 1938. Its goal was to spirit unaccompanied children, most of them Jewish, to England and other countries mainly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
For the most part, it occurred during a narrow, nine-month window, when 10,000 children were hurried to safety by rail, boat and air from Nazi-controlled areas of Europe until World War II broke out in September 1939.
Most of their parents were killed during the Holocaust, and, often, the children never learned what happened to them.
Traum learned the details of his family’s fate only about 10 years ago, he said in an interview in November.
Researching at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, he found their names on a list of Jews deported from Vienna to Minsk, now in Belarus, where they were probably shot and dumped into a large burial pit.
But on June 20, 1939, when Traum and his sister, Ruth, 13, boarded the train in Vienna’s Westbahnhof, all that was in the future.
Traum had stashed his new watch, a birthday gift, in a pants pocket and had a rucksack stuffed with clothes and chocolates. Ruth also had a rucksack.
Neither knew their father, Eliyahu, a disabled World War I veteran, had hidden in her pack the family’s small silver Kiddush cup, which he used to say the blessing as the Sabbath began.
“He didn’t tell us, didn’t tell her,” he said. “That would have scared her if she knew that she was carrying some contraband. We weren’t allowed to take any money or jewelry out.”
Some did escape with things like a tennis racket and musical instruments. In one child’s suitcase, authorities found dirt the youngster had brought from home.
Even as a 10-year-old, Traum was aware that life for Jews in Austria had become perilous. He had been chased and harassed by other children. He had been kicked out of school because he was Jewish and had to go to a Jewish school.
He had seen his mother humiliated and seen the ruins of his burned-out synagogue after the notorious anti-Jewish “Kristallnacht” riots that swept Germany and Austria in November 1938.
But his parents portrayed the move to England as a bit of a lark. He and his sister would be staying with a family with two children of their own, about the same age as the Traums. Plus, the English father was a locomotive engineer, which had to be interesting to a small boy.
“My dad made it seem like an adventure for me,” he said. “We didn’t think it will be the last time we’ll see them.”
His parents, and thousands of terrified Jewish parents across Europe, knew the reality. Some sent their children off with clothing several sizes too big, so the kids would have garments to grow into if the absence was long. Some sent away infants.
Often, families had little time to prepare.
“We had about a fortnight before we left,” Czech transport child Eva Hayman said in the 2000 documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers.” "And into that fortnight both mother and father were trying to give the instructions and the guidance that they hoped to have a whole life to give.”
Some children wore placards with identifying numbers on them — a benevolent contrast to the grim numbers that were later tattooed on concentration camp victims.
“The idea of leaving Vienna was very evident,” Traum said. Four of his young cousins had already left for Palestine. By the end of 1937, 25 percent of the Jewish population of Germany had already left, according to historian Vera K. Fast.
“My parents had little or no chance to get out, to go anywhere,” he said, as he sat in his living room. “My father was crippled. They didn’t have any money to speak of. They couldn’t speak English. Really, they had no way.”
But the children did.
The Kindertransport was organized after the Kristallnacht attacks of Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, in which Jews were murdered and beaten, and their homes, business and synagogues were destroyed.
The transports were arranged mostly by Jewish groups in Germany, Austria and England, as well as the British government, Quakers, and the people of Britain, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A British couple, Charles and Kathleen Griggs of London, had agreed to take in the Traum children.
Before they left, Freddie was issued a passport by the authorities. It bore a snapshot of a smiling little boy with his hair neatly parted, wearing a coat and tie. The picture was stamped with the Nazi swastika. (Germany had annexed Austria the year before.)
The passport contained a description of Freddie and listed his profession as student. Next to nationality, it said in German: “Staatenlos,” stateless.
Below the picture, in a child’s careful handwriting, it was signed, “Alfred Traum.”
On June 20, 1939, the day they were to leave, the family assembled in their sunny backyard. Eliyahu Traum, who was a camera buff, set up his tripod, hit the timer, and hurried to get into the picture.
The shutter clicked.
The camera caught Freddie getting a ferocious kiss and hug from his father. His mother sits in the middle of the frame, with her mother standing behind her. Ruth holds her mother’s hand. His father later wrote on a negative of the photo, “Der Abschied,” the farewell.
As his mother was leaving the house to take the children to the station, his father said to him: “Go forward and don’t look back,” Traum wrote in a 2011 essay now on the Holocaust Museum’s website.
“However, as the three of us proceeded along the sidewalk but were still a short distance from our home, I did stop and turn around to look back,” he wrote. “And just as I expected my father was at the bay window with tears in his eyes, forcing a smile, watching us walk out of his life.”
The train from Vienna was bound for a Dutch port called the Hook of Holland, where a ship would take them to the British city of Harwich.
When Freddie and Ruth boarded the train, it was filled with other children, he said. As they said goodbye to their mother through the open window, suddenly the man who taught Freddie at his Jewish school appeared with his 5-year-old son under his arm, like a piece of luggage, Traum recalled.
The man, a professor who had been dismissed from his university because he was Jewish, asked if the Traums would watch the little boy on the journey, and handed the child to Freddie through the window. “I felt suddenly responsible, having charge of this little kid,” he recalled.
The almost 700-mile journey took the children across Austria and Germany, then to the border with Holland. There, German guards entered the trains, menaced the children and rummaged through their belongings.
Relief and jubilation swept through the cars when the trains crossed into Holland.
“We suddenly felt as though you’d been clad in a cloak of lead or iron, and it had been taken from you,” transport passenger Ursula Rosenfeld said in the documentary.
Traum recalled: “Until we got there, we didn’t feel totally free.”
From Holland the children sailed for Harwich. He said he does not recall much about the crossing, only that he did not get seasick and that he had English tea with milk for the first time.
“It tasted awful,” he said. In Vienna, he had always had coffee.
The Traums, and most of the other Kindertransport children, survived in Britain, even as it was pummeled during the war.
In 1946, the Traums heard from the Red Cross that their parents were dead. Freddie went on to volunteer in the Israeli army and later served as a tank commander in the British army. He was married in 1958, had three children and is retired from Boeing. His sister, Ruth, died in 2000. He and his wife, Josiane, moved to the United States in 1963 and have lived in the same house for 47 years.
About 10 years ago, he said, he was conducting research at the Holocaust Museum and came upon a list of people deported from Vienna to a killing camp near Minsk called Trostenets. There, tens of thousands of Jews were executed on arrival and dumped into pits.
“Going down that list I came across my parents, my uncle, my aunt, my cousin, my grandmother,” he said.
Traum now has few reminders of his vanished family. On a recent morning he rose from his living room chair to retrieve one of them from a cabinet.
It was dented from an accidental encounter with the garbage disposal, he said, and “needs polishing badly."
It was his father’s Kiddush cup.