Survival story: `I just do what I need to do'

Annapolis woman's memoir recalls her flight from Nazi Germany and the life she created for herself in America

December 23, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Thea Kahn Lindauer vividly recalls the day she learned she was going to America.

It was 1934, in Eisenberg, Germany, and her father, Samuel Kahn, told her about a program called Experiment in Education, in which she would be integrated into an American family, and educated to the best of the family's ability.

"My grandfather asked my dad if I could go to a relative's house or somewhere closer," said the 85-year-old Annapolis resident. "But my father told him that there must be an ocean between us."

Shortly thereafter, 12-year-old Lindauer came to America, where she lived in foster care in Chicago and corresponded with her family for years.

The letters she received served as the inspiration for Lindauer's book, There Must Be An Ocean Between Us: Letters of Separation and Survival.

The 250-page book was published by iUniverse and released in September. It includes about 100 letters written to Lindauer by her family, her memories of the events in the correspondence and headlines of the day.

The book details Lindauer's her experience as one of about 1,300 children who were brought to the U.S. by a group of American Jewish organizations when they learned of the problems in Nazi Germany.

They were transported to America between 1934 and 1945, and placed in foster homes until they could be reunited with their families, said Iris Posner of Silver Spring, co-founder of 1000 Children Inc., a nonprofit education and research organization started in 2000 that is dedicated to preserving the history of the only unaccompanied children rescued from the Holocaust by the United States, though not all of the youths were German or Jewish.

Lindauer was one of seven children who came over on the third or fourth transport aboard the USS President Harding, in November 1934, Posner said.

Posner met Lindauer at a reunion of the children in 2002, she said. Posner said she later learned of Lindauer's project and used some of her letters in a 2004 book of memoirs of the children called Don't Wave Goodbye.

"Thea's book is an invaluable addition to the American historical record," Posner said.

Lindauer said the book took her back to a time of separation and fear for her family. It was difficult, she said, when she translated her father's letters from German to English.

"I'm now feeling the trauma I should have felt 70 years ago," said Lindauer, who now has three children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. "I became very depressed when I read the letters. At one point, my husband told me, `For God's sake, lighten up. You know how it comes out.'"

The idea to write the book came after she attended the 2002 reunion. She spent three years writing about her move to the U.S.

Beginning with the tearful goodbye in Eisenberg, Lindauer suffered from seasickness as she made the trip across the ocean. When she arrived in Chicago, she lived with Joseph Sonnenschein, a doctor, and his wife, Grace, in a skyscraper apartment, she said.

She quickly learned to speak English, and she made friends with other children who lived in the building. The Comiskey children, whose father owned the White Sox Major League Baseball team, taught her about baseball, and they visited the Museum of Science and Industry, she said.

"Our favorite pastime, besides visiting the museum's coal mine, was riding up and down the elevators guessing what floor we were on and skipping on the rocks on the lakeshore," she writes in her book.

She stayed with the Sonnenscheins until April of 1935, then she moved into the home of Harris Perlstein, president and chairman of Pabst Brewing Co., and his wife, Anne. "I got the education I was promised," she said.

Many of the children who came over lost one or both of their parents. Lindauer was reunited with her family in 1939, but she stayed with the Perlsteins until she graduated from high school.

During high school, she painted in a style that her son, David Lindauer, a government consultant and retired military officer, referred to as "Nouveau Thea." Using oils, watercolors and chalk, her works are influenced by the Orient and expressionism.

But her work is her own, she said. It is completely different every time she creates something.

"One of my high school teachers once told me, `I am handing you a leaf, and how you apply the leaf to the tree is up to you.' I have always created my art the way I wanted to," she said.

Lindauer was awarded a scholarship and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where she earned an associate's degree, she said. Fresh out of college, she designed cards for a greeting card company.

"I was motivated by my father's admonition," she said. "He told me that you have to do your best to justify the faith that people have in you. I tried to always do that."

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