David Decker

David Decker
California, USA
January 17
Father of two young boys, husband to the woman who finally gave me a life, worker-bee in the land of film & television, and intruder to the world of letters.


JUNE 20, 2009 2:45AM

Fathers and Sons, Part I of II: Kindertransport

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 The Decker Family, 1962

Otto Decker’s Family, 1962


I know my father loves me. I always have.


Still, there are some childhood memories of feeling distant from him, of wondering who this stranger was in our house. Those feelings are long gone, but it’s odd I had them since he was and still is a good father. No one could call him an absent dad. He did work a lot though, and as a mechanical engineer successfully climbing his way into management, he was away on frequent business trips.


I can find reasons for some of the distance between us then, a few things on my side and a few on his. And theres always the traditional push and pull of fathers and sons. But there’s one thing that helps put all this into perspective: My father doesn’t have many memories of living with his parents as a child. At the age of five or six, he was sent to a boarding home so he could attend a distant school. And by the time he was eight, his parents sent him even farther away...for good.



Amidst the gathering storm in Germany of September 1930, Ilse Decker gave birth to her second child, a boy named Otto. Her first son, Rolf, had been born a year and a half earlier. Together with her boys and husband Hans, they lived in Biberach, Germany. But life was becoming increasingly difficult for them. With Adolf Hitler firmly in control of the country by the end of 1933, his anti-Semitic ideas were taking hold. That same year there were government-sponsored attempts to remove Jewish children from schools. And just two years later in September 1935, when Otto was only five, Germany passed the Nürnberger Gesetze, the Nuremberg Laws, effectively stripping all Jews of their civil rights and citizenship. Ilse was Jewish, and according to the Jewish religion – and now German law – her children were as well.


And so one of the many heartbreaking decisions Hans and Ilse had to make had practically been made for them. They couldn’t send their children to public schools in Wiesbaden, the town where they now lived. And the nearest Jewish school the boys could attend was The Philanthropin in Frankfurt, which was over thirty miles away. So they found a boarding home for Jewish boys in Frankfurt, the Flersheim-Sichel-Stiftung, and sent their young sons away – for the first time.



When I wonder why there might have been a divide between my younger self and my father I can’t help but remember the instances of innate love. There were many, both big and small. It was him I'd go to as a 5-year old waking up with a stomach ache in the middle of the night, fearing the sick that was about to come. My father, not my mother. He’d gently bring me to the bathroom and rub my head while my body was retching. And afterward, he'd bring a basin into my room and sit next to me on the bed, softly kneading my shoulders until I drifted off to sleep.



Except for a couple Sunday visits from their parents every month, the boys were on their own. Hatred for Jews was spreading, and gangs of brown-shirted Hitler youth often threatened or beat them on their mile and a half walk to school. They found safety in numbers when the older boys accompanied them.


Then, in November of 1938, the plague of anti-Semitism grew violent with Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). For two days, the Nazis attacked Jews and their property, homes and synagogues. At the boarding home, the boys were given a stern warning. On the first night, they were sent to bed and told not to show any light or make any noise, no matter what happened. A frightening night for anyone, let alone an 8-year old boy.


The morning after, police came to their boarding home, arrested the boys’ guardian and took the children of Polish Jews away. The guardian was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, leaving his daughters to care for the remaining children. Hans and Ilse immediately brought their sons home to Wiesbaden. After a week, though, when things had settled, they sent the boys back to Frankfurt to continue attending school.


But Kristallnacht was the unmistakable turning point. Jews now had tangible proof that life was no longer possible in Germany; their growing nightmare was not going to simply fade away like some passing fad. Many sought to leave Germany, but other than permitting the regular trickle of immigration, the doors across Europe, as well as to the United States, were closed.


The British government, however, decided to allow Jewish children from Nazi Germany and the occupied territories into the United Kingdom. This Kindertransport quite literally saved the lives of nearly ten-thousand young souls between December 1938 and September 1939 (the start of World War II). My father and his brother were two of them.



I also recall being seven or eight and having an existential crisis of sorts. I’d figured out that some day I would die – that simply not existing was in my future. Through the tears and the hics of my ragged breathing, I kept repeating, ‘But I don’t want to die’ plaintively – as though someone could simply say, ‘Okay’. I remember my father’s frustration at first, his not being able to make it better with truthful explanations. But I also recall that after he stopped trying to answer the unanswerable, he began rubbing my back while I sat like a puddle on his lap. The tide turned with my ear pressed into his chest; I could hear his heartbeat, feel the warmth of his body. How would it feel to go through that without a parent?



From Frankfurt, the guardian’s eldest daughter managed to make contact with the British representatives for James de Rothschild, who agreed to take thirty of the youngest boys from the home and care for them. But the price would be high. According to the conditions for transport imposed by England, not only couldn’t the parents leave with their children, they all had to unconditionally agree to send them away to fates unknown.


Though they couldn’t have realized it at the time, Ilse and Hans likely saved their sons’ lives by agreeing. Many parents couldn’t bring themselves to do it.


Preparations were made; the Rothschild’s lawyer and a businessman signed agreements with the parents, the guardians and the Nazis, and by March of 1939 about thirty of the boys from the Frankfurt boarding home were prepared to travel to the United Kingdom. Ilse and Hans spent more time than usual with their children that month, though my father doesn’t recall much conversation about their future. It didn’t make much sense to him, but he and his brother received some new clothes to wear and posed for pictures with their parents. To Otto, it seemed like an adventure.


Rolf, Otto and Ilse Decker, Frankfurt, March 1939

Rolf, Otto and Ilse Decker, Frankfurt, March 1939 


To his parents it was anything but. At this point in the Kindertransport, the Nazis had decided to put an end to the gut-wrenching emotional scenes taking place in train stations across the country when Jewish parents sent their children away. They wanted to ensure the image of Germany wasn’t tarnished in the world press. So fathers and mothers were forbidden from accompanying their children to the stations and seeing them off. The Decker family said goodbye and parted ways at the boys’ boarding home in Frankfurt.

It wasn’t until much later in their lives when Otto and Rolf learned that, after saying goodbye to their children, Ilse and Hans drove to a point along the railway, somewhere on the Rhine between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden. They knew which train their sons were on and stopped there by the road to say their final goodbyes and watch helplessly as the boys were taken from them once again, perhaps forever.

                       - To Be Continued in Part II -

 Otto Decker German Travel Papers, March 1939
Otto Decker, German Travel Papers, March 1939

Otto Decker German Travel Document March 1939


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A very personal history lesson. Could there be a greater act of love than to send your children safely away?

So easy to remember what our father's didn't give us, but far more useful for us to understand their lives and the things that made them what they were.
An extravagantly fine and moving piece of writing. I hesitate to call it that for fear it will be seen as minimizing the impact and importance for everyone to understand the holocaust.

I can't imagine the "legacy" it creates on the most basic human level. I hope you would agree it doesn't mean we have to be Jewish to understand it, the same as we don't have to be of any other race or background to understand the suffering of our fellow man when fear, intimidation and mass psychosis take over. The danger is whenever that is allowed to happen anywhere, at any time, in any culture, and men and women of conscience turn their backs in every single spectrum and status in the society.

Thank you for letting us see who you are.
A meaningful, heart-rending post, as well as historically interesting. And the interweaving of past and present is especially touching. (I remember when my little granddaughter first expressed "I don't want to die," and how hard it was to comfort her.)

Awaiting the next installment, and wishing you a Happy Father's Day, David.
jimmy – I can’t imagine it, having to send one’s children away. But you’re right, it would take great love and bravery. And I always thought I only really got to know my father once I left home for college. But the truth is, that’s probably mostly due to me being one of those kids whose gaze was constantly centered on my own navel while growing up.

Ben – Thank you for the visit and your wise words. And yes, I definitely agree w/you that the tradgedy and suffering of Jews during WWII can (and should) be understood by all. It’s a hideous aspect of human life that many peoples and cultures have suffered similar fates.

Lea – It’s a pleasure seeing you here, and thanks for the Father’s Day wishes. Tomorrow’s going to be the 1st one where my boys are actually doing something for me. Can’t wait. They’ve already told me all about their secret cards and gifts. (Guess we’ll have to start working on the real meaning of the word secret!)
Waiting for part 2
David, The scenario you describe is utterly unimaginable to me. Thank you for sharing this.
As I read along I couldn't help but be struck at the selflessness of your parents. Giving up a child voluntarily, (much less two of them) is a pain I know only some of...to never know what lay ahead for them, unimaginable. A supreme sacrifice.

As I read about Kristallnacht I was reminded of a rather remarkable man I met just after Sept. 11 while on a cruise. It is a story worth telling.

This is a wonderfully rich accounting, and I eagerly await the next part. Your writing is marvellous.

Happy Father's Day David.
Beautifully told. Gut-wrenching, even after all these years. I found myself holding my breath as I read.
Terrible terrible things happened.
I have cousins in Israel whose mother was part of the Kindertransport to Great Britain. She never saw her parents, shot by Germans, again.

May G-d bless your father and your family. Happy Father's Day
Mrs. Savage – Thank you, and BTW, your kid does rock.

Brie – I know, isn’t it? I have trouble imagining it as real myself.

BuffyW – More Father’s Day wishes! Thanks. Now that I have kids myself (4 and 2), I actually get one.

m a.h. – Thank you. This is the first time I’ve written about this. And I hadn’t anticipated how much it would help clear up my own misconceptions and fill in needed details of my family’s history.

oddpotter – Thanks for sharing – as well as for your wishes. So many of those children left without understanding, and never had a chance to become whole about it (if that was even possible) because their parents didn’t make it. I don’t want to get ahead of the story here, but yeah, that was unfortunately a common experience for the 10,000 kinder.
Hi, David, thanks for the memory. There are so many stories that need to be remember and cherished. This is one of them.
oh, wow, david, this is a heartbreaking story which is inspiring at the same time. god, your grandparents were brave, to let go of there children that way. but at such a cost. i'm so impressed that your father was able to be that affectionate and have so much empathy when he was separated and sent away for good. that is amazing and wonderful to me. no wonder you are such an exceptionally good and talented man.

this is soo beautifully written too, david. but, please, man, that small font is killing me. when i make it bigger so i can actually read it!!!! it gets all distorted and looks carpy to read. so please use a bigger font just for me!!! love love love and huge gratitude for this powerful and poignant story.
David, I'm at a loss of words after reading your story, and more to the point, your father's story. As a parent, and I'm sure you can relate, I can't imagine making this kind of Sophie's choice and having to send my two young sons away. The psychic pain must have run deep. The image of your grandparents driving to the point where they could see the train pass by is palpable. You are a fantastic writer, and like everyone else, I'm anticipating Part II. Thank you for sharing such a poignant, difficult and brave story.
I'm simply speechless and for reasons that are too long to write that simply need no explanation whatsoever, I can't wait to meet you and share something that only our eyes and hearts can and will ever understand without saying a single word. This was gut wrenching.
This is heartbreaking, David. I cannot imagine the feeling of having to send my children off, alone, for an unknown land, possibly never seeing them again. I'm anxious for part 2. I love the tender glimpses into your own children that you've inserted within the piece. Very well done.
Gah! I meant "your own CHILDHOOD." We've got ads, now can we get editable comments, pretty please?
I look forward to part 2. I loved this story very much. You write so elegantly.

I think that there is a part of all of us that reaches and longs for our heritage -and I find that the story is very different when it is told through father v. mother. We long for both stories, because they each hold different pieces of our own story.
And our father's story is the story of a collective heritage. Thank you for sharing; thank you for giving.
When this is a book, please update. I read this and sit here staring into space. Almost missed the gem in the midst.
Haven’t kept up with the new comments here very well. Sincere thanks to such a lovely group of visitors, John, Sao Kay, Theodora, marytkelly, cartouche, Lisa, Bella Joffre and scupper.

Now if I could just find the time to get the next part up...
A moving story with which I am very familiar. Found your account by googling on behalf of mum. Best wishes from Helga Brown(nee Steinhardt) and son.
You are effective here. The alternation from history and such intimate details -- I am especially moved by your father helping you when you were sick -- gives palpable life to this recounting of dreadful events. You hold me throughout.

And it is news to me that the Nazis prohibited the "goodbyes" at the station. The inversion of civil mores that was that ideology an regime still stuns.