Writing Coach Rhonda Lyle took two teenagers (an author and illustrator) to meet with Jewish Holocaust Survivor Fred A. Kahn of Bethesda, MD this week. The students will be part of the A BOOK by ME writing project with 16 year old Marcus Yarboro as the author and 15 year old Danielle Lyle as the illustrator.
Fred began life in December 1932, in Wiesbaden, shortly before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. "My parents left Germany to escape the Nazis shortly after my birth to seek refuge in Belgium, thinking they would return soon." But because traveling with a newborn would have put them all at risk, Fred's parents left him with his childless Aunt Rosa and Uncle Siegfried.
Fred's parents planned to send for him once they had settled, but the situation became urgent by the night of October 1 when Kahn's Uncle Siegfried woke him and told him to put on his best suit. The night before, when the Munich Agreement was signed, Germany gained the political momentum that would eventually lead to world war. When Kahn's parents heard the news, they called Siegfried with one urgent message: Get the boy out of Germany. Kahn still remembers what was said that night, on the porch of the house, under the full moon: "My uncle told me I was about to go on a big trip."
Siegfried took him to a Christian German, Maria, who would accompany him to the German-Belgian border. But first, Siegfried took Maria aside and gave her his most valued possession - a gold pocket watch. "He gave it to her on the condition that if he didn't survive," Kahn says, "she would make sure I would get it." She then took the boy by tram to the border. "They assumed that nobody would pay attention to me," Kahn explains, "but when I arrived there they wouldn't let me in because I had no papers - nothing." While the officers made phone calls, Kahn could see his family calling to him from the other side.
At that time, Germany and Belgium had a "no man's land" between them, and Kahn's father stood on the Belgian side imploring the guards to let the young boy cross, calling, "C'est mon fils!" (That's my son!) Fritz, as he was called then, was finally admitted as a political refugee and permitted to cross the border to the father he had never known. It was just six weeks before the night of Nazi terror known as Kristallnacht.
Kahn immigrated to the United States at the age of 19, in 1952, arriving in Hoboken, NJ, and eventually settling in Baltimore. "A year later, on March 17, 1953, I was inducted into the Army. I was not yet a citizen, but nevertheless I volunteered." After 4 months of basic training at Camp Breckenridge, KY with the 101st Airborne Division he was assigned to the 525th Military Intelligence Service, then to the 82nd Airborne Division and again to the 525th Military Intelligence Group at Fort Bragg, NC. "I became a citizen on November 24, 1953, and because of my language skills (I know four), reassigned in 1954 to occupied Germany as a military intelligence analyst to do special classified assignments. I was discharged March 14, 1955 at Fort Meade, MD. "
After his military service, he earned a bachelors of art degree with honors from the University of Maryland. In 1956 while he was vice president of the university's International Club, Fred floated the idea of presidential debates, enlisting the support of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and Governor Theodore McKeldin, among others. Then, the press heralded his proposal which laid the roots for the Vice President Nixon-Senator John F. Kennedy presidential debate of 1960. Until then, there had not been any presidential debates.
I thank you for the very pleasant meeting with you, Danielle and Marcus this morning. I like to add for Marcus in reply to his question why I tell my story of survival of the Holocaust:
"I believe that telling my story especially to teenagers is that life lessons apply to everybody, regardless of religion or race. Tolerance education is crucial, so that you learn not to pick up a gun just because someone is different from you."
Further, regarding how I felt moving all the time: "I recall that I wondered when all that would end. I had throughout a feeling of hope that somehow my family and I would overcome and survive by being cautious not to attract attention. We moved regularly because. as you know, as not to stand out to avoid denunciations to the German occupation forces. Such a denunciation would have meant., like in the case of Anne Frank, arrest, deportation and as we know now , sure death at an early age."
As I mentioned I had a task to constantly be in the company of my grandmother who spoke only German in an area where everybody spoke French. As a result of such closeness, I learned immensely from her teaching and her own story of her life as well as to prepare myself when all the hiding would be over. I learned constantly and so with the tutoring after the war in mathematics, in addition to having read profusely French authors, I managed to finish in first place in the city wide public examination of sixth graders in Verviers, Belgium in the Spring of 1946.
The lessons I learned being so young, instilled in me a desire to make the most of each day to develop myself. It may explain that I am fluent in four languages and that I am often referred to as "a walking encyclopedia." It also explains I planned well when I came alone to the US in 1952 at the age of 19, penniless and even owing 200 dollars then.
Of course, in a country of immense individual opportunities as America, it led to a happy and fruitful life. I was also blessed by the people who not only mentored me and served constructively that if one tries, one may not succeed the first time, but eventually one will achieve one's dreams and goals. The basic lesson to me was always to do my homework and thoroughly get along with others even though they may be of different background. It led to my marriage almost fifty years ago to foreign exchange student who had been raised in Taiwan, and of Chinese ethnic origin. It led to my relating to other people who may have been discriminated against through no fault of their own just because of their outward appearance.
It made me who I am still today: simply an 80 year old man hoping to leave a legacy of making a difference . To respect and appreciate my fellow human being.
Again, Rhonda, Danielle and especially Marcus. I thank you all for your interest and volunteer work.
God bless you,
Fred A. Kahn aka Freddy Lejeune