In the mid 1990s, Princeton scholar/researcher Gertrude Dubrovsky, now 78, befriended a British couple, Renford Bambrough, who was at the Institute for Advanced Study, and his wife, Moira. She loaned them bicycles and they insisted that she come visit them in England. "What they didn’t know," she says, "was that if someone invites me, I come." During Dubrovsky’s visit to Oxford she asked the Bambroughs to show her something of Jewish Oxford. "I didn’t want to leave without some immersion," she says about that simple question that would unequivocably alter her destiny.
Initially, her hosts told Dubrovsky that there wasn’t much they could steer her to. But then they thought of Greta Burkhill, an acquaintance, who might have some touchstones. Burkhill, who had been born in Russia but later moved to England, had been an active volunteer for England’s Kindertransport program during World War II, which rescued 10,000 Jewish children via train from the looming cloud of Nazism over Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and gave them safe harbor in England. Most never saw their parents again.
Dubrovsky says Burkhill was a remarkable woman, who even stood before Parliament to fight for the right of the Kindertransport children to continue their education past the age of 14, which was when free education ended in England at that time.
"I had never even heard of the transport, and here this elderly woman had charts, schedules, and information that tracked the entire program sitting in her home," says Dubrovsky, who felt an urgent need to convince Greta Burkhill that this was material that needed to be preserved and archived.
Initially, the Englishwoman didn’t seem inclined to do much. But a week after Dubrovsky had returned home, she received a package in the mail containing copies of every scrap of that historic material. And in another week, she learned that Greta Burkhill had died.
"It was as if God were speaking to me," says Dubrovsky, the daughter of immigrant chicken farmers from Farmingdale. The result of that meeting is "Six From Leipzig," a book about the Kindertransport, seen through the lens of a cluster of rescued cousins, aged 7 months to 14 years, who were among the 2,000 children who arrived in Cambridge. It was published by Britain’s Vallentine Mitchell in 2004. On Tuesday, June 14, Dubrovsky will discuss her book at Chestnut Tree Books in the Princeton Shopping Center.
Dubrovsky’s own life is the stuff of novels. The second of four children of Polish immigrants, Dubrovsky initially lived on the Lower East Side on New York with her family after her father’s first attempts at farming in South Jersey failed. "Because immigrants had so little capital, my father decided to open a hand laundry in New York, and his only capital investment was in an iron."
Her father would have a second, more successful try at farming in Farmingdale, where Dubrovsky attended a one-room schoolhouse. "I wanted to go to college but my father believed that girls didn’t need to. So after high school, I worked with one of my brothers on our chicken farm."
Her inquiring mind wouldn’t allow her to settle for curtailing her education. After a marriage that ended in divorce, and having three children of her own, Dubrovsky graduated with a liberal arts degree in literature from Georgian Court College near Lakewood in 1956, and earned her doctorate at Columbia University in language and literature in 1970. Her doctoral dissertation involved a translation of the works of I.J. Schwartz, a Yiddish poet who emigrated to a farm in rural America and was the genesis of her first published book, "Kentucky" (University of Alabama Press, 1990).
Dubrovsky, who moved to the Princeton area when she was in her 40s, began teaching a non-credit course in Yiddish conversation at Princeton University. "It was a wonderful experience, and I did it for 20 years," she said. "Yiddish is a delightful language, and it was wonderful to be part of the Princeton University community."
Her second book, "The Land Was Theirs" (University of Alabama Press, 1992), took her back to her own Jewish farming roots and explored the lives of Farmingdale’s Jewish immigrant farmers in Farmingdale, a farming community in Monmouth County created with assistance from the Jewish Agricultural Society. The book was accompanied by a documentary film of the same title created by Dubrovsky.
It was during the creation of that second book and documentary that Dubrovsky took that fateful trip to England, where she met Burkhill. After simply tabling the writing project for several years to complete current projects, she applied for, and was granted, a fellowship at Oxford to research the subject of the Kindertransport. She spent six months poring over the British newspaper from that era to try to determine what the English really knew. "I was able to get some primary papers and also to talk with some of the remarkable women volunteers who ran the transport and were its lifeblood," says the author. "About 2,000 dedicated people throughout England saved about 10,000 children between December, 1938, and September, 1939. It was an absolutely remarkable accomplishment, considering that the United States managed to save only about 1,000 children."
Harry Burkhill, who was a child of the Kindertransport and lived with Greta Burkhill, changed his name in honor of his gratitude for her. Dubrovsky met with him, and, following her time at Oxford, he arranged for the Kindertransport papers at Cambridge University – closed to the public – to be opened for her. Focusing on six cousins from Leipzig as a microcosm of the Kindertransport program, Dubrovsky leads her readers to a better understanding of how this volunteer group organized itself as the Refugee Children’s Movement.
Dubrovsky didn’t pretend to be detached in her research. "I would begin an interview with one of the ‘children,’ now in their older years, and within a minute, the interview subject would be crying at the memory of leaving his or her parents behind. In another minute, I would be crying. Every story was utterly heartwrenching."
The author was careful to emphasize the critical role played by Englishwomen in the vast effort, which she feels is an under-examined subject. She also sought to examine the Kindertransport in its historical context. (A critically-acclaimed film, "Into the Arms of Strangers," also documents the Kindertransport.) She says there have been several memoirs written by Kindertransport children, but those books do not give the bigger historical perspective.
"In some ways, that chance meeting with Greta Burkhill changed my life," Dubrovsky says. "It was as if destiny had come knocking at my door and couldn’t be ignored. Greta had bequeathed me a project, and I knew the hand of God was pointed at me. I will be forever grateful."
"Six From Leipzig," talk and signing by Gertrude Dubrovsky Tuesday, June 14, 7 p.m., Chestnut Tree Books, Princeton Shopping Center. Also, Wednesday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The book is available via Amazon.com and E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.