Beyond brave: Mizel looks at giving up Jewish children to save them in ‘Kindertransport’

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On a bustling platform somewhere in Vienna, tears of heartbroken parents and the anxious eyes of their children surround Carl Zimet as he prepares to board a train to a new life. But fueled by a healthy dose of teenage angst, Zimet doesn’t mirror the emotions of his fellow fearful refugees — he’s brimming with excitement to be embarking on a journey riddled with uncertainty and adventure.

“Everybody was saying goodbye to their parents and nobody knew if we would ever see each other again,” Zimet said of the departure. “But at the time, I felt like I was on a great adventure, and I wasn’t thinking about having to leave my parents who were just beside themselves thinking they may never see me again.”

That was in the March 1939, when the 13-year-old Zimet became one of the some 10,000 young Austrian, Czech, German and Polish Jews who embarked on the “kindertransport,” German for “children transport,” a U.K.-sponsored rescue mission that took thousands of Jewish children just like Zimet away from the Nazi-ridden Eastern Front and into the homes of guarantors in England. Although the risky transit mission helped preserve families and thousands of young lives, it forced parents to consider an impossible question.

‘Kindertransport’

Oct. 30 – Dec. 7

Pluss Theater, 350 S. Dahlia St., Denver.

Tickets at 303-316-6360

For a full listing of events at the three-week JAAMM Fest, visit maccjcc.org/jaamm.

“What the kindertransport asked of these parents was, ‘do you want to keep your children close to you, but risk them being in danger among such antisemitism? Or do you want to send them away to the unknown in hopes of keeping them safe?’” Steve Wilson, executive artistic director at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center in Denver said.

That fundamentally complex question, behind the backdrop of incredible stories of independence and survival, such as Zimet’s, will be on full display in the coming weeks in the play “Kindertransport” at the 7th annual Neustadt Jewish Arts, Authors, Movies and Music Festival which kicked off Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 9. Sponsored by the MACC and Theater Or, the production is being dedicated to Henry Lowenstein, a longtime Denver-based dramaturge who was also a passenger on the Kindertransport and died two weeks before the show started production Oct. 7.

“Without the kindertransport, the fertile creative ground in our state would likely be diminished,” Wilson said of Lowenstein’s participation in the program and Denver theater in a statement. “Henry didn’t want to be called a survivor because he didn’t survive anything — the kindertranport was the glorious mechanism by which he escaped becoming a survivor.”

The show focuses on the relationship between a mother and daughter, and the strain their connection endures after the daughter, Ava, is sent away on the kindertransport.

“It’s based on an amalgamation of stories, which we know the audience will take in a variety of ways,” said Lauren Dennis, an actress who plays the mother figure, Helga, in the show. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a Holocaust play, it’s really more about what happens to a person when they’re forced to assimilate to a new society.”

That process of assimilation following his voyage on the actual kindertransport is something Zimet recalls well. At 89 years old, he’s still able to name each benefactor he lived with and teacher he learned English from — without speaking a word of the language prior to his arrival in the U.K. — during the some four years he spent apart from his parents and brother in the suburbs of war-ravaged London.

“I feel extremely fortunate because my time in England was extremely wonderful and filled with kind and supportive people,” he said.

After an eventual reunion with his parents in December of 1942 in New York — which came after he crossed the Atlantic in a ship that lost its convoy and crossed completely alone, extremely susceptible to German U-boats — a stint in the U.S. Navy — in which he was assigned a unit destined for the Pacific theater but was put on standby because his “Z” last name was so far down the list – and an illustrious academic career – with an undergraduate degree from Cornell, a PhD from Syracuse and a fellowship at Stanford – it’s appropriate to say he did alright with the whole assimilation thing. He even went as far as to give himself a middle name and change his first name from Karl to Carl to seem more American.

Incredible stories like Zimet’s abound at the Neustadt JAAMM Fest, which boasts an array of Jewish authors, musicians and theater productions that highlight the lives and stories of Jews throughout history. Sponsored by the Denver Jewish Community Center, and the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, the three-week festival was renamed this year due to a recently seeded endowment in honor of Kathy Neustadt and her family, longtime supporters of the Denver JCC.

“With 37 events in 19 days, there’s really something for everyone,” Wilson says. “It’s a huge smorgasbord of things celebrating the arts – you’re bound to find something.”

Along with a half dozen other Colorado-based kindertransport survivors, Zimet, who later went on to become the director of clinical psychology at CU Medical School for over 40 years, is set to be honored at a special showing of “Kindertransport” on Nov. 9. Despite the fact that only an estimated 10 percent of kindertransport passengers were reunited with their parents, all seven currently residing in Colorado were reconnected with their families following years of separation.

Most of the kindertransport passengers set to be honored on Nov. 9 haven’t seen the play before, and were unaware so many other former kinder were living in such close proximity. Zimet says all he knows about the production and the entirety of JAAMM fest is that he was asked to be at the JCC on Sunday.

“What I understand is that I should be there in the afternoon, but I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, maybe tell some stories –I don’t know,” he says.

Hopefully Zimet, along with the half dozen other kindertransport survivors, are asked to tell their story — it’s quite a story to tell.