Survivor Profile: Fred Kahn
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.
In his own words…
“I was born Jewish in [Wehen near] Wiesbaden in December 1932 at 80-82 Adelheidstrasse, houses then owned by my grandparents Gruenebaum,” says Kahn. “My parents left in September 1933…” for Verviers, Belgium, expecting to return since they presumed (erroneously) that Hitler and the Nazis would not stay in power long. “A synagogue was next to my foster parents’ house in Wehen, a town near his birthplace of Wiesbaden. It had been built in the 1800’s. My uncle was responsible for it. The night before I left, my uncle and his cousin transported in a horse-drawn carriage pine boxes that contained, I was told, the shul’s religious relics. I watched as they buried the pine boxes in a nearby landfill. The synagogue was burnt down six weeks later during what is historically known as Kristallnacht. By premonition it seems the religious relics had been safely buried, escaping the sacrilegious desecration by fire.”
“That was the night of Sept.30-Oct.1, 1938. The following morning, my uncle took me by train to the German border city of Aachen; he turned me over to a Christian lady named Maria Goar” (“Whisked Away Before Kristallnacht” by Fred Kahn).
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.
Following the occupation of Belgium by the Germans in May 1940, the Kahn family went into hiding to avoid deportation to a concentration camp. Four years later, Uncle Siegfried and Aunt Rosa were deported to concentration camps. Rosa wrote the boy a farewell postcard the night before she left, and was never heard from again.
Kahn and his parents, using the old identity papers of a Catholic family, survived the rest of the war in Belgium, storing their valuables in friends’ basements and moving every six months to avoid being listed on the registry of Jewish families. Once Belgium was liberated by the US First Army in September 1944, the family returned to Verviers where they had lived before going into hiding. “I ran into my old friends, kids on the street,” Kahn recalls, “and they couldn’t believe I was still alive.” His aunt and uncle were not so lucky. “The only parents I knew until I was reunited with my own parents on October 1, 1938,” were killed in the Sobibor extermination camp in June 1942.
Maria Goar sent Siegfried’s pocket watch to Kahn shortly after the war, and he still treasures it today.
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. Fred was given credit for it in the press of the day (See “The American Spirit Personified” by Kate Kelly, Huffington Post, August 25, 2009; and The Jewish War Veterans of the United States, September 2009 Newsletter ). Fred took leave from the university when he was selected by the Department of State to represent the U.S., to escort and guide VIPs visiting the U.S. Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Two years later, he received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study for a masters at SAIS. He earned the masters of art degree from Johns Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in 1963. Kahn leveraged his education to secure a position at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where he taught history. He was then recruited by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity to help launch Job Corps. Fred worked as a political economist for the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. under six presidential administrations, until his retirement in 1992.
After 30 years of civil service, Kahn says his childhood memories finally motivated him to educate others about the Holocaust. In 2005, then Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich appointed him to the new Maryland State Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education.
Kahn attributes all of his success to his dramatic escape, at age 6, from Nazi Germany. Otherwise, if he had remained he would have been exterminated in Sobibor along with his late aunt and uncle who had reared him. His lifetime commitment to civil service — and his defining childhood experience — made him an ideal member of Governor Ehrlich’s new task force. Kahn says the group’s mission was to advise Maryland’s state university system on the creation of workshops to promote tolerance and sensitivity when teaching Holocaust history. He believes his story teaches life lessons that apply to everybody, regardless of religion or race. Tolerance education is crucial, he says, “so that you learn not to pick up a gun just because someone is different from you.”
Kahn also shares his story by moderating a Yahoo!Group called “Remember_ the_ Holocaust” for 240 members from around the world. “It is my major hobby now,” he says, “and an education in itself.” That is where we met Fred (aka Freddy Lejeune) and struck up an immediate friendship. Never Again! is indebted to him for letting us share his remarkable story.
(From various sources, including “Member Profile,” Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, September 2009; an article by Virginia Hughes, “Alumni News” Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 2006)