Holocaust child refugees tell tales in QCC exhibit

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For Ellen Alexander and Johanna Hirsch Liebmann, volunteering at the Holocaust Resource Center and Archives is more than just putting together exhibits and organizing mailings.

The two longtime friends, both children when they were forced to leave their homes in Nazi Germany, are using their experiences from that time in a new exhibit to let people know about the hardships the young had to endure in living away from their parents in foreign lands.

"The people who are left have to tell their stories or else it will all be forgotten," said Alexander, whose family originated in Berlin.

The exhibit, entitled "Where Have All the Children Gone?" at Queensborough Community College, features the stories of four volunteers at the resource center, all with ties to Queens, as well as those of eight others gathered from other Holocaust museums around the country, said the center's director, William Shulman.

Nestled in the basement of the university's library, the resource center features firsthand accounts of survivors, including their feelings about growing up as refugees, being separated from parents and dealing with growing anti-Semitic sentiment throughout Europe.

"It's not the first time we've put an exhibit together," Liebmann said of the work she and Alexander did in helping to organize the detailed accounts and frame pictures. "But this time it was a bit more personal."

Alexander at the age of 10 was one of 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children from central Europe who were permitted entry into Great Britain - trips that eventually became known as the "Kindertransports."

When the children arrived in Britain, they were housed in temporary reception camps and after a few weeks taken to foster homes throughout the country. Alexander, whose father was originally skeptical about letting his children leave Germany alone, made the journey with her sister May 3, 1939 and settled with a Jewish couple in their 30s in East London.

She later left that house and moved several times around the English countryside before reuniting in 1946 with her mother, who had been held in a concentration camp. Her father died in a concentration camp.

Later in 1947, Alexander's mother made the decision to move her family to America, after asking permission from the foster parents who had cared for Alexander for almost 10 years.

Remarkably, three days after arriving in New York City from a 10-day boat journey from Europe to America, Alexander went to work and later became a teacher at Flushing High School. She has been married for 52 years to her husband Fred, also a child on the Kindertransports, who attended the opening of the exhibit.

"I wanted this to be a geography lesson," said Shulman of the various locations children in the exhibit fled to avoid persecution during the Holocaust, including Kosovo, Japan and Palestine. "I wanted to show the spread of their journeys."

Shulman said the resource center has seven exhibits traveling around the world. "Where Have All the Children Gone?" will also tour several sites after it finishes its run in Queens.

Liebmann, who along with Alexander has been volunteering for more than a decade, said she plans to continue her work at the center indefinitely.

"I'll do it as long as I can," said the 27-year Bayside resident who was taken from her home by the Gestapo on Oct. 22, 1940 to France with her 91-year-old grandmother, mother and three aunts.

She was brought to Camp de Gurs, where the 16-year-old girl met her future husband and worked in the administrative part of the camp delivering mail. Liebmann was eventually allowed to leave the camp and was housed in a Huguenot village, but she later returned briefly to see her mother for the last time in 1942.

After fleeing to Switzerland with her now husband in 1943, she came to the United States in 1948 with a 2-year-old daughter.

"We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have come to this great country and be able to tell our story and live a normal life," she wrote in her life account.

The resource center is the only one of its kind at a public college in New York State and in New York City, Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) said.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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