WILLISTON, Vt. — First he was kicked out of school. Then his family was kicked out of their home. Then he watched his father being trucked away by soldiers. Then his mother put him on a train to safety, and he was unsure when he'd ever see her again.
All of this happened to Alexander Wilde in Vienna because his family was Jewish. He was 15, and it was 1938, the year of the Anschluss, when the German army marched into Austria and the pogroms began.
Wilde is 90 now, retired and living in Williston. He remembers these events vividly. He escaped on a train that carried hundreds of other children beyond the Nazis' reach, but his adventure continued. He was even interned in his initial country of refuge, England, during a Nazi spy scare of 1940.
Many of his relatives in Austria and Eastern Europe were killed during the war victims of Germany's campaign of Jewish extermination, but his immediate family had a happier fate, and Wilde has Kindertransport to thank for that. Kindertransport — Children's Transport — was a rescue operation that brought about 10,000 child refugees, most of them Jewish, to England without their parents.
The campaign, which had multidenominational and parliamentary support, began in earnest after Kristallnacht, the notorious, organized attacks on Jews that swept Germany and Austria on Nov. 9-10, 1938. The name derives from the glass fragments of smashed windows in Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues, many of which were burned.
The children, mostly from Berlin, Vienna and Prague and aged 3 to 16, rode trains to Holland and Belgium and then were ferried to England under the supervision of adults whom the German authorities required to return. (A film, "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2000.)
Wilde was in the first cohort from Vienna. Mindful of many watershed dates in his long life, he regarded this past Tuesday with special significance: 4 p.m. Vermont time (10 p.m. in Vienna) marked the 75th anniversary of when he said goodbye to his mother in the Vienna train station. She was barred from seeing him off on the platform.
Growing up, Wilde led a comfortable life with his parents in Vienna. His mother was a practicing physician, with an office in their home, and his father was a lawyer who worked in a bank. The city had a large Jewish population, and it wasn't until the Anschluss that many members began to feel seriously imperiled.
Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, and the following month, the new regime began cracking down on schools. Wilde attended a "gymnasium," an academic secondary school. One day in mid-April, all the Jewish students and teachers in his school were given a half hour's notice to get out — for good.
"We became the first victims of the Nazi terror," he said. "I was 15. A child takes those events with maybe not as great anxiety as adults would, but it was a shock to me."
"Soon thereafter, my mother was notified that she was no longer permitted to be practicing physician," he said, "and my dad was thrown out of the bank. ... And life became very restrictive."
With an eye to emigration, his family applied for passports. He still has his — issued in October of 1938 — and the cover page is stamped with a large red "J." His parents applied for visas from seven countries, including the United States, but quota systems meant years of waiting.
"On October 4, 1938, which was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement," Wilde recalled, "we had just come home from the evening service at the synagogue and were ready to go to bed, and there was loud pounding on our door. Nazi storm troopers announced, 'You have half an hour to get out of your home. You can pack up one suitcase, and there is a train waiting at the station to take you to an undisclosed place.'"
His parents dutifully packed a suitcase, but his father led them out a back door. They walked a block, hailed a cab, and went to stay with relatives across town.
"As it all turned out, there were no trains really waiting," Wilde said. "This was subterfuge the Nazis were using." It was a way to oust Jewish occupants of residences they wanted to take over.
His parents rented a one-bedroom apartment in the city's Second District, a predominantly Jewish section. His father found a part-time job at a shoe store.
During the Kristallnacht mayhem, as synagogues were burning and as Jewish men were being rounded up, Wilde and his mother were looking out the window, waiting for his father to return from work, when they saw him seized by storm troopers, put in a truck and driven away.
His father was taken to Dachau concentration camp. Every other week, he was allowed to write a letter home. His first letter urged his wife to "make every effort to get the child out."
His mother managed to arrange passage for him on the first Kindertransport train from Vienna. He was one of about 500 children on the train, most of them under 10.
Did he think he'd ever see his mother again?
"In the beginning, you thought this was a separation that was going to last a while," he said.
After 10,000 refugee children had arrived in England without their parents, Kindertransport ended with Germany's invasion of Poland, on Sept. 1, 1939, after which Britain and France declared war.
Until then, Wilde said, "People were still hoping they would get together. As it turned out, of 10,000, less than 500 parents survived the war and were able to get together."
Among them were Wilde's mother and father. Fortuitously, Kindertransport helped save them, too.
When Wilde reached England, he and the other children initially were housed in what he calls "a holiday camp" — an aggregation of unheated cottages normally used by summer vacationers. He remembers that winter as a cold one. Each child received a comforter and, in the evening, a hot-water bottle.
"If the hot-water bottle fell on the floor at night," he said, "it was frozen in the morning."
The children gradually were placed in foster homes, and Wilde was sent to Edinburgh to live with a retired roofing contractor named Christian Ettrupe, a Danish Quaker who was a widower without children. Ettrupe arranged for Wilde to attend school to learn English, and he set about trying to find a way to get Wilde's father out of Dachau.
Ettrupe learned that Wilde's parents could get visas to China without a wait. He then spent the equivalent of about $1,500 for two shipping passages to Shanghai from England. A travel agent pledged that Wilde's parents would get the visas as soon as they arrived in a British port.
When Wilde's mother presented all this documentation to the German authorities, Wilde's father was released. His parents made straight for England, where they immediately requested political asylum, which was granted.
Once they were settled in Birmingham, Wilde said, "My parents asked Mr. Ettrupe if he would mind returning their son to them, which he gladly did."
"Mr. Ettrupe actually passed away before the end of the war," Wilde said, "but he will be enshrined in our hearts as long as we live for the generosity and kindness he showed. He was not obligated; he was not even asked! He volunteered to help rescue my dad from a concentration camp."
Their family life in Birmingham was interrupted by a Nazi-spy-scare hysteria in Britain. German-speaking male adult refugees were rounded up and interned indefinitely without being charged — Wilde at a racetrack in York, his father in the Isle of Wight. "We were very well treated, well fed," Wilde said. "We got mail, could listen to the radio."
Meanwhile, his mother learned that their visas to the United States had been approved. Because they had escaped, the family had an advantage over visa applicants who remained stuck behind German lines. Wilde and his father were released from the internment camps on the pledge that they would ship out right away.
The family was reunited again in Liverpool the day before they were scheduled to embark, but that night the city was under bombardment by the German air force. Instead of the hotel room that Wilde's mother had booked, they spent their last night in England in an air-raid shelter.
Wilde has told his survival story many times before, to high school and college students, to church groups and synagogues. It comes with an uplifting sequel:
His family arrived in New York on Oct. 12, 1940. ("The same day Columbus discovered America, so did we," Wilde said.) They settled initially in Indiana and later in Chicago. Wilde held a series of jobs, then volunteered for military induction — prompted in part by letters from relatives that described the grim situation in Europe.
After he joined the Army, he became a U.S. citizen, and in a spur-of-the-moment decision he later regretted, changed his surname from Wildholz — which often was misspelled and mispronounced — to Wilde.
Wilde thought his fluency in German might prove useful to the Army, but as he put it, "The Army doesn't figure that way, and I wound up being sent to the Aleutian Islands."
After the war, he attended college, received a master's degree from the University of Chicago and spent a 39-year career in Chicago with Blue Cross Blue Shield. In retirement, he and his wife, Barbara Wilde, moved to Maine, and more recently to Williston, to be near a daughter.
It was Kindertransport that made it all possible.
"If I wouldn't have been placed on that train," he said, "I never would have been able to get to this country. I would have surely perished with my parents in Auschwitz or one of the other camps."
Wilde cautioned that anti-Semitism is not simply of the past. He said he understands that anti-Semitic events in Germany, Austria and elsewhere "are increasing in the last couple of years rather than disappearing. So this is a constant vigil."