There are no happy endings to the Holocaust, but this story comes close.
Thanks to the efforts of a group of Midwestern eighth graders, a pair of best friends—both 87—who escaped Germany together and hadn’t seen or heard from each other in 73 years have been reunited. Their lives are the lead story on a new show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), “Lost & Found,” that premieres next week.
The students at l Madison Junior High School in Naperville, Ill., a far western suburb of Chicago, were studying the Holocaust in 2011 when their teacher, Cathleen O’Boyle, invited Fern Schumer Chapman to talk about her novel based on her mother’s life, “Is It Night Or Day?” The students refused to accept the end of the story, that Edith Schumer hadn’t seen her friend Gerda Katz since they arrived in the United States in 1938.
“We couldn’t imagine not being able to see your best friend again,” Mackenzie Sisko, 14, says on the show.
This friendship has its roots on a ship in the harbor of Bremen in 1938. Edith had grown up in Stockstadt am Rhein, a small German town with two Jewish families; Gerda had come from nearby Munzenberg. Separately, the two families had made the heart-wrenching decision to send their daughters to America alone, since they couldn’t find a way out for themselves. Chapman explains that the passage was arranged by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and other groups. (Edith’s parents were subsequently killed, and Gerda’s parents made their way to Sosua in the Dominican Republic and, after some decades, to the United States.)
On board the Deutschland, the 12-year-old girls who had left everything behind became inseparable.“We were like sisters,” Gerda says in an interview with The Jewish Week.
“I looked at Gerda as me,” Edith recalls. “Who else had my story?”
After three days in New York City, Edith was sent to Chicago and Gerda to Seattle. They promised to write, but their connection was soon broken. Edith gave Gerda her address but Gerda didn’t know hers and she lost Edith’s information on the train.
The Naperville students, who were just a few years older than the two girls had been when they arrived in New York, began an indefatigable course of Internet research. They quickly came up with several women named Gerda Katz, but realized the person they were looking for had probably changed her name. The key was finding her marriage announcement and matching up the details; they found her in Seattle.
O’Boyle, the teacher, contacted the women, who were beyond overjoyed. Gerda, who says that she had buried her painful past and hadn’t thought about it in 73 years, spent the first two weeks crying when “it all came back.” Then for the first time, she shared her story.
The OWN producers learned of the story through a newspaper article, and then started filming; they shot the women’s first reunion, which included their daughters and granddaughters.
As for the students, they got to watch a preview of the show, and then got their own surprise (spoiler alert: the survivors show up in the classroom), with more hugs and tears.
“We wanted to take a stand,” Mackenzie Sisko says. “We couldn’t change what happened. But we could help Gerda and Edith find each other.”