(to appear in the April issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine)
When Fred Kahn looks back upon his early years, growing up in a Jewish household in Germany at the dawn of the Second World War, certain scenes spring to his mind. He remembers neighborhood children riding on sleighs, and the blare of the trumpets coming from the nearby Biebrich castle. But no memory is more vivid than the eve of October 1, 1938, when he left the town of Wiesbaden and the home of his aunt and uncle—the only parents he had ever known.
Kahn spent his childhood hiding in Belgium, and moved to America after the War. He graduated from SAIS in 1963, with an M.A. in Advanced International Studies and a fiancée. After 30 years of civil service, Kahn says it was his childhood memories that motivated him to give back to society. In September, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich appointed him to the new Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance Education. But Kahn attributes all of his success to his dramatic escape, at age 5, from Nazi Germany.
In the middle of that fateful October night, Kahn’s Uncle Siegfried awakened him and told him to put on his best suit. The sleepy boy was taken out to the porch of the house he had lived in for four years, ever since his biological parents and older brother had fled to Belgium. 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 to news, they called Siegfried with one urgent message: Get the boy out of Germany. Kahn still remembers what was said on that porch, 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.” Maria took the boy by tram to the border—to no-man’s land. “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, he could see his family calling to him from the other side. “My father was yelling ‘C’est mon fils!’—That’s my son!” he recalls, “but of course I didn’t know who he was.” Eventually, the five-year-old was admitted as a political refugee.
Within six weeks, Siegfried and his wife, Rosa, had been deported to concentration camps, never to be seen 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. When the Germans left Belgium in 1944, the Kahns were finally able to go back to their home. “I ran into my old friends, kids on the street,” he recalls, “and they couldn’t believe I was still alive.”
Kahn moved to the United States at 19, and was quickly drafted to the U.S. Army. After his military service, he attended the University of Maryland, and in 1960 he received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at SAIS. Kahn sat with fellow classmate Madeleine Albright in the popular “Wide Wide World” course, and took part in off-the-record lounge sessions with government VIPs like Director of the CIA Allen Dulles, and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. After graduating in 1963, Kahn was recruited by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to launch Job Corps. He worked as a political economist for the Department of Labor until his retirement in1992.
His childhood experience and lifetime commitment to civil service made Kahn an ideal member of Maryland’s new Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance Education. Kahn says the mission of the group is to advise the state University System on the creation of workshops for how to promote tolerance and sensitivity when teaching Holocaust history. The 13-member group’s first meeting was in December, and they plan to submit a report to the governor in 2007.
Today, Fred Kahn still treasures his uncle’s gold watch. He says his story gives life lessons that apply to everybody, not just Jews. Tolerance education is crucial, he says, “so that you learn not to pick up a gun just because someone is different from you.” Kahn shares his story by moderating a Yahoo! internet group, called Remember the Holocaust, for about one hundred members from around the world. “It is my major hobby now,” he says, “and an education in itself.”