“But what happened to Gerda?” a middle-school student asked after a presentation about my book, Is It Night or Day?.
The historical novel tells the story of a little-known American program that rescued 1,000 children from Nazi Germany and chronicles the friendship of two 12-year-old refugees: Edith Westerfeld, who grew up to be my mother, and Gerda Katz, whom Edith met aboard the Deutschland.
It was 1938; the girls were alone, their families left behind. They became friends instantly, bonding over the deep, uprooting loss they shared.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Haven’t you tried to find Gerda?” the girl pressed.
“Yes, I’ve looked online,” I said, thinking about what remained of Edith and Gerda’s friendship – a dim, dog-eared passport photo of a girl with brown hair and a spray of freckles. I didn’t say it, but the real reason I hadn’t looked too hard was that I didn’t want my mother to suffer another loss.
“She may have married and changed her name,” I explained, “so I don’t know who I’m looking for.”
The students weren’t satisfied. Neither was my mother, who after reading my book said: “I hope this is an invitation for Gerda to find me.”
“Why is Gerda so important to you?” I asked.
“She is the closest I will ever get to family.” Her parents, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins had been murdered in the Holocaust.
The girls parted on March 21, 1938. Edith boarded a train for Chicago while Gerda headed to Seattle. They were as lost to one another as to their families back in Germany.
But these middle-school students of the social-networking age couldn’t imagine why anyone would involuntarily be out of touch with anybody, anywhere in the world, especially two old friends.
“Can’t we do something?” one student asked her social studies teacher, Catie O’Boyle. “Can’t we find Gerda?” Recognizing an opportunity, Mrs. O’Boyle agreed to let the students spend time on Gerda’s trail.
On the first day of the project, the eighth graders uncovered a clue in a newspaper clipping dated April 15, 1939, listing a Gerda Katz as a member of Girl Scout Troop 43 in Seattle. They found another article from the Seattle Daily Times of June 10, 1945, listing the graduating class of Garfield High School — including a Gerda Katz. The real breakthrough came a few days later, when students scouring wedding announcements in the Seattle Daily Times learned that a Gerda Katz married on July 16, 1950. Now the students knew they were looking for Gerda Katz Frumkin.
A crucial piece of information came from a community online newsletter, The Wedgwood Echo. A 2010 article marked the 60th wedding anniversary of Perry and Gerda Frumkin. Gerda, the article mentioned, was born in Munzenberg, Germany, and “was sent to America to escape a fate of being sent to Nazi concentration camp.”
“That’s it!” one student shrieked, as Mrs. O’Boyle read the article out loud. Students high-fived each other, “We found her!”
One evening that week, my mother called, but she couldn’t talk.
“What is it, Mom?” My heart pounded in my ears. “What? What?”
She finally managed one word.
“G – G– Gerda,” her voice brimming with the emotion of a 12-year-old.
“What about her?”
“She… she… wrote me.”
Then she forwarded to me this email:
I have thought of you often and am so thankful that you found me. Can’t wait until we speak together.
The eighth-graders wanted Gerda and Edith to reunite at their school, Madison Junior High in Naperville, Illinois, but Gerda wasn’t able to travel. Instead, students invited my mother and me for a celebration day.
Entering the school on a bright spring morning in 2011, we stopped before a large glass case bursting with yellow origami boats.
“We folded 1,000 of them. Each represents a child America saved,” explained eighth-grader Jessica Deutsch “It took forever. They’re all yellow, except the two pink ones for Edith and Gerda.”
As my mother marched into the multi-purpose room, the school band played an enthusiastic but squeaky version of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” During the speeches, Mrs. O’Boyle explained the purpose of this project: “We all know that feeling we have when we first read about Native Americans, slavery, or the Holocaust. We feel we can do nothing.”
Edith thanked the students, telling them, “You have done something.”
Now, the two old friends keep up with each other on the phone every week and when it’s time to say good-bye, they end each conversation the same way:
“You are my sister,” Edith says softly, and Gerda whispers back, “And you are my sister.”