Swedish Christians saved the life of a German Jewish boy during WWII

How Swedish Christians saved a German Jewish boy during WWII, paving the way for him to realize the American dream: New film traces the journey of that child – now a great-grandfather – and his reunion decades later with his Scandinavian ‘family’

  • Herb Gildin, 89, was born in Germany to Jewish parents but left at the age of 10 as the country became more dangerous for Jews during Nazi rule in World War II
  • Gildin traveled with his two sisters to Sweden, where separate Christian families agreed to take them in through the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
  • After two years, during which he learned Swedish and became close with his foster family, Gildin and his older sisters made the grueling journey to New York
  • Gildin initially kept in touch with the Swedes, though communication faded over the years, and went on to run a successful lighting business in New York
  • He rarely discussed his early years with his wife, Gloria, their two children and five grandchildren, who eventually did some digging on their own
  • The Gildin efforts led to Herb’s emotional reunion with his Swedish ‘relatives’ in 2001, and his grandson, Tyler, has chronicled the story in a new documentary 
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Herb Gildin was 10 years old and traveling on a stateless passport, scared and confused, hurtling by train to a mysterious place called Sweden with his two older sisters, Cele and Margaret. It was 1939, and the children knew virtually nothing about the Scandinavian country or the larger world – only that their German hometown had become increasingly dangerous for Jews. So their parents sent them to live with complete strangers, Christian families, in Sweden, all with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), dedicated to relocating Jewish children in any safe place they could as World War II raged.

The Gildin children lived for two years in Sweden, where Herb became particularly close with his foster family, who had taken him in with the implication that the arrangement could very well be for good. After that time, however, Herb and his sisters made the arduous journey by land and sea to New York to reunite with their parents – and Herb went on to realize the American Dream, building a successful business and four generations of Gildins in the States.

For many of those years, however, Herb failed to fill in the details of his backstory when talking to his own family. It was only for the curiosity and determination of Herb’s children and grandchildren that they came upon a whole new family connection for them to celebrate – in Sweden, where the Christians who’d taken in Herb as a boy were only too excited to reunite with him after more than 50 years.

A new documentary, Starfish – made by Herb’s grandson, 29-year-old filmmaker Tyler Gildin – now tells the extraordinary story of resilience, determination and family; it premiered in January at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, one month after the birth of Tyler’s son, Brody, Herb’s first great-grandchild.

Now Herb – just four weeks shy of his 90th birthday – is sitting in his pristine Florida home, reflecting on his own life and legacy as he cradles Brody; he only met the newborn in person for the first time yesterday, when Tyler and his wife came to visit from New York.

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Herb Gildin, 89, cradles his first great-grandson, Brody, who is just three years old; Brody’s father, Tyler, has made a documentary about Herb’s extraordinary life and journey from Germany during World War II to Sweden and, finally, America


Herb, second from left, with his parents and two older sister, Cele and Margaret; the Jewish children were sent off with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in 1939 when it became clear that it was not safe for them stay in Germany 


Herb Gildin pictured with his New York native wife, Gloria, their grandson Tyler and his wife, Zara, and their first great-grandchild, Brody

‘This is something I’ve been wanting for a long time,’ Herb tells DailyMail.com, beaming proudly. ‘He’s almost three months old, and I finally got to hold him a little bit – and it’s just exciting to have this little baby boy. He’s a beautiful little boy.

‘He’s the first and only member of the fourth generation. There aren’t too many Gildins … now we have another grandson who can continue the Gildin name and all that the Gildins stand for. I’m very proud to be a Gildin; I think we’re very special and we’ve tried to live our lives beautifully – and I hope that goes on to the next generation. And I hope I’m here long enough to enjoy and watch him growing up.’

He adds: ‘I’m pleased that, somewhere, my great-grandson will look at this thing and get to know me a little bit.’

His older descendants have certainly gotten to know him better through the documentary project, which emerged after the 2017 funeral of Herb’s older sister, Cele; Herb gave the eulogy.

‘I heard a story [that] I had never heard from his mouth; I had never heard any of these stories,’ Tyler tells DailyMail.com. ‘And it just kind of hit me, of how have I not filmed this before? I work in film, he’s telling this story.’

Within months, he says, the process of filming began, and grandfather and grandson sat down on camera to explore the family history.

Herb was born in 1929 in Landsberg, Germany, the youngest of three children to a father who owned a shoe store and his younger wife. There was nothing out of the ordinary about his upbringing, he says; he liked to play, ride his bicycle and spend time with his friends. Nothing really changed until the infamous night of Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Nazis rounded up Jews, torched synagogues, vandalized homes and businesses and even killed some members of the Jewish community while imprisoning others.

‘The night of Kristallnacht is really when Hitler decided that Jews were no longer welcome in Germany – so they gathered all the Jews throughout Germany, but I could only talk about happened to us in Landsberg,’ Herb tells DailyMail.com. ‘The polizei came and took us all to a gymnasium … there may have been approximately 20, 25 families. And they had us all gather in this place; they didn’t tell us why we were there, but we heard the breaking of glass during this time – and we knew that something terrible was happening and was going to be happening to us.’

Herb’s father was temporarily imprisoned, and when the rest of the family returned to their home and store, the windows had all been broken and the premises had been looted.

‘It was the beginning of a terrible change; it was no longer a normal family,’ Herb tells DailyMail.com. ‘We were ostracized because of our religion – and it was the beginning of a very difficult time.’

He adds: ‘After Kristallnacht, we were no longer able to go to school and things were different. The people I thought were my friends all of a sudden weren’t as friendly, because they now all had joined Hitler Youth. Before that, it made no difference to me or to them that I was Jewish. After Kristellnacht, it made a big difference. 


Herb and Gloria have been married for 64 years after he spotted her playing ping pong while on vacation; he still refers to her as his ‘little lady’ and ‘rock’


Gloria tells DailyMail.com: ‘He didn’t tell me what he did for a living; he didn’t tell me what he came from, I was just very attracted. He was adorable … After I met his sister, who had an accent, and I said to him: “How come your sister has an accent and you don’t?” That’s when he told me where he’d come from. Other than that, he was very secretive’


Herb, playing in Sweden with his bicycle, moved to the Scandinavian country with his older sisters at the age of 10; he was first placed with an elderly couple but was later moved to a different Christian family, the Silows in Falun, Sweden, who had teenage children and who Herb came to consider his second parents and siblings


After moving to America and working to help his family, Herb was drafted during the Korean War – before he was a citizen – and served within the continental US; he was integrated with the Mississippi National Guard and tells DailyMail.com: ‘I was probably the first Jewish person they had ever met. But over a period of time, they got to know, they got to like me, I got to like them’


Herb is pictured reuniting with his Swedish ‘relatives’ in 2001; he rarely spoke of his youth and Swedish time to his wife. children and grandchildren, but their curiosity and research led him back to the Scandinavian family who had taken him in as a stranger

‘But you’re talking about eight, nine-year-old children. When somebody says, “There’s a bad man, a bad boy,” then I’m a bad boy. That’s all … you can’t go to school, you don’t have friends.’

As the situation worsened, his father was tipped off by friendly Germans that it was time to get his children out of the country – and the proactive HIAS helped secure them a place in Sweden.

‘I knew absolutely nothing about Sweden; I’m not even sure that I ever heard of Sweden,’ Herb tells DailyMail.com, adding that, in the rush and panic during that period, there was no one to take the time to give more information to the three Gildin children about their destination.

‘Who was going to tell us? Absolutely not. My parents were interested in getting us safe – that was their main interest … It could have been anywhere – it didn’t make any difference at all.’

He and his older sisters, then aged 12 and 14, were placed with families in the same town, Falun, Sweden, but Herb’s initial situation – with an elderly couple who weren’t used to children and spoke no German – didn’t work out. HIAS helped move him to another family, this one with teenage children not much older than Herb – and he flourished, particularly bonding with the youngest daughter, Agneta.

‘I had a good life living in Sweden; it was comfortable,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘I did miss my parents, absolutely did, I missed being with my sisters … but when you’re young enough, you adjust. And I adjusted, I think, reasonably well. They became my family, this was my second mother, second father, second sister and brothers. I did not ever think that I was going to leave. This was a lifetime commitment.’

He tells DailyMail.com: ‘You must understand that, when this family took us in, it was a lifetime commitment. You must understand, the probability of my parents ever leaving Germany and us being able to join them again was probably zero. So when these families took us in, it wasn’t: “I’m going to take you in for a year or two or three”; this was a probability of being a lifetime commitment. They took in and adopted a young boy, and they were going to be part of that family for the rest of my life and their lives.’


Herb’s incredible story is told in new documentary Starfish, filmed by his 29-year-old grandson, Tyler Gildin – who only began hearing some of the family’s stories when his grandfather gave a eulogy in 2017 for  Tyler’s great-aunt, Cele


Herb and Gloria Gildin are pictured with their grandsons at the premiere of The Starfish in January at the Miami Jewish Film Festival; Gloria tells DailyMail.com that her filmmaker grandson, Tyler – second from left – ‘really portrayed what we intended to show,’ adding: ‘One of the important things, to me, was to realize that there are people in this world who will take people in and take care of them – and, at a time like the Kinder transports, people who opened their homes and their hearts to little people, never knowing that they’d ever go back. It’s just rewarding to see that there are people like this in the world’


The new film will also show at a Maryland film festival later this month, and the Gildins hope it resonates with people beyond their family and social circle. Herb tells DailyMail.com: ‘I think that my story, and our story, is such a wider story, because it is so different than most people my age that tell their children and grandchildren about their life … it’s all about concentration camps, gas chambers, death. Ours was a difficult time, but it was wonderful people doing wonderful things. Good things happened during this period of time, and that’s so rare – you don’t hear stories like that’

‘We beat the odds, and ultimately we were able to come to the US – but that didn’t happen too often.’

The Gildin children were lucky; at a time when few nationalities were being allowed into the US, they got in under the Russian quota, because their father had actually been born in that country. The young trio traveled across Eastern Europe, Russia and Siberia to Japan, then boarded a cargo ship bound for America’s West Coast – earlier in 1941, before Pearl Harbor and Japan’s entrance into the war.

‘Sometimes, when I looked back at the possibility of, in 1941, being interred in Japan during the war, under a stateless passport … who would look out for us? Who would take care of us?’ he tells DailyMail.com.

After an arduous journey, the children made it to Seattle – where their arrival made the newspapers because so few refugees were arriving in the States at the time, especially from Germany – but were disappointed because they thought their parents would be waiting to greet them. Instead, the three still had to travel alone from coast to coast to meet their mother and father in New York.

Their family situation in New York was far less comfortable than what the children had been used to in Germany and Sweden; they lived in a poor neighborhood, their parents worked in a shoe factory and sewing, and they were faced with yet another language: English. Some of the other children made fun of Herb, he says, and ‘it wasn’t easy – but we survived.’

He tried to keep in touch with his ‘second family’ in Sweden, but slow and laborious communication through letters – coupled with his responsibilities towards helping the family in New York – eventually made the effort more sporadic.

‘The sad thing is, after a couple of years, I wrote less, spoke less,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘One of my only regrets is that I didn’t keep better contact with that family for more than 50 years … the mother, the Swedish mother, loved me … They had lost a child, and I was the replacement for the child that they had lost. So she – her commitment to me was as a true mother. I think that when she discovered that I had an opportunity to leave, that I was going to leave, I think she was terribly, terribly upset.


Herb and Tyler pose at the grandparents’ home in Delray Beach, Florida. Herb says of the film: ‘I think the young people today should understand. Holocaust, to them, is history – but the story I tell … it’s really a story of grandfather talking to Tyler, my grandson. He asked the questions, l try to tell him. I think it’s a wonderful story just to get on record, because they’re so rare’


Herb, third from right, poses in Sweden during Christmas with his foster Christian family; he tells DailyMail.com: ‘I did miss my parents, absolutely did, I missed being with my sisters … but when you’re young enough, you adjust. And I adjusted, I think, reasonably well. They became my family, this was my second mother, second father, second sister and brothers. I did not ever think that I was going to leave. This was a lifetime commitment’


Although Herb was born in Germany, he traveled on a stateless passport to Sweden – a country he knew nothing about – with his juvenile two sisters


Herb and his older sisters were eventually able to travel to the US to meet their parents, when so few refugees were allowed in that their arrival made headlines in Seattle; the Gildins were able to move to the States because Herb’s father was born in Russia, and the family entered under the Russian quota, he says 


Tyler, wearing an Islanders hat – who grew up close to his grandfather on Long Island –  tells DailyMail.com that, when his grandfather gave his great-aunt’s eulogy, ‘I had never heard any of these stories. And it just kind of hit me, of how have I not filmed this before? I work in film, he’s telling this story.’ Within months, he says, the process of filming began, and grandfather and grandson sat down on camera to explore the family history

‘And I don’t know how she was after we left, obviously not happy, but sad. A few years later, she decided she wanted to come visit me again – [it] must have been five or six years later. She came to New York, and I don’t know why or how – and I guess it still bothers me to this day – my mother did not want to meet the woman that really had been my second mother and saved our lives. Where would we be without this family?

‘I cannot, will never understand why she could not. Guilt, somewhere, I don’t know. I ended up meeting them in New York … I should’ve done better, and I’m sad that my mother never had the opportunity to say thank you. But it is what it is, and she must have had her reasons.’

As time went on, however, Herb continued to build a life of his own. He was drafted during the Korean War but luckily stationed within the US – and integrated with the Mississippi National Guard.

‘I was probably the first Jewish person they had ever met,’ he laughs. ‘But over a period of time, they got to know, they got to like me, I got to like them.’

He joined his brother-in-law’s dairy business after the war, and he also met his future wife: A New Yorker named Gloria who he spotted on vacation while she was playing ping pong.

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‘He didn’t tell me what he did for a living; he didn’t tell me what he came from,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘I was just very attracted. He was adorable.’

The couple tease each other in their Delray Beach home, a bright and airy house filled with carefully curated art and an inground pool outside. Herb, at 89, still calls her his ‘little girl,’ ‘little lady,’ and his ‘rock.’

‘After I met his sister, who had an accent, and I said to him: “How come your sister has an accent and you don’t?” That’s when he told me where he’d come from,’ Gloria says. ‘Other than that, he was very secretive.’

Herb remained that way as the two married and built a life together; they worked day and night to make a lighting business succeed and now have an international workforce. They raised a son and a daughter – and it was their daughter, truly, who spearheaded efforts to find out more about Herb’s past. She studied abroad in Germany and kept digging from there.

‘It was at the insistence, help of my daughter that we finally, after 50 years, had a reunion in Sweden, when I got to meet no longer the parents but now the children and grandchildren of the parents,’ Herb tells DailyMail.com, adding: ‘The parents that were the original people that took us in were no longer alive.’

Herb and Gloria arrived in Sweden with their two children and several grandchildren, and Gloria lights up when she describes seeing her husband meet his Swedish ‘sister.’

It was ‘very touching,’ she tells Daily Mail.com. ‘I had to hold myself back from crying. It was just a very touching experience to see these old people who were remembering themselves as children – and seeing each other 60 years later, and yet having this warmth. It was beautiful.’


Herb and Tyler review family photo albums at the Gildin home in Delray Beach, Florida. Tyler’s documentary about his grandfather, The Starfish, features old family pictures as well as footage from the 2001 reunion of Herb and his Swedish hosts, as well as scenes from when yet another Swedish descendant came to visit America


Filmmaker Tyler holds his three-month-old son, Brody, in his grandparents’ home in Florida; his grandfather Herb says the baby is ‘the first and only member of the fourth generation. There aren’t too many Gildins … now we have another grandson who can continue the Gildin name and all that the Gildins stand for. I’m very proud to be a Gildin; I think we’re very special and we’ve tried to live our lives beautifully – and I hope that goes on to the next generation. And I hope I’m here long enough to enjoy and watch him growing up.’ He adds: ‘I’m pleased that, somewhere, my great-grandson will look at this thing and get to know me a little bit’


Gloria Gildin looks on while Herb smiles at his first great-grandchild; Herb tells DailyMail.com: ‘There’s nothing left on my bucket list; I’ve accomplished everything that I would want to do, and I hope that, throughout these years, that I’ve touched many lives by just being on this earth … And I’m so appreciative of all the people who have touched my life … that’s the story I want to leave for my great-grandson’


Herb and Gloria, front and center, have a son and daughter as well as five grandchildren – and, now, a great-grandson; they are pictured with the family before the arrival of Brody


Herb and Gloria display an endearing and affectionate rapport both in the documentary and while they talk to DailyMail.com, clearly proud of each other and their family


Herb tells DailyMail.com: ‘Immigration today is important; it’s news every day. And I think that we should tell the story of an immigrant who really did well, difficult as it was. I feel we learned that the impossible is not impossible. It is possible if you work hard enough, believe in what you try to do’

Footage from that reunion is included in Tyler’s documentary, as well as scenes from when yet another Swedish descendant came to visit America.

Herb says: ‘When I left Sweden … the youngest daughter of the family was Agneta, and she was, at the time, 17, 16. When I came back, I saw who I presumed was Agneta, but that was an old lady sitting there! And I remembered her as a 17-year-old playmate. It was 50-somewhat years later since we had seen each other, and yet she called me “little brother”, hugged, kissed and talked about the things that we remembered.

It was quite an exciting reunion, and I got to meet her family … they said they knew in the stories their parents told about a young boy that lived with them in Sweden, but they didn’t know too much about Little Herbie.’

The reunion of the families was a heart-warming conclusion to one of the few uplifting stories to take place during World War II – one of different countries and cultures banding together for the overall good of humankind.

‘I think that my story, and our story, is such a wider story, because it is so different than most people my age that tell their children and grandchildren about their life … it’s all about concentration camps, gas chambers, death,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘Ours was a difficult time, but it was wonderful people doing wonderful things. Good things happened during this period of time, and that’s so rare – you don’t hear stories like that.

‘And I think the young people today should understand. Holocaust, to them, is history – but the story I tell … it’s really a story of grandfather talking to Tyler, my grandson. He asked the questions, l try to tell him. I think it’s a wonderful story just to get on record, because they’re so rare.

He adds: ‘Immigration today is important; it’s news every day. And I think that we should tell the story of an immigrant who really did well, difficult as it was. I feel we learned that the impossible is not impossible. It is possible if you work hard enough, believe in what you try to do.’

Herb and Gloria burst with grandparent pride because it’s their grandson who’s brought their story to life; they also hope the documentary’s messages resonate with people outside of their family and social circle as it screens at festivals and, ideally, beyond.

‘He really portrayed what we intended to show,’ Gloria says of Tyler, adding: ‘One of the important things, to me, was to realize that there are people in this world who will take people in and take care of them – and, at a time like the Kinder transports, people who opened their homes and their hearts to little people, never knowing that they’d ever go back. It’s just rewarding to see that there are people like this in the world.

‘Anything can happen in America,’ she says. ‘The American Dream.’

And as they give their interviews and pose, little baby Brody alternately cries and gurgles in the background, the fourth generation Gildin free to enjoy that dream – because of strangers, in Sweden, who opened their homes and hearts in an act of compassion during one of the most shameful episodes in world history.

‘There’s nothing left on my bucket list; I’ve accomplished everything that I would want to do, and I hope that, throughout these years, that I’ve touched many lives by just being on this earth,’ Herb tells DailyMail.com. ‘And I’m so appreciative of all the people who have touched my life … that’s the story I want to leave for my great-grandson.’ 

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