story by Josh Taylor Souza
special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE — Even though it was more than 80 years ago, Betty Armstrong of Fayetteville can still recall one moment in time as if it were yesterday.
She remembers gathering around the family radio, working the knobs until a stern, hollow voice came pouring through the speakers. A voice Armstrong has never forgotten.
The scene is a pure slice of Americana, except for the location. It was Nazi Germany circa 1931 and the voice on the radio belonged to a young Adolf Hitler.
Even at the tender age of nine, Betty could already sense something sinister in the man's speech, though it would be still a hand full of years before the rest of the world saw the evil with their own eyes.
"I could tell the first time I ever heard him speak, but not everybody heard what I did, especially my mother," recalled Armstrong. "I think I have always been able to read people well and even before (things got bad) I thought he didn't sound like a good man."
Armstrong, born Betty Abrahamson, was the daughter of a Jewish, German solider. Her father fought for Germany in the first World War and suffered wounds on the battlefield that cost him his life when Betty was only six years old.
She is the youngest of three siblings that includes a twin sister (Edith) and an older brother (Alfred). Armstrong and her siblings were first-hand witnesses to the persecution of the Jewish people in Germany during the 1930's growing up in Frankfurt.
"My sister and I both got it bad growing up mostly because we had more Jewish features than a lot of other kids in our neighborhood. But it was terrible for everybody who was a Jew in Europe," said Armstrong. "We had rocks thrown at us everywhere we walked. We were excluded from some places. But the biggest injustice to us was the way the Nazi government was taking away wages from Jewish families. My mother just couldn't raise a family without that money."
Armstrong’s mother depended heavily on a government subsidy she was afforded after her husband’s death. Confiscation of pensions and raids of homes for valuables left many Jewish families unable to feed and care for the children.
At 14, Betty's life would change forever. With financial strain mounting and an increasingly hostile environment bubbling around them, the Abrahamson children made their escape from the Nazi stranglehold.
Betty and Edith were put into the custody of a transport service for Jewish children and eventually made their way to a sponsoring family in the United States.
Unlike the more known Kindertransports – Great Britain’s humanitarian effort that helped 10,000 Jewish children flee Nazi Germany – the Abrahamson girls got their pass to safety from a sponsorship their mother Rosa secured from the National Council for Jewish Women.
These direct sponsorships to America were part of a much smaller program in size given the immigration quotas the United States had at that time, according to Margaret Goldberger, spokeswoman for the Kindertransport Association in New York.
Goldberger was also part of the kindertranports out of Nazi Germany as a young girl. She said the kindertransports ran between December 1938 and September 1939.
The Jewish Women’s program ran from the mid 1930s through 1944, with an average of 94 children immigrating per year.
“Unfortunately not as many children were able to make it to the United States as did England, but we do know about 1,000 children found sponsoring families thanks to the National Association of Jewish Women,” Goldberger said. Today they are referred to as the “One Thousand Children”.
Parents or guardians could not accompany the children.The few infants included in the program were tended by other children on their transport.
The last time Betty saw her mother was at a train station in Hamburg as she and Edith were sent away, teary eyed and broken-hearted by this selfless act their mother made to give them hope during desperate times.
The girls made their way to the United States on an 11-day boat ride across the Atlantic Ocean. Their brother Alfred at age 17 was too old for the transport program but escaped into England were he was enlisted into the British armed forces.
"I was scared for my brother and my family in Germany, but at that time I couldn't afford to look back and worry about anybody else," said Armstrong. "I knew there was a good chance I would never see my family again, but I never knew how bad it would eventually get in Germany."
Within about 18 months from the time the twins reached safe ground, the Nazi regime began rounding up Jews and sending them to ghettos and then to work camps, which ultimately became Hilter’s “Final Solution” by 1944.
By the time the war was over, 63 members of Betty's family had been killed by the Nazis, including her mother.
"I try not to ever look back on anything because that is no way to live," said Armstrong. "When I left Germany it stopped existing to me. As far as I am concerned I would have rather gone to Alcatraz than return to that place."
The twins made their way to San Francisco where they were both adopted by the Hofshneider family and quickly taught themselves how to speak English.
"The family that took us in was just wonderful to us," said Armstrong. "The father (Taylor) was a good man. He was a Christian man and it was the first time I saw anyone who acted the way he did, which was much different from the Christians in Germany," continued Armstrong.
"I was never a practicing Jew once I came to the states. I had just had enough with the whole thing and I didn't have a lot of fond memories of the faith from the old country," Armstrong said.
Betty met her husband Olin Armstrong at age 21.The two were married for 51 years and had one daughter. The couple lived most of that time in Pineville, Mo. where they settled following Olin’s military service. Betty moved to Northwest Arkansas to be near her daughter Debbie Tinnin almost two years ago.
Edith still lives in San Francisco with her family. Alfred, who survived his stint in the war, was reunited with his sisters 11 years after the family was separated. He lives in San Jose, Calif.
"When I look back at how many entire families were wiped out during Hitler’s reign it always makes me feel blessed to know at least my brother and sister and I got out alive," said Armstrong. "It was like a nightmare and I am just glad I was able to get out."
Armstrong, who recently turned 90, has been a resident of Katherine's place nursing home in Fayetteville for nearly a year. She speaks with her siblings on a weekly basis.
Goldberger said together the Kindertransport and One Thousand Children campaigns saved more than 11,000 young lives and while that is tiny measure to the 1.5 million children to perish in the Holocaust, these humanitarian efforts helped keep at least part of this Jewish generation alive.