Tales from the rescued: “Lena: My 100 Children” in Stamford
By Cindy Mindell
Feige Bader was nine when she was plucked from a Krakow orphanage amid the rubble of World War II. Four years later, she and 99 other Jewish children who had survived the war were living a new life in Israel. Their story is captured in the film, “Lena: My 100 Children,” which will be shown on Aug. 11 in Stamford. Bader, now Frances Schaff, will introduce the film.
Schaff was born in Kosiv in 1936, a village then under Polish rule. She was the youngest of 10, born to her father’s second wife. In 1939, before the Nazis invaded the country, her mother died of tuberculosis; her father and six of her siblings would die during the Holocaust. An older brother, Chaim, would survive the war in a Siberian prison and make his way to Brooklyn, N.Y. At age six, Feige was taken in by a non-Jewish family who hid her in a cramped barn attic. When the war ended three years later, they brought her to an orphanage in Krakow.
It was there that Schaff met Lena Kuchler, a Polish Jew who had survived the war by posing as a Roman Catholic and working as a nanny and teacher in Poland. After the war, Kuchler returned home only to discover that her family and neighbors had all been driven away. She went to the Jewish Committee Center in Krakow, where surviving Jews could obtain food, water, and clothing, and locate family members. There she discovered dozens of abandoned and orphaned Jewish children, and became determined to help them.
“I saw Lena come to the orphanage, but what she did first was take children who were not well, children who were very sick,” Schaff recalls. “She took them to a resort place, where they might get well. So the first time Lena came she did not take me. And I was sad. But the second time, when she came again, she did.”
In 1946, Kuchler got the children out of the country on false passports, bribing border guards in then-Czechoslovakia. Government officials in Prague threatened to send the group back, but Kuchler convinced them to allow her to take the children to France.
In 1948, Kuchler decided that Israel was the best place to relocate, and got a group of the older children onto the Exodus. “Some found relatives who wanted them; a few were adopted by people in France who had no children. But most of us chose to stay with Lena,” Schaff says, and the rest of the children went with their foster mother to Israel in 1949. They were taken in by Kvutzat Schiller, a kibbutz near Rehovot. Kuchler left the kibbutz and remarried, living out her years in Israel.
Kuchler published “My 100 Children,” an autobiography, in 1987. Later that year, “Lena: My 100 Children,” a docu-drama based on her autobiography and starring Linda Lavin, was broadcast nationwide in the U.S. Kuchler died that year at 85, shortly before the film was completed. In 2002, 50 of the surviving children gathered in Israel to mark what would have been Kuchler’s 100th birthday, a reunion captured by Israeli filmmakers Amalia Marglin and Oshra Schwartz in the award-winning 2003 documentary, “My 100 Children.”
In 1953, Schaff moved to Brooklyn to live with her brother, Chaim, and kept in touch with Kuchler until the older woman died.
Frances Schaff will introduce “Lena: My 100 Children” on Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 2 p.m. at Atria, 77 Third St., Stamford. Info: (203) 327-4551.