CHELSEA – In a sunny common room at the Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea, Henny Wenkart greets visitors with a smile. Wenkart, who is 90, has spent much of life in academia, shuttling between Cambridge and New York while teaching at Harvard and Stern College at Yeshiva University. She speaks with a blended Boston and New York accent.
“I’m an American Jew,” she says, when asked about her identity.
But just below her the surface of her raspy observations, there’s another story that she doesn’t think about or discuss often. Wenkart was born in Austria, and in 1939 she was one of 50 children lucky enough to leave Vienna and move to a summer resort at Brith Shalom Lodge in Philadelphia. On Jan. 27, at 3 p.m. on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea will hold a film screening of the HBO documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus.” Wenkart, a mother of three and grandmother of five, is prominently featured in the film.
Wenkart remembers a charmed early life in the ninth district of Vienna, where her family lived in a large apartment with a wraparound balcony. She sensed political change on March 13, 1938 – the day Hitler conquered Austria – when she woke up and looked out the window. “The building across the street had big swastika flags all down the building, and everyone across the street had these armbands and Hitler pins,” she remembers.
Wenkart also recalls her neighbors, who welcomed Hitler and the Nazis. “They were very enthusiastic for Hitler. They were anti-Semitic and they stood around and laughed when women in their fur coats were made to scrub the sidewalk with a toothbrush. They loved the show. Very few behaved decently,” she says.
The next year she spent much of her time with her family. Forbidden to attend school because she was a Jew, the family plotted their departure. Her parents heard about a program that would take 50 Jewish children to Philadelphia, and sent her to interview. She told the organizers that she wanted to bring her two-year-sister, and they declined but offered her a spot on the trip.
“I got sick, I went to bed,” she says. “I couldn’t eat or sleep and the reason I was sick was that I had no decision to make. The minute they said that I could go I was going to go. I was leaving my parents and my sister in danger and saving my own life and I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t get over it, and I never did get over it.”
On June 3, 1939, she landed in America and stayed at the camp until Sept. of 1939. At that point, miraculously, she reunited with her parents and sister, who were able to obtain visas and escape from Austria.
The family first landed in Baltimore before settling in Providence, where she grew up and attended Brown University. At Brown, she helped found the school’s Hillel program, and it was there she met her late husband Henry David Epstein.
“I don’t think too much about the Shoah,” says Wenkart, who holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard. Wenkart went on to found the Jewish Women’s Poetry Workshop, and edit The Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. She has also edited the poetry anthology “Sarah’s Daughters Sing” (1990), co-edited “Which Lilith? Feminist Writers Recreate the First Woman” (1998), and published a collection of her poetry, “Love Poems of a Philanderer’s Wife” (2005). Wenkart was also a founding board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
She believes much of the hatred against Jews by Germans could be traced to the longstanding practice of Christians teaching children to hate Jews. As for lessons from the Holocaust, she pauses before discussing a dilemma people face when a government targets a minority. “When things get bad some people meet the test of remaining decent and many people don’t,” she says. “Could it happen again? Yes. Sure it could.”