Naperville students surprised by reunited Jewish refugees

A group of Naperville students got the surprise of a lifetime last week when two women they reunited earlier this spring showed up at Madison Junior High School.

Edith Westerfeld and Gerda Katz met aboard a ship called the Deutschland more than 73 years ago as they were sent to America by their parents to escape the Nazis.

As young girls traveling alone, they quickly bonded and became best friends during their 10-day ocean voyage. But when they arrived in the U.S. they were separated and never saw each other again -- until students from Madison helped reunite them.

About 30 former Madison social science students were invited back Aug. 10 to the school's Learning Resource Center, with the belief they would be posing for re-enactment photos to document the research they did to reunite the two main subjects of Fern Schuman Chapman's historical fiction book “Is it Night or Day?”

The book details the One Thousand Children childhood immigration experience of her mother, Edith Westerfeld, and her friend Gerda Katz.

Edith met with the students in May, but health concerns kept Gerda from joining her. But the two eventually met up in July in Edith's hometown of Seattle.

“Unbeknown to us, a television network producing a show that will appear on the Oprah Winfrey Network picked up on the story and followed Edith and her daughter and recorded the reunion,” district spokeswoman Susan Rice said. “They had contacted Catie O'Boyle, the teacher who coordinated the project, and asked if she and a couple students could come out to Seattle and be a part of this. Logistically it was almost impossible for them, so she asked them to come here. And it's great to be able to showcase Madison and a larger group of students.”

Not only were the students filmed for re-enactments and interviews, they were also, to their surprise, shown the producer's original footage of Edith and Gerda meeting in Seattle.

Rice said the footage concluded with a slide crediting the students for making the reunion possible.

“And then the camera people said ‘Now turn around.' And all the kids just turned, and standing there at the back of the LRC were these two tiny ladies, Edith and Gerda, holding hands,” Rice said. “The kids just spontaneously got up out of their chairs and rushed these two women and surrounded them. It was fantastic.”

Rice said Gerda immediately proclaimed the students her 30 new grandchildren and thanked them for their work.

“Gerda is everything they could have imagined,” Rice said. “It was great to hear how their children are very much alike and had very similar experiences and their grandchildren had very similar experiences.”

Rice said “Found,” the show documenting the reunion, is expected to air in January.

Naperville students reunite two women after 73 years