Naperville students reunite two women after 73 years
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, that is, they were reunited earlier this month by the unlikeliest of characters: an eighth-grade social science class at Naperville's Madison Junior High.
Started with a book
Several months ago, school librarian Lisanne Carlson was lining up author visits and came across Fern Schuman Chapman and her historical fiction book, "Is it Night or Day?" The book details the One Thousand Children childhood immigration experience of her mother, Edith Westerfeld.
"It seemed to fit with the eighth-grade curriculum, so I invited her to come discuss the book with our students," Carlson said.
During her visit, Chapman told of how her mother and Katz would eat ice cream and play on the cruise ship, forming an inseparable bond. But once they reached New York City, they completely lost touch. The story tugged at the heart strings of teachers and students alike.
"I was so moved by the story especially when (Chapman) talked to us and said it was just her mother's wish to see Gerda again," said social science chairwoman Catie O'Boyle. "But I was just as moved when I went back to my classroom full of 14-year-old social networkers who still believe nothing is impossible."
Within minutes, O'Boyle said, 14-year-old Jessica Deutsch stood up in class and said "Why can't we find her?"
Jessica said Friday that after reading the book, Edith didn't feel like a stranger.
"I felt that it was the right thing to do. I knew if we all worked together, we could do this and it would be helpful," she said. "So I said 'We can find Gerda. Let's do this.'"
Before long, every student in the class had a role, whether it was searching the federal government's Enemy Aliens registry or following possible Google leads.
Eighth-graders Casey Smith and Kyle Jensen led the research effort.
"I think what compelled me to do this is that every year we learn about the Holocaust and I want to change it," Casey said. "Obviously I'm never going to be able to change history so this was a positive way and a great opportunity to reunite two friends."
Kyle called the effort a "quick way to change the future for the better" for both women.
Withing a week of searching and discovering there were six people named Gerda Katz in the country, the students discovered a link to a 2-week- old community newsletter in Seattle that included a story about Katz and her 60th wedding anniversary. After several carefully worded emails and two voice mails to Katz, O'Boyle received a call from Katz's son on May 6. They had found their Gerda and she was eager to reconnect with Edith, who now lives in Skokie.
"So we found ourselves in a situation where we found Gerda but hadn't received permission from her to tell Fern or Edith, who didn't even know we had been searching," O'Boyle said. "A few days later, I got a letter from (Katz) telling me she had reached out to Edith and they had their connection moment. It was just what we wanted because they had their private moment. We want to know about the story but we didn't want to take the story."
Katz's initial reach-out to Westerfeld was brief but meaningful.
"I have thought of you often and am so thankful that you found me," Katz wrote on April 28. "Can't wait until we speak together."
Kyle Jensen said the class burst into applause and cheering when O'Boyle shared the news.
"Not many eighth-graders can say they reunited two holocaust survivors," he said. "This was an incredible experience."
Chapman also said the news came as a bit of a shock, causing her to use an expletive not usually in her vocabulary.
"I was at Manchester Township High School in New Jersey to talk about the book," Chapman said. "It was pretty incredible to be able to tell those students that as I was speaking to them, these students had located Gerda. The whole gymnasium broke into applause."
O'Boyle said she couldn't be more proud of her students, both for their voracious effort in the project and for the personal care they took during the process.
"This is the May of their eighth-grade year, a time when most students are just trying to get out of here, and this is what they did," O'Boyle said. "We treat 14-year-olds too much like children and that's when we get the reaction we don't like. But when given responsibility and respect, they are truly stunning human beings."
Chapman returned to Madison Junior High School Friday morning, but this time she brought Westerfeld, who was anxious to thank the students for changing her life "in an incredible way."
"I want to thank you, thank you, thank you for doing what you did," a teary Westerfeld told students during a Friday morning reception in her honor. "We've tried this but we were not successful in finding her. Maybe we would have in the future but you did it overnight with your modern technology that an old lady like me doesn't have."
Since the initial email, Westerfeld said she and Katz have spoken a few more times, most recently on Mother's Day. They are finalizing plans for Chapman and Westerfeld to fly to Seattle to meet Katz.
"I am so anxious to learn her whole story and how her life has been," Westerfeld said. "We have 70 years to catch up on and I can't wait."