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Naperville school kids help women rekindle wartime friendship

Edith Westerfeld shows her excitement for scrapbook thwas given her by MadisJunior High students Friday Naperville.   |

Edith Westerfeld shows her excitement for the scrapbook that was given to her by Madison Junior High students Friday in Naperville. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 20, 2011 12:32AM

They met briefly more than 70 years ago, two young Jewish girls fleeing Germany to escape the growing anti-Semitic nightmares of the Nazi regime.

The girls became friends for two weeks.

And then they never saw one another again.

But now, thanks to the efforts of a classroom of Naperville eighth graders, Edith Westerfeld and Gerda Katz will be reunited next month.

“We both had the same circumstances,” said Westerfeld, who was 12 when she left home. “She was only 10. Imagine having to leave your parents and your family at the age of 10.”

The eighth-graders at Madison Junior High School learned the girls’ story when they read an account by Westerfield’s daughter, Fern Schumer Chapman, in one of their classes. After Chapman visited the school and talked to them earlier this year, they knew they wanted to help find Katz.

“Different people looked her up in different search engines,” said Mishal Sherwani, 14. “We found a little community newspaper item about her and her husband’s anniversary.”

Fate brought Westerfeld and Katz together back in 1938 when their parents separately enlisted the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to get the children out of Nazi-occupied Europe.

The girls spent nearly two weeks together, playing aboard ship and then sharing a whirlwind tour of New York City, before Katz was sent to live with strangers in Seattle. Westerfield landed in Chicago, taken in by an aunt and uncle.

Thanks to the Naperville students, the long separation will be over next month. Westerfeld and her daughter will go to Seattle in late June to spend a little time with Katz.

Because Westerfield was so young when she left her family, she didn’t talk much about what she had been through. When she and her daughter went to Germany a dozen years ago, Chapman heard about the town historian who was haunted for decades because he failed to help Westerfield’s mother before she and her husband were taken to a concentration camp and killed.

Chapman, who lives in Lake Bluff, had tried on her own to find Katz. She looked on Google and, but she privately dreaded what she might learn. She couldn’t bear the thought of having to break the news to her mom that Katz had perished.

“I think I was a little resistant to looking,” Chapman said during a visit to the school Friday morning with her parents.

Finding Katz didn’t prove all that difficult for the social network-savvy teens.

“I love how the kids didn’t believe they couldn’t find her,” said Susan Rice, communications director for District 203. “They just didn’t think that was possible.”

The Madison students are hoping to catch the reunion via Skype.

Chapman noted that the Madison students are just a year or two older than her mother was when the tide of anti-Semitism began to rise in Germany.

“The same age group of kids have repaired, to some extent, that damage,” she said.

Westerfeld felt the gratitude, too.

“I think you did a wonderful thing for your class,” she old them. “I think this experience will be with you all your life, and you’ll talk about it. You’ll say, ‘You know what we did in junior high? We found a friend for this lady who hadn’t heard from her for 73 years.’”

Chapman is still a little apprehensive about the reunion.

“I’m not sure either one of them is fully prepared to revisit some of these experiences,” she said.

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