Dr. Erich Klibansky was the headmaster of a Jewish high school in Germany who saved dozens of his students by teaching them English and arranging for them to join the Kindertransport to safety in Great Britain.
Born in Frankfurt to a religious family in 1900, Erich was an exceptional student who studied history, German literature and Romanian languages at university. He married Meta David and together they moved to Breslau, where they both taught at Jewish schools. Their son Hans-Rafael was born in 1928, and the next year the family moved to Cologne, where they had two more sons, Alexander and Michael. Erich became headmaster at the Yavne Jewish gymnasium (high school) in Cologne. It was the only Jewish high school in that part of Germany, the Rhineland. Yavne was a co-ed school teaching both Jewish and secular subjects. His wife Meta also worked at Yavne teaching English. The family found a spacious apartment in Volksgartenstrasse, a desirable part of town.
Erich – known to his students as Dr. Klibansky – was immediately popular with students and staff at the school. They appreciated his warm manner and personal interest in every student, as well as his strong leadership at a difficult time.
Germany was in a severe economic crisis, and as a private school Yavne didn’t get any subsidy from the state. Erich’s job as headmaster became focused on fundraising. Motivated to ensure that any Jewish student in Cologne could get a good education despite financial hardship, Erich successfully raised money to keep the school open. As his reputation grew, young Jews started coming to Yavneh from outside Cologne and soon the newcomers made up a quarter of the student body.
As the Nazis came to power in the 1930’s the situation grew grim for Jews in Germany. In 1937 the Klibansky family was forced out of their nice apartment in Volksgartenstrasse and relocated to a tiny flat in a squalid slum. After the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, it became clear there was no future for Jews in Germany. At this point, Erich’s mission as headmaster of Yavne changed. Previously, the school was focused on training the students for exams and university but now the only important thing was survival. He heard about the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort bringing Jewish children from Nazi-controlled areas to safety in England. Erich determined to get his students on the Kindertransport, and in fact hoped to relocate the entire school to England.
He re-focused the school curriculum to provide intensive English-language instruction for all students in preparation for their escape. Erich reached out to prominent Jews in London and got support for his plan to move Yavne high school to England. The Central British Council for Refugees arranged for the students to stay in a college dormitory.
By summer 1939, Erich was able to send five entire classes of students – a total of 130 people – on the Kindertransport to England. His plan was to get all the students out and then join them in England with his family. However everything came to a halt when war broke out in 1939. The borders were sealed, as was the fate of the Klibansky family and those students who hadn’t left yet. Erich, his wife and three young sons managed to hide from the Nazis until July 1942, when they were arrested and transported to an unknown location. On July 25, the family of five was shot in a wooded area in Belarus and, dying, dumped in a prepared pit.
The brave headmaster’s story has been largely forgotten, but in 1990 a square in Cologne where Yavne high school used to be was dedicated to him and renamed the Erich Klibansky Platz.
For saving the lives of 130 Jewish students, we honor Erich Klibansky as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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