Stuyvesant Hosts Lilly Maier, Author of Arthur and Lilly, for Book Talk

Lilly Maier, author of Arthur and Lilly, guest-speaks at Stuyvesant Jewish History course.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Cover Image
By Robert Sandler

History teacher Robert Sandler hosted Lilly Maier, the author of Arthur and Lilly, to speak with his two Jewish History classes in late October. Maier is an Austrian Holocaust historian and is currently on a book tour of the recently published English version of Arthur and Lilly. For those who wish to read Maier’s book, she has generously donated a copy to the Stuyvesant library. 

Arthur and Lilly tells the story of Arthur Kern, a Holocaust survivor who was transported to freedom via the Kindertransport (children’s transport), the largest rescue operation that happened during the entire Holocaust, in which 15,000 children were saved. Maier met Arthur when she was just 11 years old, having lived in the same Viennese apartment that Arthur grew up in. “He spent his childhood in the apartment in the 1930s, and I spent my childhood in this apartment in the 1990s. When I was 11, in March 2003, [Arthur] came back to Vienna because he wanted to see his old apartment,” Maier said. “He was the only survivor out of his family, so [this apartment] was his last connection to his family, and it was important for him to see it. That’s when I first met him.”

Arthur grew up in Austria but was forced to evacuate when the Nazis took control. “Arthur, who was still called ‘Oswald’ at the time, was sent on a Kindertransport to France. In France, the Jewish refugee children lived together in children’s homes,” Maier said. “Then, you had the problem that Germans occupied large parts of France, and you had to get the children to safety once again. That’s when he went on a second Kindertransport and came to America.”

While many pieces of Holocaust literature end after World War II, Maier chose to depict the entirety of Arthur’s history. “This book tells the entire story until the present tense,” Maier said. “A lot of [books about the Holocaust] end in 1945, and Arthur was 16 in 1945. It felt very wrong to stop telling his life just because the war ended. And I always wanted to also talk about how he found peace with his past and became a really happy man.”

After coming to the United States, Arthur lived with a foster family in New York City. He attended Stuyvesant and was a graduate of the class of 1947. “He lived in New York in a foster family all by himself and really never heard from his parents again,” Maier said. “That’s when he went to Stuyvesant.” 

While the majority of the book focuses on Arthur’s history, Maier also chose to include personal narration and reflection due to Arthur’s profound impact on her. “Why is the book called Arthur and Lilly? Because I am also in the book,” Maier said. “I also talk about how I met him, how this influenced my life. I became a Holocaust historian because of this chance encounter when I was 11 years old. It had a huge impact on my life, and I talk about that.”

Since meeting Arthur and writing his story, Maier has formed close relationships with not only him but also his family in America. “[I visited them] during the winter, every Thanksgiving for a couple years, I went to weddings, so I spent a lot of time there, and it was nice because I was able to develop a relationship with his sons and his grandchildren, and now that Arthur’s not alive, it’s nice that I still have that connection. It didn’t die with him,” Maier said. “Arthur and his wife Trudie always introduced me as their Austrian granddaughter.”

One way Maier conducted research for Arthur and Lilly was by visiting all the places that were significant to him, a journey that included Stuyvesant. “What I did when I started writing my book was I started traveling to all the places that [Arthur] had been. [I went to] Austria, France, New York, I went to all the places that he had been, and I wrote that in the book,” Maier said. “One time, in 2016, I walked past Stuyvesant, [but] that’s not the building that Arthur would have gone to. He went to the Old Stuyvesant building, and I have his yearbook.”

Maier is currently on an eight-week book tour promoting the publication of her book’s English translation. This translation was particularly significant, as Arthur’s family was unable to read the German version. “It took five years to get [Arthur and Lilly] translated into English,” Maier said. “This is very special because Arthur’s family cannot read German, so none of them had actually read it.”

When visiting New York, Maier made sure to speak at Stuyvesant due to its historical and personal significance to both her and Arthur. “When I started planning the book tour, I was doing museums, I was doing Jewish centers, but I also wanted to speak at the schools,” Maier said. “What better school to speak at than Stuyvesant, where Arthur went to?”

In particular, Maier found a lot of meaning in visiting Stuyvesant’s museum classroom, which would have resembled Arthur’s experience. “We had five minutes after the second class and [Sandler] showed me the museum classroom that looked like it was when Arthur was there. There was this display case. They had a hat from the class of ‘47 and Arthur was the class of ‘47,” Maier said. “It was especially special that I got to see the museum classroom because on one hand, it’s super cool to talk to Stuyvesant students about one of their alumni, but seeing the old room made me feel close to Arthur.”

While the opportunity to speak at Stuyvesant was poignant for Maier, it also struck home for many of the talk’s attendees. “What made this story unique is that Arthur actually went to Stuyvesant, and I thought that connection made it particularly meaningful to me and to the students,” Sandler said. “I thought Maier [brought] the Holocaust [...] into a human scale so that students could understand more, by seeing how this one family was impacted, rather than numbers or statistics or maps on a PowerPoint. It was also fascinating to see how it impacted her and what she thought of the fact that Arthur went back to visit her apartment in Vienna.”

Many students were also engaged in the talk, seeing it as a powerful reflection of not only conditions during the Holocaust but also wider trends today. “Ultimately we don’t talk enough in our mainstream history classes about the Holocaust ([Global Studies], [U.S. History]) and its effects on the individual, which is what we see here. Normally the emphasis is on the six million people and the camps, but this is about how a kid was affected [and] separated from family,” senior Theodore Landa said in an e-mail interview. “We don’t talk enough about issues immigrants to the United States face. One of the parts of this story is that [Arthur] was separated from all of the others in his refugee group which had become his family, and he was given to a foster family, and that’s traumatizing as well but we don’t talk about it. This is not just an issue [for] the Holocaust refugees, it’s [also] an issue for all child refugees who come to the U.S.”

Sandler also mentioned the importance of education at a time of great hatred and fear. “I think it’s great that we have a Jewish history class at the time of rapid antisemitism, hate crimes rising, [and] all this terrible stuff going on in college campuses,” Sandler said. “It’s all very upsetting, so I think it’s super important for students especially to learn the history of antisemitism and Jewish culture.”

In light of this antisemitism, in her talk, Maier chose to convey a message of peace and positivity, aiming to highlight Arthur’s joy and happiness. “November 9 is the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, so initially when I was going on this book tour, I thought I would be talking mostly about death. It’s been 85 years since the Nazis did all these terrible things, but also 85 years since the Kindertransport,” Maier said. “[In recent days], antisemitism has been much more present for people, and so what I focus on now is talking about what a happy man Arthur was. My book is actually very positive and hopeful, and I think it might give people a bit of perspective and peace at this time.”