Anita Kempler Lobel – Gift #1 from Krakow, Poland

“My life has been good. I want more. Mine is only another story.”  Anita Kempler Lobel (p. 190)

Anita Kempler Lobel - Swedish Red Cross White Bus Rescue

Young Anita Kempler lived in Krakow, Poland with her parents and younger brother.

When the war came in 1940 and her parents were forced to disappear to avoid capture, Anita and her brother Bernhard (Gift #2) were taken by their nanny (whom they called Niania) into the Polish countryside to be kept safe.

“Aside from the fact that there was an outside force that hated us and chased us, I always felt my brother and I were protected by this person who chose to protect us.

I loved her and she loved us, and I think that this was very important.”[1]

Young Anita was one of the many rescued from Ravensbrück by the Swedish Red Cross conveys of White Buses and taken to Sweden.

With little knowledge of what was happening, Anita and her brother traveled on a bus under the Red Cross symbol to a ferry which landed in Malmo, Sweden, to begin their journey back to life, freedom and contribution.

Among the many stricken with tuberculosis, Anita and her brother joined other children in a sanatorium upon arrival.

She recalls the ‘restorative’ experiences there. Having some friends, learning a new language, reading books, being cared for by “stoic, …calm”, and “reasonable” people in an “orderly” society.

Anita recalls that “between the ages of 5 and 11, I knew no libraries, no schools, no books. I did not know how to read.

I lived in a wicked country during a wicked time. I was hunted and often hungry.”

After the White Bus ride to freedom, she “was recovering from madness and no civilization and tuberculosis, in a sanatorium in the south of Sweden.

I discovered books. They were handed to me by kind nurses who gave me food and clean clothes. Who tucked me into a clean bed. Who smelled clean and nice.”[2]

Two years after the war ended, Anita and Bernhard reunited with their parents, and after 7 years in Sweden, the Kempler family moved to New York City.

Anita graduated from Washington Irving High School and enrolled at the Pratt Institute of Fine Arts.

While in a school play, she met the play’s director Arnold Lobel. They married in 1955, lived in Brooklyn, had two children, Adrianne and Adam.

Together, Arnold and Anita wrote and illustrated over 100 children’s books that still enthrall youngsters now three generations later.

The Frog and the Toad are often some of the first words kids learn. The numerous awards and honors they received are richly deserved.

Sadly, this love story has an ironic ending. Family man, collaborator in writing and illustrating, Arnold was gay at a time when it was brutally stigmatized.

People with AIDS were pariahs in many parts of the US (and world) society.

Famous AIDS activist Larry Kramer decried the official inaction to help people with AIDS and to develop medications to fight the disease; his autobiography is entitled Reports from the Holocaust.

Arnold shared his secret with family in the early 1970s; he and Anita divorced about a decade later.

When Arnold died in 1987 from the complications of AIDS, he joined a list which the Associated Press entitled “It has a name: AIDS.”

Anita survived one Holocaust, lost her former husband to another, and still had the courage to live a full life. In 2021, her “second husband, the great love and true romance of my life for the past 34 years, died.”

Her life combines the gift of love with the reality of loss, the gift of romance with the reality of endings. [3]

Anita Kempler Lobel’s Gift

Anita’s life view could be one of horror, darkness, death and hatred.

Rather, a survivor, an author, illustrator, singer, actor and teacher, her work remains animated, hopeful and helpful. Her ‘children’s’ books contain clear lessons and profound truths about life for adults.

Reflecting on her childhood experiences which saved her life by feigning to be a Catholic, once Anita became settled in New York City, she realized “Oh well, I am not going to lie any more. I am not going to pretend.”[4]

A woman coming to terms with her life, its opportunities and her skill to make others’ lives richer.

What a gift!

[1] Lobel, op.cit.

[2] Interview with Anita Lobel by Mr. Schu January 17, 2014

[3]  Kramer, Larry. Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. New York: St. Martins Press, 1994.

[4] Rodney Welsh. ”Illustrator and Holocaust Survivor Anita Lobel Donates Archive to USC (University of South Carolina).   USC and Higher Education, November 9 – 15, 2016

Gift 2 – her brother Bernhard