Off the Shelf: Kindertransport, fiction and fact by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Kindertransport is one of the few humanitarian rescue efforts made during the pre-World War II era. Between November 1938 and September 1939, more than 10,000 minors – Jewish and non-Jewish – were able to escape from areas controlled by Nazi Germany and receive shelter in England. Yet, the circumstance of the transport raises many questions: What was life like in German-controlled areas that made parents feel their children were safer alone in a foreign country than they were at home? What was the result of the transport? Were the children treated well, did they assimilate into British society or did they feel forever strangers? How many of them were reunited with their parents? Two recent works – the novel “The Last Train to London” by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper) and the nonfiction study “The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory” by Jennifer Craig-Norton (Indiana University Press) – look to answer these questions in fiction and fact. Clayton focuses on events that occurred before the war, while Craig-Norton examines the Kindertransport before, during and after the war.
“The Last Train to London” offers insights into fictional and real-life characters. The fictional characters include 15-year-old Jewish Stephan Neuman and his Christian friend, Zofie-Helene Peger, both of whom live in Vienna. Before Hitler annexes Austria, Stephan is more concerned about his writing career – he wants to be a playwright – than with politics. His parents and younger brother don’t believe Hitler will be a problem and, even if he is, Stephan’s mother is too ill to travel. When Stephan meets Zofie-Helene, who is a math genius, the two become fast friends, that is, until life changes after the Nazis arrive. It’s not safe for Austrians to be friends with Jews, but that is not the only problem Zofie-Helene faces: the Nazis want to close down her mother’s anti-Nazi newspaper and threaten the rest of the family if her mother does not stop writing anti-Hitler articles. 
The novel also features insights into two real-life characters: Adolph Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, and Truus Wijsmuller, a Dutchwoman who rescued Jewish children before and after the Kinderstransport began. Truus, who is known as Tanta (aunt) Truus, smuggles children across the border by car or train. If her mission is discovered, not only will the children be in danger, but she will be jailed or killed. She works with those in England who want to open the country to all Jewish refugees, but there is a great fear that would lead to an antisemitic backlash. It’s easier to convince the country to allow children to enter without their parents. While Truus works tirelessly, even at the expense of her own health, to save those in need, Eichmann is only concerned with his own advancement. He chafes when others receive promotions he feels he deserves. Yet, somehow, Truus is able to negotiate with him to allow the Kindertransport to occur. Perhaps Eichmann was willing to do so because of the limits he placed on exactly what must happen: if there is one variation, then no one will be allowed to leave. 
“The Last Train to London” clearly shows the pain and heartbreak felt by parents who were willing do whatever was necessary to keep their children safe and alive. Clayton has written a wonderful, moving story and created interesting, believable characters. Even a cameo of Hitler shows a human side of him, which might make readers sympathetic if only they didn’t know the damage and destruction he caused. Each individual story will resonate with readers, but, taken together, they create something more than the sum of their parts: a heart-breaking portrait that also reminds us that even in the worst of times, there are people willing to lend a helping hand without regard to their own lives and safety.
Clayton’s novel celebrates the Kindertransport, writing at its end that “some ten thousand children, three-quarters of them Jewish, found refuge in England thanks to the real-life heroes involved in the Kindertransport... Rescued children grew up to be prominent artists, politicians, scientists, and even, like sixteen-year-old Walter Kohn, who was rescued from Vienna by Tante Truus, Nobel laureates.” However, Craig-Norton uses archival material to show the actual results were far more complex. Using writing from the time – by the Kindertransport children, their parents living overseas, their caregivers and the agencies responsible for the children – she shows that not every story had a happy ending. That doesn’t negate the importance of what occurred, but does show the myth of a perfect rescue is not true. Craig-Norton’s greatest success is to give names to these children and makes readers better understand their lives in England.
Craig-Norton’s work allows readers to see another side of each issue. For example, although the children being brought to England has been celebrated as showing how the country opened its arms to those in need, the children were brought alone because England refused to admit their parents. Families were turned down because of the fear that an increase in the number of Jewish adults would lead to a rise in antisemitism. For many Jewish children, no arrangements were made for their Jewish education. Some foster families even encouraged the children to convert to Christianity. The children did receive help finding jobs, but they were also pushed to leave school early. A few managed to arrange for advanced training and some foster families encouraged this, although they were not in the majority. Other families used older children as unpaid workers or servants, rather than welcoming them as members of the family. This also meant that even when mistreated, the children were expected to be grateful they’d been brought to England. Few recognized that many of the younger children had been traumatized by their experiences and reverted to childish behavior, including bed wetting. Instead, the children were expected to adapt quickly to English culture and leave behind religious and family customs.
Craig-Norton’s particular scholarly interest is the malleability – the changeability – of memory. She notes that in later interviews, most of those in the Kinderstransport said the organizations that brought them to England were not of much help after their arrival. The records prove otherwise, with children sending requests for funds and clothing, and the organizations writing back and, when possible, helping. At times, children were moved from one situation to a different one based on complaints by either the children or their caregivers. Money was often a problem because, although it was assumed that the foster parents would pay the children’s expenses, that did not always occur, especially once World War II started and funds were tighter. Craig-Norton writes of the large amount of correspondence about the cost of everything from pocket money to lodgings. This led to the organizations’ encouraging children to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.
While some children did adjust well to their new surroundings and treated their foster families as their real family, others did not fare as well and remained traumatized their entire lives. It didn’t help that the majority of these children never again saw the family members who’d been left behind in Europe. Even those who were reunited often had difficulty adjusting and relating to each other. 
This review cannot do justice to the depth of material that Craig-Norton offers and the way she balances the experiences of all involved, especially those whose actions and feelings have been ignored in the past. Anyone interested in learning the real history of what occurred in England – the good and the bad – should read “The Kindertransport.”