Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport

Article excerpt

by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer. New York: Bloomsbury, 2000. 304 pp. $27.50.

These are reflections some 60 years later on formative experiences in childhood and youth. The speakers, Jewish under Hitler's racial laws, fled perilous conditions in Germany, Austria, or Czechoslovakia and travelled to Britain in the ten months between the pogrom of Kristallnacht and the outbreak of the European war. They were admitted to Britain thanks to Neville Chamberlain's government, and their journeys and receptions were organized by Jewish and Quaker organizations. Their parents stayed behind in often desperate circumstances in spite of huge pressures to force their emigration because of the difficulty of finding a country that allowed them entry. Many of the children lost their parents in the final solution.

The trains (and a few boats) on which the children travelled are called "Kindertransports"; the children themselves are called "Kinder" (in the singular, "Kind"). These expressions specialize the usual German meaning of these words. The book under review consists mainly of interviews with Kinder. It also contains interviews with several of their mothers and two men who helped to arrange the Kindertransports. The book covers the childhood of the Kinder in their home countries but concentrates on their lives in England. Their stories range from the harrowing to the uplifting. The most surprising relate the efforts by some Kinder to obtain coveted entry visas to England for their parents, and the successes that were achieved. There is also the excellent terse introduction by David Cesarani which gives the historical context. The final section is a tribute by Deborah Oppenheimer to her mother, a Kind, which is one of the very moving parts of this book written from the point of view of a member of the next generation.

The movie on which the book is based has most of this material, and in addition has contemporary footage which evokes Britain at war as well as anything I recall. It fully deserves its Oscar.

Contradictory as the quotations are at the head of this review, they express some of the deeper effects of being uprooted: unhappiness and attachment to the country that gave shelter, a not infrequent combination in the same person. This, and much else, is well documented in many variations in Harrison and Oppenheimer's book.

Ethnic harassment, temporary or permanent separation from their parents, and the challenges of living in a foreign country, these are experiences common to almost all Kinder. There must be many others who had to face one of these hazards but few who were confronted with all three at a comparable age. Obviously all had some effect on the future characters and lives of the Kinder. But one may ask: which of these factors is the most significant? …