Broken Homes: Three Kindertransport Poets

By Lawson, Peter | Critical Survey, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Broken Homes: Three Kindertransport Poets

Lawson, Peter, Critical Survey

The Holocaust has exerted a substantial influence on twentieth-century and contemporary English poetry. One has only to consider Shoah-related work by the likes of Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes and Tony Harrison to recognise this cultural fact. (1) Further, Jewish poets writing in English have spoken out as especially affected by this European tragedy. Dannie Abse, for example, states in 'White Balloon' (1990):

   Dear love, Auschwitz made me
   more ofa Jew than Moses did. (2)

Discussing the Shoah in the Gale Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (1987), the Anglo-Jewish poet Jon Silkin similarly emphasises its traumatic effect on him:

   I was in London for the holidays, and I discovered a paperback which
   induced, or confirmed, my worst fears about what it meant to be a
   Jew. The book offered an account by a concentration camp inmate of
   his experiences. (3)

Among other Anglo-Jewish voices expressing the traumatic aftermath of the Holocaust may be numbered Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Fainlight and Michael Hamburger. (4)

However, none of the aforementioned poets experienced the Holocaust with the immediacy of Continental Jewish poets such as Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan. Neither Anglo-Jewish Elaine Feinstein nor Anglo-Saxon Ted Hughes may be non-metaphorically characterised as survivors of the Shoah. This fact also differentiates them from the uniquely positioned poets I am considering in this essay. Karen Gershon, Gerda Mayer and Lotte Kramer were sent to England as Kindertransport (children's transport) youths between 1938 and 1939. These poets were three of some ten thousand children spared the gas chambers by desperate parents who put them on planes and trains to save them from Nazi persecution. Gershon reached Britain in December, 1938; Mayer in March 1939; and Kramer the following July. Two of the girls--Gershon and Kramer--were German; the third, Mayer, a Czech. In the following pages, I present an introduction to these poets and their responses to the shared historical experience of losing their homes to survive the Holocaust.

Karen Gershon: Pioneer of the Kindertransport Generation

Karen Gershon was born Kaethe Loewenthal in 1923. Her home town was Bielefeld, in the province of Westphalia, Germany. Kaethe was the youngest of three sisters, Lise being one year older, and Anne one year older than Lise. Her parents were Paul, an architect; and Selma, a housewife. Gershon's autobiographical narratives, A Lesser Child (5) (1994) and A Tempered Wind (1992, unpublished), provide poignant accounts of the refugee life of children fortunate enough to escape Nazi Europe.

Gershon was driven by a survivor's sense of guilt. She felt it her duty to bear witness: 'The terrible pastis not an adversary but my greatest asset: I will not fight against it but put it to work. I cannot alter what has happened but by making a tool of it I can at least give it a purpose,' she asserted. (6) The consequence of this decision was her acclaimed collective autobiography of Kindertransport refugees, We Came as Children, (7) and her simultaneously published Selected Poems. (8) Of the ten thousand Kinder sent to Britain, two hundred and thirty-four were chosen to contribute to We Came as Children. Gershon assembled their recollections without attribution, thus foregrounding the shared over the solipsistic experience of these castaway Jewish youngsters. In what is clearly her own entry (describing Gershon's return to Bielefeld in 1963), she writes: 'My Jewish childhood in Nazi Germany and my orphan exile at the age of fifteen must remain a part of my life always' (WCAC 159-160). Elsewhere, she states: 'It has taken me twenty-five years to learn to accept what I am: a German Jew' (WCAC 149). Together, We Came as Children and Selected Poems established Gershon as a pioneering presence in the field of Holocaust literature.

Like her fellow poets and Kinder Gerda Mayer and Lotte Kramer, Gershon is also keen to record her gratitude to Britain for providing a refuge:

   At Dovercourt the winter sea
   was like God's mercy vast and wild (9)

Meanwhile, in 'Monologue', the poet refuses to be consoled for her parents' murder, since mourning is all she now has of them.

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