They took the children away: From December 1938, 9,354 children under threat from the Nazis were evacuated to Britain on the Kinderstransports. Diane Samuels' play tells the story of one refugee; Georgina Brown reports, and talks to four survivors

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The Independent Culture
Nine-year-old Eva is put on a Kindertransport to England by her parents, a well-heeled German banker and his wife. She is taken in by Lil and her family and when Eva grows up she buries her Jewish origins and her past and calls herself Evelyn in order to sound more English. When her daughter discovers the truth, she is angry and horrified that her mother should deny this chapter of her life to future generations.

Eva is not a real person but her story - Eva's extreme attitudes to her past and her real mother - and the events referred to in Kindertransport, the play, are pieced together from true life-histories of the Kinder. In an intricately constructed piece linking three generations of women, playwright Diane Samuels splices past with present to explore notions of identity, survival, the mother-daughter relationship and the price of love.

Kindertransport has been described as 'one of the grossest sins of the Nazis', requiring parents to make the ultimate sacrifice, and abandon their children in order to give them the chance of survival. But, as the play reveals, survival came at a considerable emotional cost. A child is unlikely to feel anything but misery and resentment if packed off to live among strangers in a foreign land. That it was a immensely courageous action of a desperate parent can only be understood in adulthood.

Samuels' interest in Kindertransport began when a close friend whose father was one of the Kinder revealed her own and her father's struggle to come to terms with the trauma. 'Her feelings made me think about how the next generation inherit their parents' guilt,' explains Samuels. 'I became interested too in the idea of surviving trauma - what is healthy, what isn't, and if life can be good again.

'Some people go on and on about it, join organisations and talk about it amongst each other, and others deny it; they want their story heard because it validates their experience, but it is the ones who don't want to talk about it that I found most fascinating.'

Samuels went to interview one woman and when she began to talk about her experiences, her partner, also a refugee, walked out. 'I got a glimmer then of how some people feel about it. That some cried as they talked wasn't a surprise, but the denial was.' Another of Samuels' friends was 25 when she discovered her mother had been in Auschwitz - her mother had never spoken of it. 'Many, many people have these secret lives. Those who know what their parents have been through also have a tough time. Children are inevitably caught up in these cycles of guilt.'

Bertha Leverton

I came from Munich to England with my young brother on 6 January 1939. I was 15, one of the older ones. I remember the train journey vividly - the Nazis searching the carriages, the relief when we crossed the German border. I got away with my little watch. We arrived at Dovercourt reception camp - it was like a cattle market and children were picked out. My brother and I both went to Coventry, to different homes, organised through the auspices of Coventry Cathedral. I remember playing table tennis in the Chapter House. The family I went to were horrible - she was an invalid only 8 years older than me, very jealous, and I was used as a maid. I was terrified of being sexually abused by him - Uncle Billy I called him. They wouldn't send me to school. When my sister arrived later, aged eight and very, very pretty, they made a little pet of her which drove a wedge between us. They wanted to adopt her, but I wouldn't give my consent. After that they began to treat her badly too. People were very unkind to us, calling us dirty Germans - they didn't understand we were Jewish children running from oppression. When I was 17 I worked in a cotton mill as well as doing the housework. I cannot recall any happiness. It was harder for my sister - when we were reunited with my parents she couldn't speak German and it made the bonding more difficult. My parents managed to escape to Yugoslavia, then Italy, then Spain, then Portugal and we got messages, 25 words every two or three months so we knew they were safe. Five years later they found us and we went to Birmingham and made a new life for ourselves. We all wanted to be more English than the English; the day my parents got their English papers they were so proud. We always buy British - we're so grateful to Britain.

Bertha Leverton runs Reunion of Kindertransport, c/o Classic Tours, 148 Curtain Rd, London EC2

Edward Mendelsohn

If you hear the bare facts - that my father, mother and I were eventually reunited - you might think my story a happy one. It wasn't. I came from Vienna where my father was a photographer. He came ahead, and it was his task to find a sponsor for me and get one of these famous 'domestic' visas for my mother. I lived in the East End with my sponsors, grandparents, too tired to take on a 10-year-old child. They were Jewish but there was a cultural chasm between us - they were immigrants from Romania, spoke Yiddish and ran a successful clothing business. My school was rough, totally different from what I was used to. I was traumatised. To live apart from your mother and father in the same city is hard for a child to understand. I was evacuated during the Blitz and lived with 'Jack the Parcel-Office' and his wife in Cornwall. With them I got a broader picture of English society and it meant that I didn't feel like a little foreign boy when I went on to study architecture. My father eventually began working as a photographer again and paid for me to go to secondary school. I was boarded out and after a few years we settled down together. But it was difficult. You have dreams and reality is never as rosy. My parents had become much smaller people from the shock of being pushed down. I felt my identity was not that of my parents - they remained refugees whose culture had been formed on the Continent; I wanted to grow in a different direction. It was only when I began studying architecture that I felt I belonged and was among people with whom I could connect. I worked for the GLC and in the Seventies I realised that from a professional point of view I should get out. But as soon as I thought about moving I felt panic and couldn't go. I put this down to a deep need for security, a fear of taking up the unknown, which stems from this early trauma.

Edward Mendelsohn is the architect of the Cockpit Theatre.

Karel Reisz

I came from Czechoslovakia. My brother had already come to England in 1936 to a Quaker boarding school in Reading. You could only come over if someone guaranteed your keep and in 1939 an anonymous Quaker lady guaranteed my keep too. I went straight to the school. My parents said they were coming shortly - in theory. They never came. I didn't speak English but at that age it takes a month or so to pick up. A friend of my parents who were refugees looked after us during the holidays. After school I went straight into the Czechoslovakian branch of the RAF.

I don't think my position was any stranger than any child going off to boarding school. The reality of everyday existence takes over. But I was extremely fortunate; not only because the school was generous and kind but because I had my brother. Being alone and having a brother there makes all the difference in the world. I went to the reunion of Kindertransport - I was interested - there were two or three kids on the train with me and I thought maybe I'd see them. It was a long shot and I didn't. I can't pretend that it is a big part of my consciousness now. I returned to Czechoslovakia and have surviving relatives there and I visit regularly, so things continue - there's an organic continuity which was interrupted during the war. A lot of family died, but not all. I've been here 55 years now. My education, my friends, my culture is here. I speak the Czechoslovakian of a 12-year-old boy and yes, of course, it's a sadness, but one doesn't want to sentimentalise. I'm married with four children and five grandchildren, and life goes on. It wasn't the end of the world; it was a terrible, terrible thing that happened, but the only way not to let that defeat you is to continue. One doesn't want to sound like a victim, or to sound heroic. It was a particularly savage bump in one's life.

Karel Reisz is a film-maker and theatre director.

John Nyman

I came from Bressler, now part of Poland, in 1939. I was 14 and was lucky in that I already had a background. At the reunion one man wore a badge saying 'Did anybody know me?' A boy there who was 12 when he left remembered his family and told him his name. I had family here. One of my brothers came before the war; my mother pushed my younger brother and sister among the childen and walked away. When we arrived in England we were put in holiday camps sponsored by various groups, some of which tried to convert the children to Christianity. I was never picked by a family but was taken into a hostel run by a local synagogue in North Kensington, and in retrospect I think those in hostels were better adjusted because they all had the same faith and could share their problems. We have much stronger accents because we went on speaking German. Other children were materially better off, went to public school and university, but they suffered terrible emotional truama. My parents were in Auschwitz and my father died there. I eventually found my mother in a camp and brought her back to England. As you grow older, the trauma gets more difficult to cope with. When you're younger you bury yourself in work, which is probably why some of us are relatively high achievers. Some cope by totally denying the past. There are two kinds of survivors - those who survived the camps, who have paid their price and take a pride in surviving. There are those, like us, who feel guilty for surviving. When you are 20 years old, how do you cope with seeing your mother riddled with bullet wounds and very, very sick? The guilt is tremendous. My own children suffer too. I found out when my father was killed and I've tried to recall what I was doing then, in June 1942. I was probably having a good time. I don't like talking about the Holocaust and I think that applies to every Jew. To understand this is the least the world owes us.

Until retirement, John Nyman ran his own business.

Kindertransport, winner of the Verity Bargate Award 1992, is at the Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth St, London NW8 (071-402 5081), 13 Apr-8 May.

(Photographs omitted)

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