When Schindler’s List the film was released, in 1993, it created a sensation. What many don’t know is that the manner in which this true story was unearthed by a writer in Australia is even more sensational. Thomas Keneally then went on to publish the book, Schindler’s Ark, in 1992. I was reminded of Oskar Schindler by the book I am currently reading: The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton, published in September 2019. To quote from the book’s blurb, it is: ‘…set in the pre-World War II era, based on the true story of the Kindertransport rescue of ten thousand children from Nazi-occupied Europe — and of one brave woman who helped them escape.’
This woman is Truus (Geertruida) Wijsmuller, a Dutchwoman, who dares to go into Germany over and over again, crossing its tightly secured borders to smuggle children out even as countries across Europe pull down their shutters, refusing to take in refugees desperate to escape the Nazi occupation. When the British government — alone among many countries — decides to open its doors to take in child refugees, Tante Truus — Aunty Truus — steadfastly remains true to her efforts to save as many children as she can despite the huge dangers her mission involves.
Clayton’s story about this extraordinary woman and her even more extraordinary efforts is marvellously told. It’s not just an account of the rescue missions, amazing in themselves. Woven into its fabric is a parallel story, that of young Stephan Neumann, whose father is a chocolatier proudly carrying on the family tradition. His mother is sick, dying in fact, his little brother Walter’s best friend is a stuffed toy called Peter Rabbit, and he himself is a budding playwright, admirer of Stefan Zweig, among the most famous Austrian writers of his time. His family is Jewish, cultured and rich, a fact he’s forced to come to terms with only when the Anschluss, the takeover of Austria by Hitler, becomes real. Apart from the danger his family is put into, Stephan experiences being ‘distanced’ from his best friend, Zofie-Helene, a mathematics genius whose mother is editor of an anti-Nazi newspaper.
Be warned: it’s a slow read because the fine details take time and attention to comprehend, the nuances to absorb, and you begin to realise things you may not have in all your years of reading Jewish writers and writings about the Holocaust. Your heart is in your mouth when, on numerous occasions, Truus is called upon to negotiate tricky situations when crossing the border, or rather, borders, because there’s the border out of Germany and there’s the border into the Netherlands, where she lives and where she must first take the children. When she somehow manages to get visas for the children and the party of two adults and 30 children are ready to board the train, she finds a baby thrust into her arms. ‘Take her,’ the desperate mother tells Truus. When Nazi soldiers search her boot for contraband, live and otherwise, she must maintain a calm exterior while inside she is trembling like jelly because three children, little sisters, are hidden beneath her skirt and the floorboard of the car. On occasion she notices just how young these soldiers are, children themselves, almost innocent in their loyalty to the cause of the Third Reich. It is heartrending when Stephan discovers that Dieter, a friend who played so many roles in his plays, turns against him and dons the Nazi uniform without a second’s thought. He then accompanies soldiers into the Neumann household to destroy it in a show of strength. Dieter feels guilty but his loyalty to Hitler overrides everything and even as he expresses concern for Stephan’s mother, he is desperate to catch Stephan who has disappeared. You see the tragedy, the injustice, the cruelty, the pathos, the exploitation. Everywhere you see dualities.
The idea of contradictions is brilliantly delineated in the style of writing and the language itself, and seems to bounce off the characters of Zofie and Stephan, so different from each other yet not apart. You not only find yourself drawn to the story, you stop every now and then to marvel at the images, especially the paradox of the real and the unreal, as in theatre, or the taste of chocolates, or watching a Jewish children’s home burning in the snow. Tante Truus saves countless children; she herself is childless, having miscarried many times. All this surfaces delicately, like froth that leaves traces on the lips after they have smacked on a much-relished milkshake.
How did the author chance upon this story? From her own child! Her son was a member of a theatre group; its director had wanted his kids to write a play about the Kindertransport effort since few people seemed to know about it. She noticed how silent her son had become after he had interviewed some people who had been so transported. She writes how the ‘book was inspired by and is meant to honour Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer and the children she rescued, as well as the many people who made the Kindertransports possible. I have done my best to remain true in spirit to the facts of the Anschluss, Kristallnacht, and the shockingly rapid change in Vienna society in the few months between the two, including the role of the then-young and ambitious Adolf Eichmann, and the British and Truus’s efforts to bring about the first Kindertransport from Austria. But as this is fiction rather than a history, I have taken smaller liberties in the interest of story.’
It is true, though, that most of the rescued children never saw their parents again. The Guardian of November 6, 2018, has an article by Stephen Moss with a photograph of Jewish children arriving in London in 1938. The article speaks of an exhibition opening at the Jewish Museum in London that featured the stories of six children who had come like this to the UK from Germany. ‘I visited each one of them [then in their 80s and 90s] in their homes and heard their remarkable, moving, often tragic testimonies,’ writes Moss. ‘Some never saw their parents again; all suffered the pain of separation; some were so traumatised they couldn’t speak of what had happened to them for decades afterwards — not even to their children. But in each the light of defiance, humour and commitment to life shines through. And each now goes into schools to talk to young people about what they and their parents suffered, testifying both as an act of remembrance towards their parents but also as a warning to the next generation that intolerance, hatred and scapegoating of minorities are ever-present threats.’
We know this better than ever today: that intolerance, hatred and scapegoating of minorities are ever-present threats. That even as many cried ‘never again’ after the holocaust years, we see history repeating itself in Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Nagaland, Syria, Columbia…. In practically every part of the world we see people turning against people simply because they can. History and records tell us that the mass extermination of Jews was the result of a carefully planned policy; orchestrated anti-Jewish violence was part of what was called ‘the Final Solution’. We know, too, that history is an ever-spinning wheel.
That’s why it is important to read books such as The Last Train To London — to read and remember the past, so that we can imagine a future for our children. So that children will never need to be separated from their parents again, even in the name of mercy.