Saturday, April 10, 2004

A Look at Some Historical Non-Fiction: The Kindertransport Story

One great benefit from reading historical fiction novels is learning about actual events, interesting stories that often are not generally known. Then, upon learning briefly about the event through an interesting novel, the full story introduced in the historical novel is just as compelling to read and learn about.
One such true-life story is the British "Kindertransport," in which some 10,000 refugee children from Nazi-controlled Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were accepted into British homes in the months before World War II broke out. Bodie Thoene’s "Zion Covenant" series, books 5 and 6 (Danzig Passage and Warsaw Requiem), introduce this true event from 1939, complete with German children -- whose parents are on Hitler’s black list—fleeing to England with the transport ship that left Danzig, Poland.

Many non-fiction books have come out over the years, telling about the actual Kindertransport. One such book is Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer. A companion book to a documentary movie, this book includes the first-hand accounts of several of these refugee children, as well as adults involved in the logistical operation and one of the foster parents.

In chronological sequence, beginning with the "old days" of life under Hitler, through the dark days of persecution, then adjustment to their new homes, and finally the aftermath of the Holocaust, Into the Arms of Strangers shares short accounts from each individual. Subsequent chapters follow the next phase of life, with the continuing interviews of each child/adult.

For a while this sequence makes it hard to remember and differentiate each story, especially since the stories are not presented in the same order within the chapters. I found myself frequently turning the pages back to the previous chapter, to find the last installment from this person. Later on, each individual and his or her story are easier to remember – and the stories themselves are as varied and distinct as the people themselves. As with any refugee or foster care program, some stories turned out great, others more tragically.

The book also includes a nice introduction, telling the background situation in Europe that led to the kindertransport, including many statistics and classifications of the types of Jews in the three affected countries – Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. This introductory material brought back to mind the background story in Thoene’s "Zion Covenant" series: secular Jews in Germany, many of them intermarrying with non-Jews in the years before Hitler – and in conflict with the more orthodox Polish Jews, some of whom had moved from Poland to Germany (and then rounded up by Hitler in the fall of 1938); blonde and even red-head Jews who did not "look" Jewish; the terrifying riots of Kristallnacht; and the difficulties with paperwork, the many Jews frantically trying to find another country that would take them.

The closing chapter brings the book’s purpose full-circle, as author Deborah Oppenheimer describes her journey of discovery into her own (recently deceased) mother’s story as one of the kindertransport refugees--and how her research led her to meet the many survivors interviewed in the book.

Into the Arms of Strangers is a fascinating look at the true event that has since inspired historical fiction plots – and made all the more interesting with the greatly detailed, true accounts. The book sets forth the "smaller" good things that come out of the horrific events, even such as World War II and the Holocaust, and what a few individuals could and did do. As one foster parent quoted in the book says, he could not save a nation, could not help them all--but he could help one child. I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the Holocaust and these children of the kindertransport.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Hadassah: Biblical Fiction, Queen Esther's Memoir

Author Tommy Tenney brings a fascinating biblical story to life with his new novel, Hadassah: One Night With the King. This novel blends Bible history--the Old Testament story of Esther—with the historical setting of Ancient Persia, for a more detailed account of Esther, Mordecai, King Xerxes and Haman, the major characters of the Bible story.

The book’s plot tie-in seems rather corny at first: a young woman in modern-day Israel brought into a secret room near the Dead Sea Scrolls, to read an ancient text kept within a family-line for thousands of years. The ancient text is written by none other than Queen Esther, her memoir to a young Jewish woman who finds herself a Queen-candidate, as Esther once had been.

The modern-day tie-in is kept to a minimum, though, and the story—mostly in first-person narrative, written to a specific person—soon begins. Hadassah starts out slowly, detailing Esther’s early life, but soon develops some interesting twists and character connections that become important later on. Even Haman has an interesting story, yet one perhaps not too far from the truth; as my study Bible notes, Bible scholars believe that Haman the Agagite may have been descended from the Amalekites, and specifically from King Agag.

Much of Hadassah’s story details life at the Persian Court, including her entry into the Queen-contest, the year of beauty treatments, and her developing relationship to God – always spelled without syllables (G-d and YHWH) in the style of the ancient Hebrews. The major events of the biblical story happen towards the end, for a climax that is well known yet exciting to read in detail, as the pieces fall into place and we enjoy anew Esther’s famous quote "If I Perish, I Perish."

The author presents an Esther not readily discernible from the pages of Scripture: one who comes to take her faith seriously even before becoming Queen, an Esther who did not enter the contest voluntarily. As with other Biblical fiction, several fictional characters are introduced, including Jesse, a lifelong friend; his mother Rachel; and head Eunuch, Hegai, who has charge of the Queen contestants.

The historical setting includes the basic life and culture of Ancient Persia – mainly the court life rather than that of the common folk. The capital, Susa, is impressive indeed, a place with seemingly endless riches as well as dangers and court intrigue. Hadassah also introduces actual Persian history with an account of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), a kingdom at its peak that experienced great defeat against the rising Greeks. A fictional element—a description of Haman’s symbol, the "twisted cross" (clearly a description of Hitler’s swastika)—has its basis (though not mentioned in the story) in early crucifixions done by the Medes and Persians.

The one detracting element in Hadassah: One Night With the King is its theology, which seems out of place for an Old Testament, pre-Christian era. Certainly the understanding of a God who knows and suffers pain, and can be addressed affectionately as "Father," is a New Testament concept not revealed in earlier days. This was also a time when the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with the believer, was a rarity – several hundred years before the events of Pentecost.

The overall story, though, is quite intriguing: memorable from the Bible tale, yet new and different, with an exciting plot and interesting look at this period of ancient history. Hadassah: One Night With the King is a nice addition to the genre of Biblical Historical Fiction.