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.

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