The year was 1938, and the fear of war was looming before Europe. Hitler’s Nazi Germany was becoming more and more arrogant, with its fearful philosophy of the superiority of their (Aryan) race and the inferiority of the impure Jewish race, which made them less than human.

That year holds the key to one of the most tragic and unknown events of the Second World War era. For, in 1938, 10,000 German-Jewish children bade a final farewell to their parents before being sent off to foster homes in England. The intention was to save them from the wrath of Hitler’s regime.

A Train Journey beyond Childhood [Illustration by Anup Singh]
A Train Journey beyond Childhood [Illustration by Anup Singh]

For most of them, it was the last time they saw their parents. And though they were saved from one terrible fate, the train ride became a lifelong journey into loneliness and feelings of insecurity for most of them – so much so that they could never speak about the experience openly even with the people with whom they chose to share their life as husband or wife.

One of the children was Sylva who was 11 then. At the age of 16 she got to know that her parents had died in a Nazi concentration camp and soon after she left for the United States to be with her aunt.

She never shared this deepest scar in her mind with anyone – husband (with whom she shared a close relationship) or child. But the occasional information that she let slip is what spurred her daughter Deborah Oppenheimer to produce a jolting TV documentary on the lives of this forgotten generation, ‘Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport’ (kinder means children in German). Sylva died in 1993 at the age of 93.

Directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, the documentary, which is running in the United States of America at present, has finally broken the silence on this little known episode of the Second World War period, says a recent Reuters report in ‘The Indian Express’.

Whatever she had gathered about her mother’s experience made Deborah determined to reach out to some of the other surviving children and their foster families so that they could finally have their say – on record. Most of them are in the range of 70.

The responses were jolting, says the report. For instance, Eva Hayman who now lives in New Zealand says it all: “We had about a fortnight before we left. And into the fortnight both mother and father were trying to give the instructions, the guidance that they hoped to have their whole life to give.”

There were also instances where parents pulled their kinder) off the train or kindertransport at the last moment because they could not bear to be parted from them. The American government, which had also been requested to give refuge to some of the children, refused on the grounds that it was “immoral to separate children from their parents”.

Things changed a bit when the Second World War broke out, plunging Britain into a mammoth war effort. That was the time when the British government grew wary of the waves of German refugees who were fleeing into the country.

Fearing an outbreak of rebellion from them, they detained them all in internment camps, without bothering to separate the innocents from the “real enemy aliens” as Deborah describes.

“So you could find a kindertransport child in the same room as a Nazi. The kid is putting up a photograph of his parents and the Nazi is putting up his picture of Hitler. It’s unbelievable,” the report quotes Deborah.

Out of these camps came some of the keenest minds of the time – two of the kinder even became Nobel laureates.

The film is making a strong impact on the viewers. And, says Deborah, there is a very simple reason for it. “…everybody is born of parents, everyone can remember some aspect of their childhood. It’s for people who have children, for people who have suffered a loss, for people who have any passing acquaintance with the Holocaust” (that refers to the systematic killing of six million Jews by the Nazi government of Germany and officials of European governments that buckled under the Nazi regime).

“I don’t think you have to be Jewish to understand and I don’t think you have to have children. I think it’s a universal story and a very powerful, dramatic one,” says Deborah. She’s right.

743 words | 7 minutes
Readability: Grade 8 (13-14 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: features
Tags: #nazi germany, #jewish, #trains, #childhood, #german, #hitler

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