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The Heartache of 'Strangers'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2000


    'Into The Arms of Strangers' A boy plays the violin aboard a train that took Jewish children to England before World War II. (The Institute of Contemporary History, Wierner Library)
For the 10,000 Jewish children shipped to England during World War II, the price of freedom was trauma: loss of their families, friends and lives, and the death of their innocence.

In the fluidly edited, subtle "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," those young heads have now turned gray. The faces are wrinkled. But the memories burn bright. They remember the day their parents bade them farewell for the last time, promising reunions, begging them to write, telling them everything would be fine.

"Every parent promised their child, 'We will soon come and follow,'" recalls surviving child Bertha Leverton, who started off in a Polish-German family in Munich. "How otherwise did the parents get the little children onto the train?"

And then the children left, at the rate of about 300 children a week, on the Kindertransport (children's train). It wouldn't be long before their parents would be boarding trains going in the opposite direction. Hedy Epstein, a child from Kippenheim, Germany, recalls that she chided her parents, complaining they were using this English trip as a ruse to get rid of her. But as the train started moving, and she watched her parents running after her on the platform, she realized what was happening.

"I watched their faces, and tears were streaming down their cheeks. And I knew then-these people really love me. This is why they [were] sending me away."

Epstein's last communication from her parents was a September 1942 postcard from her mother, shakily written, that announced their final goodbye.

Producer Deborah Oppenheimer (whose mother was a child-survivor) and writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris (who made "The Long Way Home") have compiled a thoughtful record of this unusual chapter of the Holocaust.

The storytellers, the survivors, are succinct and restrained, their testimony augmented by a rich array of black-and-white footage. By keeping the emotions in check, the movie reaches us in far-reaching ways-by implication and subtext, as much as by direct testimony.

There are precious home movies of the good years: Jewish families celebrating birthdays at home or kids playing in parks.

And when the children get to England, we see ample records of life there: the ornate houses some lived in, the foster homes for many others, soccer games with English boys and many photographs of our aged narrators-fresh-faced and cute, but also angst-ridden. Would they ever return to the lives they left? This is writ large in every face. Of course, there are images of the Nazi era-shattered shop windows during kristallnacht, Hitler Youth marching down streets and so forth. But what counts in this movie is the life spent away from all that.

Some children found homes where their guardians treated them with respect, kindness and even love. Many British guardians, it seems, were not expansively warm. And many guardians made their wards into domestic servants. Other children, who could not be placed with families, were stuck in children's centers-an ironic, more benevolent version of the internment camps their parents would face. Potential guardians would then pick and choose among the children. The young blond girls between 3 and 7 years old were always assured of a home, claims one survivor.

Life in England was no bed of roses. But it was life. And no other countries offered support on this level, including the United States. Approximately 10,000 children were saved from death by moving to England. Meanwhile 1.5 million children in Europe would perish.

As they grew into teenagers or adolescents, the children kept often-irrational candles of hope burning in their hearts.

For the most part, that hope-that they'd see their parents after the war-was usually obliterated. And yet some children-as we learn-actually found their parents and started their lives again. And in those miraculous instances, a family would reemerge from the Holocaust, shaken but together again. The movie has a wonderful conclusion, as Kurt Fuchel, born in Vienna, evaluates a life that brought him English foster parents Percy and Mariam Cohen and, after the war, a reunion with his parents in France. He was 16 then. They had not seen him since he was 7. He was a changed person. But eventually, all came to realize, he was still their son. In some cases, we are reminded, the forces of good were successful.

INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS: STORIES OF THE KINDERTRANSPORT (PG, 122 minutes) - Contains emotionally traumatic anecdotes. At the General Cinema at Mazza Gallerie.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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