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A Painful Salvation

By Rita Kempley
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)
A bouquet of swastika-imprinted balloons is the most apt and unnerving image from the affecting but uneven documentary "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport." The film looks at the rise of Nazism through the eyes of babes who were its intended victims. Never mind that six decades have passed and der Kinder's apple cheeks have been consumed by time and tears. Memories make children of us all.

Set between 1933 and the end of World War II, the film relies heavily on the testimonies of a dozen of the 10,000 Jewish children who were sent by their families to Britain, where they were placed in hostels and foster homes. Although the youngsters expected to be reunited with their families, most would never see their folks again.

"I remember standing by the window and waving goodbye and just trying very hard to believe that we really will come back," recalls Eva Hayman, who was 15 when she and her younger sister escaped from Czechoslovakia. Like Eva, many of the older children understood the gravity of the situation, but the younger ones were excited about the prospect of going on a journey.

"Every parent promised their child, 'We will soon follow.' How otherwise did the parents get the little children onto the trains?" recalls Bertha Leverton, who turned sweet 16 shortly after she arrived in England. She may have been saved from Hitler, but like some of the other youngsters, she wound up serving as the maid for the family that took her in. They did, however, make room for her brother and her younger sister, who were still in Germany at the time she arrived.

While all the children struggled with loss, loneliness and feelings of abandonment, 7-year-old Kurt Fuchel was embraced by Percy and Mariam Cohen, who cared for him until he was 16. Upon learning that his parents had survived, Fuchel remembers, he was initially reluctant to see them. The Cohens were heartbroken when they had to send Kurt back to his family.

Mark Jonathan Harris, the writer-director of the Oscar-winning Holocaust film "The Long Way Home," breaks no new ground in the documentary form. He provides a platform for his subjects (some of whom repeat information others have already provided) and combines it with archival footage, faded family photos and newspaper articles. Unlike the new breed of documentarian, Harris keeps his emotions almost rigidly in check.

In several cases, he is so intent upon maintaining distance that he even seems unwilling to so much as edit an overly long response, of which there are many. As a consequence, the movie doesn't build much momentum until the second half, when the parents make the agonizing decision to send their children away and the kids board the trains, unaware that for most, this is goodbye.

INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS: STORIES OF THE KINDERTRANSPORT (NR, 122 minutes) – Contains difficult subject matter.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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