Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Kindertransport - a powerful story of loss and rebirth

Diane Samuels’s remarkable play “Kindertransport” is on tour in a new production directed by Andrew Hall. The issues and the history behind the story are huge – War, The Holocaust, Prejudice, Discrimination, Nationalism – all the ghastly features of man’s inhumanity to man that characterised so much of the 20th Century. But whilst the canvas is huge the drama is quite minimalist – the experience of two families whose lives were thrown upside-down by what happened in 1938/9. I am reminded of Steven Spielberg’s device in “Schindler’s List” when he had one moment of colour in a bleak and monochrome film. A little Jewish girl is seen in red when all the horrors around her are in stark black and white. She isn’t named and her brief life and inevitable death are not central to the story – but emblemic of it. So it is with Eva and those around her in “Kindertransport”. They are “just” innocent, unimportant victims of the great tragedy of the persecution of the Jews by the Third Reich. At best a number on a scroll of infamy, at worst anonymous human cattle to be disposed of at will.

Eva is nine at the beginning of the play and her family has been offered the chance of her being evacuated to Britain as part of the “Kindertransport” charitable initiative to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis. She has to travel alone and is allocated to a family in Manchester where she is looked after by an ordinary, non-Jewish, British family. There is nothing sentimental about this though the emotions are high. She leaves her parents behind in Hamburg and at an impressionable age has to adapt to an entirely different world.  In parallel with the telling of this story we roll forward forty years where she, her adoptive mother and her daughter are helping the latter pack to move away from home. Artefacts from the war years turn up and the story of Eva’s adoption, naturalisation and eventual complete assimilation into her new world are found.

Essentially Kindertransport is about family and especially about mother/daughter relationships. Eva is forced to move from one world and a mother, Helga, she adores to a different world which she gradually becomes accustomed to, and an adoptive mother, Lil, who she now loves no less. When she is in her late teens, a few years after the war, Eva (now “Evelyn”) is visited by her mother who had survived the concentration camps. Helga expects to take Eva with her to America to start a new life there. But “Evelyn” has a home and a new family she loves and decides not to go with her birth mother and stay with her adoptive mother. It seems like a heartrending choice but, the author suggests, it is inevitable that having successfully created a life in her new home Evelyn wants to stay there. She has changed from being a German, Jewish child into being a British, Christian teenager on the cusp of adulthood – and there is no turning back.

At an abstract level the play is about how we are all, or can be, innocent victims of forces way beyond our control. At a personal level it is about the human capacity to survive, adapt and to move on from the past. About growing up, if you like and being born again. The performances by a virtually all female cast are very good with Paula Wilcox especially memorable as Lil and Gabrielle Dempsey as Eva.

The evening I saw the play at Richmond Theatre the stalls were at least a third full of young people – perhaps on a school outing as the play is a GCSE text. I found these study notes in connection with the play as a set text - I think they are very good! My faith in the English Literature syllabus and its teaching have rather been enhanced by this discovery! And the fact that the young audience were engrossed in the production and cheered at the end made me also feel that the theatre is alive and well !

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