Kindertransport at Your Theatre: Borderline Offensive (history)

[Because of the length of this review, this is the second of two parts: the first part provides an overview of the production and the second part provides some additional detailed historical analysis of the script.]

After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, their goal of creating what they called a “race-based state” immediately led to forbidding Jews from civil service and the professions, banning the books of Jewish authors, and boycotting Jewish businesses. By 1935, the Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of citizenship and basic civil rights. By 1938, the Nazis conducted mass campaigns of violence, notably Kristallnacht: burning thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues, arresting tens of thousands of Jews and sending them to concentration camps, and brutally murdering dozens and possibly hundreds of Jews in the public streets.

It was explicit Nazi policy in the 1930s to encourage Jews to emigrate out of Germany and many did, but by 1938 there was nowhere to go for the half million remaining, and German annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia placed additional hundreds of thousands of Jews under German control, rendering them stateless under the Nuremberg Laws. Fearing Arab reaction, the British government strictly limited Jewish immigration to Palestine under the colonial mandate, and in July 1938 effectively sabotaged the international Évian Conference called by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to obtain commitments from 32 nations to accept Jewish refugees. Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler called that bluff: “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals, will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

It is difficult to understand how numerous specific incidents in the play – including bringing a contraband musical instrument, knocking on doors looking for work to bring her parents out of Germany, and a fall of a child off a train onto a platform – seem to be clearly inspired by real events shown in the highly regarded documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, because the play was first performed in 1993 and the film was produced in 2000, the year it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The playwright has said in interviews that she was inspired by a television documentary she saw in 1989, but I have been unable to locate any record of it.

There are certainly cases of Jewish refugees adopting Christianity, usually temporarily but sometimes permanently, mainly to protect themselves, but this was generally done by adults rather than children. Madeleine Albright was born in Czechoslovakia to a Jewish family and was a refugee from Hitler and then Stalin, a fact concealed from her by her parents until revealed to her by The Washington Post while she was serving as US Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, when she also learned that more than a dozen Jewish relatives including three of her grandparents had been murdered by the Nazis. Albright in 2018 published Fascism: A Warning. Former US senator from Massachusetts John Kerry likewise never knew that his grandparents from what is now the Czech Republic were Jewish until told by The Boston Globe during his 2004 candidacy as the Democratic presidential nominee. Kerry, who served as US Secretary of State during the Obama administration, was a vocal activist on behalf of refugees – having lost Jewish family members to the Nazis.

A few months before his own death in 2015, historian David Cesarani discussed the recent death at age 106 of Nicholas Winton, one of the major forces in setting up the Kindertransport, and the risk of children losing their Jewish identity: “He was born Nicholas Wertheim to German-Jewish parents who rejected Judaism. Decades later, when asked to comment on criticism from the Jewish community, he said: ‘I just confronted them and said in much politer terms, “Mind your own business… if you prefer a dead Jew to a Jew brought up in a Christian home it’s really not my problem”.’ Today we would find it questionable to accept a change in religion in exchange for saving a life.” Cesarini further observed about Winton, “But his buccaneering approach would have been unnecessary had his urgency been shared in Whitehall, if the government had not broken promises to create a Jewish national home in Palestine, and if the Jewish refugee organisations had not been driven to insolvency.”

Indeed, there is a real-life story in the documentary Into the Arms of Strangers about a child who was sent to England in the Kindertransport at age 8 and reunited with his parents when he was age 16, and this caused understandable difficulties for the family – but he never considered converting to Christianity or concealing his prior identity, and in fact was acutely aware that he was unusually fortunate that his parents survived.

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