Published September 1, 2000
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, directed by Mark Jonathan Harris and narrated by Dame Judi Dench, manages the trick (as not all Holocaust documentaries do) of conveying strong emotion on the part of its subjects without ever seeming to exploit it or them. It tells the story of the 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and Austria who were allowed to leave Germany and take up an offer of asylum in Britain on the eve of the Second World War—leaving their parents, for the most part, subsequently to die in concentration camps. An immensely moving movie about real-life events, the film seems nevertheless, against the background of the enormity which shadows it, modest and understated. It thus conveys a real sense of history’s and humanity’s being served, and not the director’s ego or his self-conceit of being “compassionate.”
For it presents us with a collection of eminently presentable people who were not there, who did not see (most of) the horror at first hand, but whose lives were permanently and intimately scarred by it. Their natural if irrational sense of guilt at having been spared makes them humble, and their now rather advanced age tinges their sense of regret about the past with a more universal hue. By keeping the horrors mostly off-stage and the interviews with those who escaped them invariably tasteful and non-exploitative, the film rather daringly allows itself to hint that at bottom its subjects have endured a more intense and premature version of what anyone who has ever lost a beloved parent endures. This encourages the audience’s emotional participation rather than bludgeoning it with words and images which can only evoke pity.
These now aged children are led gently back to their earliest memories, which are mostly happy ones. Lory Cahn tells us that “my father adored me,” and she tells a story about how, once when her mother objected that she didn’t need all that her father had bought her, he had replied: “She is my pride and joy, and she needs everything I can get for her.” Likewise, Kurt Fuchel, a jolly bald man who looks a bit like Ben Wattenberg, tells us that “I was a very much-desired first child…I guess I was spoiled…I was, indeed, sort of the center of the universe.” All children who are loved must share some of this feeling, and so are able to share something of Mr Fuchel’s sense of poignancy at its loss. One still remarkably beautiful old woman recalls her parting from her parents by directly inviting us to share the feeling: “You know how you look at somebody intensely? I remember thinking, ‘I must imprint that image on my mind.’”
Hitler, while never reduced to the level of the mere disease or accident that has always had the power to put an end to the childhood idyll, loses some of his Satanic attractiveness as the onlie begetter of all this suffering when the focus shifts back to the sufferers and their private experience of grief and loss. It is a small but genuine act of revenge on the film’s part to rob him, even to this extent, of his status as the evil Titan striding across the pages of an ever-growing number of history (and non-history) books. Thus have we managed successfully to keep the memory of this absurd little man vividly alive far into our own era of peace and “multicultural” tolerance and presumably beyond it.
Equally pleasing is the all-but universal sense among the film’s subjects, even those who were treated as servants, of gratitude to their adopted country. The United States Congress, by the way, refused to allow any of the children into this country on the somewhat bizarre grounds that “accepting children without their parents was contrary to the laws of God.” What a different world it was in the America of the 1930s! Nowadays, of course, we should exclude them because of the psychological trauma they would endure and the likelihood of their being sexually abused in foster families. Many bad things also doubtless happened to the kids who went to Britain. But as one heroically unself-pitying speaker puts it: “None of the foster parents that took me in”—and there were five sets of them—“could stand me for very long. But they had the grace to take in a Jewish child.”
In the end there is a kind of informal debate among the speakers, all of whom are interviewed separately and in a way to heighten the intimacy of their reminiscences, about what they would do if they were put in their parents’ places. Robert Sugar, having discussed the matter with friends bravely announces that, “We all agreed, if it ever happened again, we would not send our children away. We would stay and die together.” Later, after they had children themselves, they modified their position: “We said we would take each other’s children in: not send them to strangers.” But the last word is given to Alexander Gordon who, as a 16 year-old orphan on coming out of Germany, had an adventurous life in an internment camp, an exile to Australia and finally in the British army. “I was meant to survive,” he says, adding, with tears in his eyes: “I look at my children and my grandchildren and I think: there was a purpose to my life.”
The purpose is the survival of the Jewish people, but the tears are human tears. Here is a sentiment to which every bosom, not just those of Jews or Holocaust survivors, will return an echo.