Review: Vivien Horler
The Last Train to London, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)
Everyone is Present, by Terry Kurgan (Fourthwall Books)
When you’re 15 and the scion of a wealthy and influential family, national and international politics are, usually, peripheral to your life. There are more important things, like friends and school and, for Stephan Neuman of Vienna, the burning desire to be a playwright.
But it’s 1936, Stephan is Jewish, and life is about to change in every possible way. March 1938 brings the Anschluss, and Hitler marches into Vienna.
Hitler’s lieutenant in Vienna is the icy Adolf Eichmann, who has been tasked with solving the “Jewish” problem in Austria. His idea is to provoke the Jews to leave the country by undermining their economic footing.
In the eight months between the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and business across the Reich are vandalised, many people are killed and 30 000 Jews, mainly men, aree arrested, life in Vienna alters unrecognisably. Stephan’s father is beaten and taken into custody, and Stephan, by now 17 and nearly a man, goes into hiding. He also keeps away from his non-Jewish friends, especially maths whizz Zofie-Helene.
Meanwhile in Britain parliament is debating the issue of allowing large numbers of Jewish children into the country. There is resistance – do they want a lot of Jews, even if they are children? Will the taxpayer be forced to pay for them? MPs are assured: it will be just for a time, until the present unpleasantness is over, and then the children can go home.
In the Netherlands a childless woman, Truus Wijsmuller, has been smuggling small numbers of children, most of them Jewish, out of the Reich to various countries in Europe including Britain. Now she feels she has to up her game.
She gets an appointment with Eichmann in Vienna and obtains permission for 600 children to go to Britain, provided she can arrange it all in a matter of days. And it must be exactly 600 children – one more or fewer and none can go.There follows the ghastly business of selecting the 600, and the hysterical scenes on the station platform as desperate mothers try to ensure their children board the train.
Apart from telling the compelling story of Stephan, Truus and, Zofie-Helene, best-selling American author Meg Waite Clayton describes the terror in Vienna, the desperate efforts by Jews to get papers to leave the country, the queues at foreign embassies, the bids to find someone abroad to sponsor them – people are looking up their surnames invAmerican phone directories and writing to strangers suggesting they might be related.
Truus – in real life Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer and known to the children as Tante Truus – helped around 10 000 children, 75% of them Jewish, find refuge in England before September 3 1939. Some grew up to be prominent artists, scientists and politicians, and one, Walter Kohn, rescued at 16 from Vienna by Wijsmuller-Meijer, co-won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1998.
In a postscript Clayton tells us that there were efforts to get other countries including the United States to accept Jewish children, to little avail. “A June, 2, 1939, memo seeking President Roosevelt’s support for the effort is marked in his handwriting ‘File no action. FDR’.”
She also writs of the very last Kindertransport from the Reich, from Prague, which saw 250 children board a train on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. The train never arrived in the Netherlands, and what happened to the children is unknown.
This fact-based novel is a real page turner and is utterly compelling.
Everyone is Present is a very different book, but is also about the frantic efforts of Jews to flee the Reich, in this case Terry Kurgan’s Jewish family to leave their home tow of Bielsko in Poland at the outbreak of war.
Kurgan, who is based in Johannesburg and is an artist and writer, is fascinated by photography as an art form. This book is based on a slim picture album her grandfather Karol Joachim (Jasek) Kallir took with him as the family headed east, just a day ahead of the Nazis, as they sought a country of sanctuary.
Eventually they were told Brazil would accept them, but for reasons which are not clear in the book the family disembarked in Cape Town, and stayed.
Kurgan pores over the pictures in the album, which are dated from the summer of 1939, when the extended family have what they don’t know is to be their last holiday together in the little resort town of Zakopane near the Slovakian border.
She describes the pictures, representing her family’s lives in the last days of normality, gazes at images of her young aunt and mother in their pleasant middle class home, and contrasts this with their lives on the run, selling jewellery to keep themselves going, as they try survive.
Grandfather Kallir also kept a diary which provides Kurgan with valuable insights into her family dynamic and details of their flight.
This book was published in Joburg in 2018, and I found it to be moving, absorbing and brutally honest.
Review: Vivien Horler