‘Kindertransport’ is wrenching study of escape, separation


The second production of the 2007-08 New Jewish Theatre season, Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels, is a sharp departure from its opener, Broadway Bound, the semi-autobiographical comedy by Neil Simon. While both plays deal with Jewish young people before, during and after the horrific events of World War II, Neil Simon’s Eugene Morris Jerome’s challenges were how to navigate his dysfunctional immediate family while seeking a career with his brother in comedy writing. In Kindertransport, Eva Schlesinger’s challenges are literally a matter of life and death.

If Eva had been born in Brooklyn instead of Germany, she too might have become a successful writer like Neil Simon. Instead, as the noose tightened around the Jews of Germany, her parents made the painful but life-saving decision to send Eva on the remarkable Kindertransport, until recently a little-known rescue operation in World War II history.

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In the aftermath of the horrible events of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, in which organized Nazi mobs smashed windows of Jewish-owned stores, burned more than 700 synagogues and arrested Jewish males 15 years old and above and shipped them off to concentration camps, Jews who had chosen to remain in Germany in the hope that Adolf Hitler would not last very long in office, realized that they must take steps to escape from what became the Holocaust. The British Jewish Refugee Committee appealed to members of Parliament, and it was agreed to admit to England an unspecified number of children up to the age of 17. A total of 10,000 unaccompanied children escaped Nazi Germany from December 1938 to September 1939, literally the eve of the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

The unspeakably wrenching true-life story of the painful separation of children from their parents is depicted in Samuels’s play Kindertransport through the experience of Eva Schlesinger, who is a precociously smart Jewish child, nine years old at the time she is put on the train by her mother, for what both hoped would be a temporary separation. Tragically, for most of the children rescued through the Kindertransport, the separation became permanent. Among the Jewish Holocaust survivor community in St. Louis, are a number of people who were rescued from Nazi Germany through the Kindertransport, and made their way to Great Britain for the duration of the war. Some of the St. Louis Kindertransport survivors, including Hedy Epstein, Ilse Altman, George Spooner, Curtis Mann and Vernon Fischer, are scheduled to faciltate several “talk-backs” with the audience and cast and crew following productions of the show at the NJT. Other resource people from local universities and institutions will also take part in the “talk-backs.”

Doug Finlayson superbly directs the NJT production of Kindertransport, which features a truly outstanding cast, who deliver a powerful, compelling and often wrenching portrayal of their characters and the events they experience in the two-act play. The action cuts back and forth between the events involving Eva’s mother sending her beloved only child on the Kindertransport and the hope that they would re-unite in England, and the early 1980s, in the attic of a suburban London home and other locations. Finlayson’s direction, and top-notch work by the cast and production staff, makes the sometimes tricky time transitions work seamlessly.

Meg Rodd as the young Eva Schlesinger delivers a bravura performance, strikng just the right balance between being a normal Jewish kid stuck in an unprecedented situation of separation and horror, and her own personal struggles to deal with the issues of parental abandonment, conflicted loyalties between her birth parents and the foster family in Manchester, England who take her in and adopt her, and her coming of age as a rebellious adolescent in a particularly challenging scene.

Margeeau Baue Steinhau is also excellent as Eva’s mother, Helga, who must “be strong” for herself and her daughter as she makes the unbelievably painful decision to put her nine-year-old daughter on a train in Nazi Germany in the hopes that she will arrive safely in England. In Manchester, Eva, who speaks practically no English when she first arrives in England, is welcomed by Lil, who is performed brilliantly by Kari Ely, a tough, believing Christian woman who takes in the Jewish girl because she felt morally obligated to “do something” to help in the war effort. Eva is shown to be torn between wanting to remain connected to her Jewishness, while being pressured by her foster mother to embrace Christianity. Such choices were often part of the reality of temporary adoptions of Jewish children during the war years; Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was raised by Catholic parents during the war, and faced difficulties when his Jewish parents reclaimed him after the war.

Lil is shown both at the time of Eva’s arrival, and in the sequences in the 1980s, when her daughter Evelyn (Kat Singleton) is having a challenging time with her rebellious granddaughter, Faith (Emily Piro). Singleton and Piro, as mother and daughter, and Kari Ely as the grandmother, spark off of each other very believably in the many emotionally charged scenes in Kindertransport. The play is so emotionally wrenching that it is wise of the NJT to have scheduled the back-talk sessions with Kindertransport survivors, a psychotherapist and local professors and other resource people.

In her playwright/author’s notes, Diane Samuels writes that three incidents led her to write Kindertransport. “The first was a discussion with a close friend, in her late twenties and born into a comfortable, secure home, who described her struggle to deal with the guilt of survival. Her father had been on the Kindertransport and I was struck at how her parent’s feelings had been passed down so fully to her. The second was the experience of another friend who, at her father’s funeral, overheard her mother recalling her time in Auschiwtz. Until that moment she had had no idea that her mother had been in a concentration camp. The third was the ashamed admission by a 55-year-old woman on a television documentary about the Kindertransport, that the feeling she felt most strongly toward her dead parents was rage at their abandonment of her. What is the cost of survival? What future grows out of a traumatized past?”

Samuels deals with all of the above and related issues in Kindertransport, which deserves a place alongside Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in important Holocaust literature. Anne Frank of course did not survive the war, but the immortal words in her diary continue to inspire us. While Eva Schlesinger indeed “survived” in the play, the audience is left pondering, “What is the cost of survival?”

Yes, this play is painful and at times very difficult to watch. But it is an important, even essential play for Jewish and general audiences who are willing to confront some of the less-discussed issues of the Holocaust, separation, feelings of betrayal, and efforts to reconnect. Do go to the play , and do stay for one of the informative and helpful “talk-back” discussions with resource people, the cast and crew of this remarkable NJT production of Kindertransport.

(Kindertransport is running through Dec. 16 in the Wolfson Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center’s Wohl Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For information or to reserve tickets call 314-442-3283. There will be a special docent-led tour of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, with a post-talk by a child survivor at 1:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3. Call 314-442-3283 to reserve a spot).