IN THE nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, nearly 10,000 mainly Jewish children from Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia were rescued on the Kindertransport and ferried to safety in the UK. Many would never see their parents again…
Now the story has been turned into stage drama by Diane Samuels – but is it a happy tale or a tragic one?
The mix of the two emotions is what inspired her to write Kindertransport, based on the very personal experiences of her friends.
“Three incidents led me to write the play,” she explains. “The first was a discussion with a close friend, in her late 20s 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 by how her parent’s feelings had been passed down so fully to her.”
Diane’s second experience came via another friend who, at her father’s funeral, overheard her mother recalling her time at Auschwitz.
“Until that moment she had no idea that her mother had been in a concentration camp!” says the playwright.
The third incident was the ashamed admission, by a 55-year-old woman on a television documentary about the Kindertransport.
She says: “The feeling she felt most strongly towards her dead parents was rage at their abandonment of her – even though that abandonment had saved her life.”
It made Diane ask questions like “What is the cost of survival?” and “What future grows out of a traumatised past?”
Past and present are wound around each other throughout the play, which stars Doctors and EastEnders actress Janet Dibley and Maggie Steed (Shine On Harvey Moon, Pie In The Sky).
“The past and the present are not distinct but inextricably connected,” she says. “The re-running of what happened many years ago is not there to explain how things are now, but is a part of the inner life of the present.
“I interviewed a number of the Kinder as part of my research. They were all very open about their lives and feelings. Many of the actual experiences are woven into the fabric of the play.”
Kindertransport starts in 1930s Germany with a desperate mother forcing her nine-year-old daughter Eva on to a train, sending her out of danger but into the arms of strangers.
Decades later, in peaceful, suburban, 1980s England, a proud and reluctant mother prepares to say farewell to her grown-up daughter, Faith, as she cuts the ties of childhood to leave the family home.
Then a chance discovery opens an unhealed wound and a long-buried secret is revealed.
The bittersweet experience of every parent as they try to teach their child to survive alone in an uncertain world unites these women across the decades.
“Although the characters and their lives are fictional, most of what happens to her did happen to someone, somewhere,” says Diane.
Since opening at the Cockpit Theatre in London in 1993, Kindertransport has been performed all over the world from New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club to an award-winning run in Japan, as well as touring South Africa and…Israel.
Diane recalls: “I met an Israeli playwright and wondered aloud to her why it took a while for the play to be produced there. ‘Ah, in Israel’, she replied, ‘We have had enough of the Holocaust. We have other concerns we want to explore, we have done this enough.’
“I in turn replied that the play is not about the Holocaust, not a history play at all, and certainly does explore territory to which Israelis can relate very directly – the question of how human beings survive after they have suffered deep emotional trauma and how the damage caused is passed on to the following generation.
“Also, at its heart, the play is about that universal and timeless aspect of human experience – the separation of a child from its parent. Every person on earth, whatever their age, can relate to that.”
Kinderstransport will be performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, from Monday, March 3 until Saturday, March 8.
It will be directed by ‘local boy’ Andrew Hall, who started his theatrical career sweeping the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and is now patron of the York Road Project for the homeless in Woking.