Sunday, March 18, 2007
Why would a mother send her child, unaccompanied, to a foreign country carrying only a suitcase full of clothes and displaying a number on a sheet of cardboard tied round their neck with a piece of string?
It was the events of ‘Kristallnacht’ in 1938, a state promoted pogrom where Jewish shops and businesses were trashed or torched by Nazis thugs that convinced mothers to send 10,000 children to Britain – the Kindertransport.
They arrived nine months before war broke out and there is no doubt that this saved their lives. Those that stayed behind perished in the concentration camps, either through disease, starvation or in the gas chambers.
Diane Samuels’ play ‘Kindertransport’ is an outstanding piece of theatre, the script is spellbinding in its intensity and the simple set with spooky cupboards and old suitcases effortlessly transports you across several decades.
Eva (played with incredible virtuosity by Matti Houghton) is sent by her mother to Mrs Miller in Manchester with the promise that the rest of the family will follow in a few months time. Fast forward and a daughter leaving for university is sorting through the cups, pans and knives when she finds a box full of old letters and photographs. Eva has become a middle class English woman called Evelyn.
Diane Samuels wrote the play with the knowledge that every mother, from the moment they are born, prepares for the day when her child will leave, but not under the conditions of the Kindertransport. The play explores the fraught mother/daughter relationship that is given a savage twist by the shock discovery.
Central to the script is the question of identity, who am I? Where did I come from? Some of the children of Kindertransport refused ever to speak German again and became completely anglicised.
‘I renounced my background; I was ashamed of it. I wanted to forget everything. If I was asked where I came from it was tantamount to being accused of a crime… I never think of my birthplace as home now and never refer to it as such’
- We Came as Children, Karen Gershon
A common reaction to intense trauma, suffering and genocide is ‘survivor guilt’. Eva/Evelyn has struggled to come to terms with it all her life. There’s also the insecurity – was I a good child?
‘We were told that we must always remember that other children might have come out in our stead and that they might have been more worthwhile people than we. Since then I have always been obsessed with the thought that I must justify my survival.’
We Came As Children – Karen Gershon
The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the gruesome figure of the Ratcatcher lurks constantly in the background. This imagery of the supernatural, the terror, reaches out to the dark side of Eva/Evelyn’s psyche.
Racism tries to dehumanise its victims as mere chattels, subhuman. The play shows how the children of the Kindertransport had their identity stripped away. Slaves were forced to speak English and adopted their masters’ names. What relevance has the play for today? Children fleeing from the civil wars in Africa routinely appear at Heathrow without papers, sent by their mothers for ‘a better life’.
This play demonstrates how theatre, as a medium, can gather the audience together and draw them into the vortex of the plot in a way that film cannot emulate. The conclusion is heart-rending, I cried. Make time watch this play.
The play is still on tour in Ipswich, Brighton, Salford, Leeds, London, Southampton and Oxford.
Shared Experience Theatre Company