Performed in Ipswich at the Sir John Mills Theatre, it was the regional premiere of Diane Samuels' moving play.
The story traces the journey of Eva (Amy Restall), a young Jewish girl, living in Germany, who is sent to Britain under the Kindertransport rescue operation in 1938.
The audience sees the preparation for the fateful journey: Eva not understanding the true nature of what is happening; her mother, Helga (Linda Bailey) hiding her heartbreak as she tries to prepare little Eva for what is to come.
The set is simple, but hugely effective. The action and dialogue on one part of the stage is the past - the memories, the flashbacks. The other part of the set is the modern-day attic of Evelyn's house (played by Jenni Horn). It is in the attic that Evelyn's daughter Faith (Caroline Whitfield) forces Evelyn to confront her past.
The slipping between present and past is sharp but subtle. The turn of a shoulder, the use of a handbag and Lil (Sheila Garnham) changes from the grandmother of the present to the kindly woman who opened her house and her heart to a 10-year-old Jewish refugee.
|"Central to being a parent is the innate instinct to protect our children at all costs, even if it means sending them away for their own safety. "|
|Steve Wooldridge, Director|
When we see Helga later in the play, gone is the elegant, capable woman. Instead we see a small shrunken woman, with the suffering she has endured etched upon her face and in her demeanour, but through it all she has held onto the hope of being reunited with her daughter.
Evelyn has panic attacks throughout her adult life - the sight of an official in uniform is enough to raise the spectre of the terror she experienced in her early childhood.
There is a recurring theme of the 'ratcatcher', who 'sees everything you are doing, no matter where you are'. A children's story book is found in the attic and a threatening shadow is projected onto the wall as the story is told. This sense of fear and foreboding remains throughout the play. The dark, brooding presence that Evelyn tries to suppress and bury. Eva's question of Lil 'Have I been very bad?' was heart-rending.
Evelyn's past is hidden away from her family - some parts of her story even Lil doesn't know. When the box of memories is found she has to face her past. She calls it an 'abyss', which echoes again the story of the children taken away by the ratcatcher.
The actors in this production were utterly convincing - even the 10-year-old Eva, which can't have been an easy part to play. It was impossible not to become absorbed in the story, to feel the pain and the emotions they were experiencing and to share it with them.
I liked the idea of the same actor (Phil Cory) playing five different parts - the ratcatcher, the SS guard, the insensitive Englishman, the friendly postman and the suspicious railway guard. It shows how the hand of fate can control the person you become.
There is so much to this play, so many levels and layers. When it was first staged in 1992 it won the prestigious Verity Bargate Award, given by the Soho Theatre, for excellence in new writing.
Diane Samuels was born in Liverpool, but is of Jewish descent. She interviewed many 'kinder' as part of her research. Samuels says: "Many of the events that occur in the play were experienced by someone somewhere. Fact and truth are different things.
"I have woven experience and events around each other to find a psychological truth which is, I hope, insightful and accurate about the nature of the trauma of premature parent/child separation, survivor guilt, the inheritance of trauma by the next generation who do not even directly have the traumatic experience."
Steve Wooldridge, the Director of Kindertransport for Gallery Players says: "There is so much in this play and it has been wonderful to rehearse. The central question it poses is complex. Central to being a parent is the innate instinct to protect our children at all costs, even if it means sending them away for their own safety. Children see things differently and may prefer to stay with their parents."
I think this last sentence sums up the essence of the play. As a parent myself I find it impossible to comprehend the pain the families went through, the decisions they were forced to take. The memory of this production will stay with me for a long time.
Kindertransport: the background
In Germany, during the Holocaust, Jewish and Gypsy children were subjected to many injustices and cruelties. They were forbidden from going to school and German children were taught that Jews and Gypsies were racially inferior.
Jews were forced to live in ghettoes under dreadful conditions and children risked their lives to smuggle food for their families.
|Memorial sculpture in Christchurch Park|
On 9th November 1938 the Jewish population in Greater Germany faced a night of terrible violence and persecution. They were physically attacked, their shops were looted, their Synagogues set on fire and the men deported to Concentration Camps. These events became known as the Night of the Broken Glass or Kristallnacht.
Thousands of children were left homeless and in danger. Pressure was placed on the British government to relax immigration controls for a limited number of children. It was agreed that 10,000 children could enter the UK on a warranty of £50 each.
The Jewish Refugee Committees, along with charitable organisations such as the Red Cross, helped organised this programme of sanctuary, but the children had to travel without their parents, and by the end of the war many of them were orphans. Only about 10% of the children were reunited with their families.
The Kindertransport, as it became known, was only open to children between the ages of 5 and 17. The children, mostly Jewish, were sent to the UK from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
They were allowed to travel to Britain by train and boat, many of them arriving, in groups of 100-150 at Harwich and Liverpool Street. There is a bronze statue of a little girl on the concourse of Liverpool Street station to mark these events. It was unveiled in 2003 by the Association of Jewish Refugees.
The children arrived in a foreign country where they couldn't speak the language, they didn't know anyone and they didn't know who was going to care for them. Older children lived in hostels while others were placed with foster families.
A group of the children were billeted at Butlins in Lowestoft, some stayed in a renovated workhouse at Barham near Claydon and others were sent to a hospital in Colchester.
Behind Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich there is a sculpture commissioned by Tom, who came into the UK under the Kindertransport rescue operation. He now lives locally and the sculpture is in memory of his parents who died during the War.