For the producer of a new documentary about the transport of some 10,000 refugee children to Great Britain on the eve of World War II, the connection was personal.
Deborah Oppenheimer’s mother, born Sylva Avramovici, had just turned 11 when her parents put her on a train in Germany with tearful assurances that the family would soon be reunited.
Sylva never saw her parents again, nor did some 90 percent of the other evacuated children during the Kindertransport, or Children’s Transport.
Some 60 years later, this little-remembered chapter of rescue and heartbreak is preserved in the Warner Brothers Pictures documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”
The film opened last Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and Washington.
In the year leading up to World War II, Jews desperate to leave Nazi-dominated Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia found the world’s doors of refuge mainly closed.
Great Britain agreed in late 1938 to accept children – mostly Jewish – between the ages of 2 and 17. However, no one 18 or older, including the children’s parents, would be admitted.
Growing up on Long Island, Oppenheimer learned early on not to ask about her mother’s childhood.
“I tried to bring up the subject and my mother would cry, then I would cry, and then I withdrew for fear of opening up this vast hurt,” says Oppenheimer, a veteran television producer of “Norm” and “The Drew Carey Show.”
“My mother died in late 1993, and as one way of dealing with my grief, I decided to find out all I could about her childhood roots, now that the earlier restraints about hurting her had been lifted,” Oppenheimer says.
She spent long months digging into old letters and diaries and long nights and weekends in phone calls to the main centers of surviving Kindertransporters in England, Israel and New York.
Once contacted for preliminary phone interviews, most of the “kinder,” as they are identified in the film, were cooperative, though at the beginning they frequently displayed a puzzling hesitancy.
“There was a sense among them that they had suffered so little compared to those who had perished in or survived concentration camps, that it wasn’t appropriate to talk about their own experiences,” says Oppenheimer.
In the same vein, the former kinder do not accept the appellation of “Holocaust survivors,” describing themselves as “evacuees.”
Two years ago, Mark Jonathan Harris, who won an Oscar for his documentary about Holocaust survivors called “The Long Way Home,” came aboard, though he was initially reluctant to commit to the project as writer and director.
“I had done two films on the postwar Jewish experience recently and suffered from a kind of Holocaust exhaustion,” he says. “I knew little about the Kindertransport, but once I looked into it, I realized it wouldn’t be a Holocaust film. It really touches on the universal themes of parents and children, their separation and memories, and, above all, the amazing resiliency of children.”
Oppenheimer and Harris faced the reality that their window of opportunity for making the film was constantly narrowing. Most of the former evacuees were now in their late 60s and 70s, and more were dying with each passing year.
During the summer of 1999, when the Kindertransport Association met for its 60- year reunion, the filming of “Strangers” began in earnest. After winnowing some 300 contacts, 23 were selected for in-depth interviews, of whom 16 appear in the completed 117-minute documentary.
Even after the passage of so many decades, during which the one-time kinder established careers, founded families and became grandparents, the anguish and dislocation of their childhoods still throb like fresh scars.
Lory Cahn, at 14, was set to leave on a Kindertransport from Breslau in 1939. The train pulled out and her father, a disabled war veteran unable to bear the separation from his daughter, pulled Lory through the window of the slowly moving train and onto the platform. Lory later survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Her parents didn’t.
Hedy Epstein couldn’t fathom why her parents wanted to send her to England. “A few days before I was to leave, I accused my parents of trying to get rid of me,” she recalls.
Once admitted into England, the children were strangers in a strange land.
Some found loving foster parents, who scrimped to feed an extra mouth, but others were exploited as maids. Some were housed in baronial estates, others in freezing holding camps waiting to be adopted at weekly “cattle market” inspections.
Some knocked on strange doors, begging the residents to employ a mother and father as cook and gardener, so that they could escape from Hitler. Others became “parents” to younger siblings.
When the boys reached 16, they were arrested as “enemy aliens” in 1940 and deported on harrowing voyages to Australia through submarine-infested waters. Most returned to England a year or so later to serve in the British armed forces.
“All of them ceased to be children and were forced to become adults,” says Harris. “Whatever their experiences, they realized, or were told if they didn’t, that they had to be grateful for being saved. They could not be angry or express their emotions.”
Whatever hidden scars inflicted by their childhood experiences, practically all the kinder grew up to lead productive and full lives. Two went on to win Nobel Prizes in the sciences.
Sadly, no other country followed England’s humanitarian example.
A bill was introduced into Congress in April 1939 to admit 20,000 “German refugee children” into the United States,
The anti-immigration lobby swung into action and one legislator argued sanctimoniously that separating children from their parents was against the laws of God. The bill died in committee.
The documentary opens with an intriguing montage of artifacts familiar to any German schoolchild of the late 1930s. There is a pen with nib and inkwell, crayons, report cards and the conical cardboard bag filled with candy and given to 6-year-olds on their first school day.
Equally authentic and haunting are the songs that every German schoolchild, past or present, learns at his mother’s knee, from “Little Hans Went Alone Into the Wide World” to “If I Were a Little Bird…I Would Fly to You.”
The narrator for “Strangers” is British actress Dame Judi Dench, selected by Oppenheimer for her “gentle, caring voice, the voice of a mother.”