the Arms of Strangers
I enter the seventh floor hotel room, she is seated at the end of a uncovered
round table, its polished wood finish reflecting up an refined image of a
determined woman, seemingly indefatigable despite a day-long barrage of
interviews. Her dark hair falls down straight over her shoulders as she stands
to offers up a firm handshake. A sleeveless gray dress covers a slim frame and a
heart filled with memories that have obsessed her for years. On the table is
some mineral water; nearby lay other remnants of her hours battling journalists
and media types -- small soda bottles, fruit, and finger sandwiches --
nourishment for her guests. Outside the last days of summer bring a slightly
oppressive damper of humidity and hot air to the nation's capital as we sit for
a short chat two blocks from the White House. Inside the Willard
Inter-Continental Hotel is cool as Deborah Oppenheimer sits pouring over a
photocopy of the Variety review for
her new and only feature, my meager but welcomed gift. It's a better-than-good
write-up, as warm as the reception she will receive later that evening when the
film, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories
of the Kindertransport, premieres at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. She is
anxious and proud.
The interviewer has done
his homework. He's seen the two-hour film and read the pressbook. He's nervously
set up a video camera to record his fifteen minutes with fame. He's wondering if
he's more ill-at-ease than his subject. Who is more scrutinized? The only
problem -- that the recording of their discussion for later transcription has
gone awry -- will be discovered too late. Technology meltdown à la hard-disk failure. A quarter-hour after his first question
and moments after saying his goodbye, his heart sinks as he descends to the
lobby, his heart pumping as he realizes his error. Fear, anger, and most of all,
stupidity, surround him in the elevator as he plummets into depression.
A sleepless night and empty
day followed, but I've collected myself and will attempt to do this piece the
justice it deserves. My humble apologies to my subject and you.
is how Oppenheimer describes the impeding East Coast debut of her film defining
the unmatched rescue of nearly 10,000 children from the clutches of Nazi
persecution on the eve of World World II. She is slightly nervous and has every
right to be so: her father, siblings, many of the survivors of the Kindertransport
will be on hand to applaud Oppenheimer and director-writer Mark Jonathan Harris.
late mother Sylva Avramovici Oppenheimer was a Kinder
who was sent by her parents in Germany to live with strangers in England in
1939. For two years she cried herself to sleep every night, not knowing that her
mother and father would never again fill a void of parental love. She would
learn after war’s end that they had perished in a concentration camp; most of
the other children’s parents suffered a similar fate. Deborah’s mother
rarely talked of her childhood experiences growing up in Chernnitz, near
Dresden, and in her foster homes at Hackney Hostel and Cockley Cley. She hid her
past from her children, who knew not to ask questions.
after Sylva’s death from cancer in late 1993, the family discovered some
letters written to the then twelve-year-old from her parents. Fragile,
tissue-thin notes "like sunshine" as described halfway through the
film. Two of the elegantly penned messages appear in producer Oppenheimer’s
cinematic journey of disclosure. "My dearest little mouse," one
endearment begins. Another lightheartedly criticizes the pre-teen for her
It was in the seeds of
this one-way correspondence that Deborah Oppenheimer decided to start her quest
of personal discovery. Fate called her to a philanthropic dinner in October 1995
where she saw for the first time film of the Kindertransport
and three tables filled with grey-haired "children" applauded.
"I had no idea there
As she built up her
knowledge of the British rescue effort almost sixty years old, Oppenheimer
attended a screening of The Long Way Home,
Mark Jonathan Harris’ documentary chronicling Holocaust survivors rebuilding
their lives. Two days later it won the Academy Award. The producer knew she had
a tough sell in getting the director on board her undertaking. Harris was
reluctant to start another project dealing with a similar subject. Ever
determined, Oppenheimer took the director out to dinner and enchanted him with
stories about her mother and the other rescued children. "It was late in
the week and he said he’d mull over the idea and call me back the following
Monday. The phone rang on Sunday with his decision."
I move the topic to one of
my favorites: family history research. I had read of Oppenheimer’s discovery
of a lost cousin in Canada. "I had been asking my mother’s first cousins
about the family and they casually mentioned another relative who had survived
three concentration camps. We searched through the white pages with little
success before I went back and learned from my cousins that the survivor had
changed his name and was believed living in Montreal. I found his phone number
with directory assistance and called." Her search might have been shortened
had she known of JewishGen (http://www.jewishgen.org),
the home of Jewish genealogy and primary Internet source connecting researchers
of Jewish genealogy, including several Holocaust research projects, worldwide.
I query Oppenheimer about
the plight of Elian Gonzalez and how that paralleled the story she was telling.
"You’re the first one to ask that. It did affect us greatly. All our
witnesses, all the Kinder, believed
the boy had to be reunited with his father."
As the quarter-hour ticks
away, Oppenheimer made a special effort to sing high praises for Harris and his
crew, several of whom (editor Kate Amend, director of photography Don Lenzer,
composer Lee Holdridge) worked with the director on his previous award-winning
feature. She points out their technical contribution in making the film gel, and
is particularly proud to have worked with Gary Rydstrom, sound designer for Saving Private Ryan, Titanic,
and Jurassic Park: The Lost World en
route to winning seven Oscars.
Bros.!" she insists. The studio, which houses her production unit and
distributes her television fodder (The
Drew Carey Show, Norm) has put a
lot of punch behind the film.
Earlier in the session I had mentioned that there are no personal reminisces of Sylva Oppenheimer in the film. The producer purposefully wished to remain a strict third-party observer, "This is not my story." The twelve witnesses provide a fitting epitaph to her late mother. The souls of 10,000 children saved are thankful for her efforts.
Click here to read Elias Savada's review.