Into the Arms of Strangers
Stories of the Kindertransport
review by Elias Savada, 29 September 2000

Holocaust related documentaries have polled well with Oscar voters over the last five years, winning three times. Poignantly reflecting on one of mankindís darker moments, the Academy has deservedly recognized the important heroics of the subjects and the filmmakers for The Last Days, Anne Frank Remembered, and The Long Way Home. The latter, an extraordinary tale of concentration camp survivors who endured additional physical hardships in WWIIís aftermath, was directed by Mark Jonathan Harris. His latest effort, Into the Arms of Strangers, inspired by producer Deborah Oppenheimerís journey of discovery about her late motherís past and produced in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, appears legitimately destined for award consideration. Spearheaded with an unusual early push by Warner Bros. (many documentaries only get attention after they win a golden statuette, and then merely via cable/educational television networks or limited home video release), the two-hour feature just opened on single screens in five major markets (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and Toronto). The well-crafted film highlights the Kindertransport, an unprecedented humanitarian rescue effort that ultimately saved 10,000 children, mostly Jews, from certain death. On a historic scale, the number pales to the 1,500,000 children who perished in the Holocaust, yet for those under-17-year-olds dramatically wrenched from their German, Austrian, and Czech parents and guardians, life, no matter how uncertain in a land of English-speaking strangers, was better than none at all.

Sparsely narrated by Dame Judi Dench, the filmmakers have 12 witnesses recount their horrifying, yet startlingly fresh, childhood stories of 60 years ago. These Kinder survived and flourished despite being torn from their families in the nine months before the onslaught of World War II. A pair of rescuers and two parents are also called upon to provide their perspective. Their distressing stories of separation anxiety unfold before a stationary camera and a soft-focus blue backdrop, unlocking deep-rooted experiences that brings their past to life and transfix the viewer. The still and moving archival images that overlay the soundtrack (expertly designed by seven-time Academy Award winner Gary Rydstrom) effectively supplement their heart-rending tales. Despite the growing library of such films, locating unique, fresh, newsreel, home movie, and photographic material (kudos to researcher Corrinne Collett) did showcase some disturbing representations of the era, particularly a brief glimpse of an intoxicating carousel, a bouquet of helium-filled black balloons emblazoned with the Nazi swastika, and shattering images of a German synagogue being burned. There are several ghostly recreations (all using only authentic Kindertransport artifacts) evoking the horror of Kristallnacht, "the night of broken glass," a nationwide series of attacks orchestrated by Josef Goebbels, Hitlerís propaganda minister, on November 9, 1938 that set a thousand synagogues ablaze, destroyed more than 7,500 Jewish businesses, and kidnapped tens of thousands of male Jews to ransom back, dead or alive, to their families. This turning point in the fate of Germanyís Jews prodded Britainís Parliament to temporarily accept refugee children and thus began the Kindertransport.

The ten thousand beneficiaries were previously profiled in Melissa Hackerís My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransport. Like Into the Arms of Strangers, that film also was springboarded by the daughter of a Kind ťmigrť (costume designer Ruth Morley), with some of the same survivors re-telling their stories: Vienna-born Kurt Fuchel, one of the handful of children eventually reunited with his parents after the war; novelist Lore Segal, whose determination as a ten-year-old adrift in England managed to secure the necessary domestic service visa for her parents and a birthday reunion on safe ground (her 95-year-old mother Franzi Groszmann is also interviewed); and now-deceased rescuer Norbert Wollheim, 25 years old when he began organizing the Berlin end of the rescue program that saved between six and seven thousand children.

As the children are collected and shipped east, their farewells are tearfully recreated, their harrowing journey painstakingly recreated. The actual train route from Berlin to Holland is re-filmed as several survivors recall the trepidation and sadness permeating their excursion, the muted clatter of the metal wheels an ominous heartbeat. It is only after safely being delivered to Dutch authorities that there are any images of the children smiling in the entire undertaking, savoring hot cocoa and sweet Zwieback biscuits as if they were manna from heaven.

Another witness, Lory Cahn, recalls her fatherís tear-filled farewell only to have him, unable to part with his daughter, pluck her from the train window as it was departing the station. She survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and six other death camps; her parents did not. When liberated at Bergen-Belsen she weighed 58 pounds.

All of the interviewees should be recognized for their touching memories -- some painful, others less so -- and their uplifting courage in a Hellish world unfit for any child; all were truly innocents cast into the arms of strangers, all hoping they would some day be reunited with their families. It is a compelling film, sharply focused in story and content. Cameraman Don Lenzer and editor Kate Amend zoom and pan to the important faces, generally children, found in the archival materials, concentrating your attention where it should be. The film zig-zags between its subjects as their stories unfold, connected by shared experiences and overlaid with history lessons that expand the subject beyond its intimacy. Such is the case of Alexander Gordon, a Hamburg orphan who was one of the first to leave Germany, yet was later arrested as an enemy alien in England in mid-1940 and expelled to Australia aboard the HMT Dunera. Then just 18 years old, he remembers being subjected to two months of near starvation at sea, scraping bits of jam from an empty pot. On a ship filled to twice its capacity, barely escaping destruction by a German U-boat, he survived the journey, believing a simple box of food (cheese sandwiches, apples, and bananas) he received as the boat docked down under to be the best meal he ever had. Newsreels, stills, headlines, and other documentary techniques efficiently flesh out the sequence.

The faded hopes of repatriation closed the door on one of historyís most painful chapters. Those left to fend for themselves did as best they could. Alexander Gordon insists, on the verge of tears, that "I was meant to survive to bring on another generation." Nicholas Winton, the London organizer for the Kindertransport, believed most of the children were happy. "Everyone was at least alive at the end of the war." Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris have a much larger family to be proud of with Into the Arms of Strangers.

Click here to read Elias Savada's interview.

Written and
Directed by:

Mark Jonathan Harris




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