This terrific novel by Helen Dunmore reminded me so much of ‘The Railway Children’ although it is adults who take centre stage in this story of the fall- out from espionage in 50s Britain. It is an ‘ordinary’ family that suffers when things go wrong for the husband; his wife and three children have to pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of public exposure.
Simon Callington is a man trying to escape his past but whose friendships threaten his new life with his wife and children in a comfortable corner of London. In particular, his past association with Giles causes him trouble. They were lovers when Simon was a student with Giles, as the older man, enjoying the patronage he can bestow. They have moved on but the friendship continues… and when Giles presumes on this friendship it starts a chain of events that lead to disgrace.
Lily, Simon’s wife, has already made a new start in life when her mother brought her from Germany to England and safety in an earlier era. Lily knows what it is like to start again with nothing. She did not think this would be her fate twice in her life.
Simon, Lily and Giles all feature prominently in a novel which reminds us of 50s attitudes to outsiders. The paranoia around cold war spying adds another dimension to the suffering of one family. As the novel moves towards its end, I was reminded again of the connection with ‘The Railway Children’ and I hoped for that dramatic moment (from the film at least) of a father being reunited with his children. Life is rarely so neat and tidy, though.
Acting with integrity and honour is an important theme in the book. Simon’s past has not been shared with his wife and the effect on her and his children is central in his thinking as he faces disgrace. Lily is the most impressive figure here, her determination to survive and to shield her son and daughters from the shame. 1950s Britain fares less well; the sense of who can and should belong in our society is one of the less admirable features of that era.
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Back in London so I paid another visit to Liverpool Street Station to see Frank Meisler’s memorial to the children of the Kindertransport outside the station entrance in what is now called ‘Hope Square’.
I also went in search of the smaller memorial by Flor Kent inside the station on the concourse. Flor Kent made the first memorial here in 2003. It consisted of a statue of a girl and a cabinet of artefacts showing what the children brought with them when they escaped from the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the exhibit had to be removed because of problems of conserving the items in the glass cabinet. Now, Meisler’s sculpture is in the most prominent place.
However, Flor Kent’s work, titled ‘Fur Das Kind’ has returned in a slightly different form. The girl is back but the cabinet has gone but has been replaced by another statue, this time of a young boy. His Jewish faith is evident from his yarmulke.
The area outside the station is now called ‘Hope Square’. This is a fitting name and a reminder that there was a time when people in need were welcomed to this country.
There are several sculptures in the grounds of the National Holocaust Centre (Beth Shalom). There were two which were of most interest to me. The first is a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jewish people in the Second World War in Hungary. After the war, he disappeared. He was arrested by the Soviet government and never seen again. The sculpture of a briefcase with the initials ‘RW’ is by Gustav Kraitz.
The second sculpture is the Kindertransport memorial created by Flor Kent. This statue of a young girl is the same as the one that was originally at Liverpool Street station in London. Next to it was a glass cabinet with childhood artefacts. They were replaced in 2006 with the Frank Meisler group sculpture.
I first learned of the Kindertransport many years ago when I visited the Jewish Museum. At that time the museum was based on two sites, one in Camden, where the expanded site is now open, and one in Finchley. I visited the Finchley site because they had an exhibition about Jewish children from Germany who travelled to Britain in the 1930s to escape the Nazi regime. They had to come without their parents and they were only allowed to enter the country because volunteer groups and societies welcomed them. Obviously, the transports ended when war broke out.
When something makes such an impression, it enters the hinterland. Ever since I saw that exhibition, I have wanted to know more about this significant undertaking. I was pleased to discover that part of the National Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire has been given over to an exhibition about the Kindertransport.
What made the exhibition, called ‘The Journey’, so effective was that its audience is young people. We follow the story of one boy, aged 10, through a series of ‘rooms’. It starts in a German apartment room where we find out that the laws are affecting Jewish people and restricting their rights. In the school room, we learn that Jewish children were ostracised and ridiculed by classmates and teachers. There is a street scene where the Jewish businesses have been attacked and a damaged tailor’s shop daubed in paint. Through the stages of this story we learn that the boy’s parents think it is best if he is sent away to safety in England and, just like thousands of others, he leaves his parents behind and starts a new life in Britain.
This is a powerful way to tell this story. The National Holocaust Centre is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I found myself in Nottinghamshire this week so visited a place I have wanted to visit for about ten years. The National Holocaust Centre is in the Nottinghamshire countryside and is not open on any Saturday or any Sunday during the winter months so, although, I have travelled to that part of the country a few times over the years, I have never been in the right place at the right time. This week, I was!
Beth Shalom was established by two brothers who, after visiting Yad Vashem in Israel, decided a place of memorial and study was needed in Britain. The museum and exhibition centre has grown from this initial idea of having a place to find out more about the holocaust. Of importance to the brothers was the idea that young people would learn about this period of 20th century history so that we can all guard against circumstances for hatred growing into genocide.
The exhibition started with family photographs from the 1930s. They were proud and happy groups smiling for the camera. It is a shock then to read the caption for one which clearly states that no member of the family survived the death camps.
Stephen and James Smith started something which has grown over the years. It is an important place. The memorial museum is an apt title. We need to learn as well as remember.
This novel by Jake Wallis Simons tells the story of Rosa, the fifteen year old daughter of parents who send her to England on the kindertransport from a Berlin in the grip of Nazis. She undertakes the journey, convinced that her safety is necessary to ensure her parents’ safety, too. Determined to do all she can from England to rescue them, she is devastated when the beginning of war breaks off contact and destroys her peace of mind.
This is a novel which explores the impact on a change of country on the identity of the child who has to grow up without her parents. She finds that the offer of sanctuary has limits so, when the feelings of the son of the family, which has taken her in, become clear, she finds her presence has upset the plans others had mapped out for her.
The brutality of war is made clear by the way it affects different characters but the biggest impact is felt by displaced Rosa, whose happiness in England is always limited by the knowledge that her parents did not benefit from the asylum she was offered.
‘The English German Girl’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Linda Newbery’s novel ‘Sisterland’ is a thoughtful book that explores the effect of being uprooted as a young person. Set in present times, it concerns Hilly and the friends and family around her. Her younger sister is dating a racist, her gay best friend involves her in his pursuit of his Palestinian boyfriend, the boyfriend has an older brother who she falls for, and her grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s. There is enough here for any young person to deal with.
The book explores identity through these characters, in particular through the story of Hilly’s grandmother. The book has a second time frame. On the eve of World War Two, a young Jewish girl is sent to England on the Kindertransport, leaving behind her family in Cologne. This young girl is Hilly’s grandmother.
The difference between the escaping refugee and the confused older woman is found in more than age. She has developed into a different person and much care has gone into forgetting the past. In becoming thoroughly English, her history is rewritten; in particular, her Jewish faith is eclipsed by her new persona. In confused old age, secrets from the past enter the present and Hilly discovers things about her own heritage.
It is the sister, now living in Israel, who is most hurt by the disappearance of the grandmother into a new identity. The sisters meet after the war. Their separation by the war years means they cannot find common ground; how could they when one spent the war in England trying to forget her religion and the other stayed to face the dangers in Nazi Germany?
In this book, the experiences of the Kindertransport children inform the modern search for identity and reconciliation. Hilly and Reuben and their Palestinian boyfriends are also engaged in a search for acceptance and identity. Welcoming outsiders is the big theme of both time frames of this thoughtful book.
‘Sisterland’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?