At a time when Europe was heading inexorably into World War II - and many in retrospect have faulted outsiders for failing to act on behalf of Europe's Jews - a little-known chapter of Anglo-European history was unfolding.
Some 10,000 Jewish children were rescued from certain death. Known as the "Kindertransport," the nine-month operation in 1938-39 shuttled youngsters of all ages from their parents' arms in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia into foster homes and hostels in Britain. All hoped to be reunited with their parents after the war. The vast majority never saw their parents again.
The story of this dramatic snatch from the edge of death is told in a new documentary, "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," by director Mark Jonathan Harris and producer Deborah Oppenheimer. It is in limited theatrical release in the United States.
The genesis of the project was personal for Oppenheimer. Her mother was in the Kindertransport. "We were not able to talk about it when she was alive," she says. "My mother was part of a generation that kept their suffering private, you just didn't air your problems."
When her mother passed on, Oppenheimer's quest began. She says she began working on the film as a tribute to her mother's life, as well as a way to show people what actually happened. "I needed to ... ask all the painful questions you would ask: 'Could you send your child away?' 'Would you take a child in?' " she says.
The journey began with the frailest of documents - a pile of tissue-thin letters her father discovered after her mother's death. They were correspondence from Oppenheimer's grandparents, two among 6 million Jews who perished in Hitler's concentration camps. "My grandfather would start the letters saying, 'My dearest little mouse.' They made my grandparents come alive again."
Coincidentally, at around the same time as she was rediscovering her own mother's history, Oppenheimer was invited to a philanthropic event at which she discovered a window into the international Kinder community, one that is loosely organized and whose ranks are rapidly thinning. There she also learned of the 60th anniversary reunion of the Kindertransport.
From that beginning, she went on to interview hundreds of Kinder. For the film, Oppenheimer says she tried to select those whose experiences told the broadest story, including the German who organized and ran the transport, Norbert Wollheim. His story has its own special tragedy, Oppenheimer says. He helped save thousands and yet in the end, his own wife and children were deported and killed in Auschwitz.
"What you see in these stories is the resiliency of children," Oppenheimer says, recalling the story of one child whose parents couldn't bear to let her leave and actually pulled her back through the window of a train as it was departing from the station.
"Each child was given a number," says Lore Segal, a Kindertransport survivor. "My number - and I still have it - was 152."
Another recalls the image of her parents running alongside the train as it pulled out with her on it. "I heard that refrain, 'You're leaving, you're leaving,' and I watched their faces, and tears were streaming down their cheeks. And I knew then, these people really love me. This is why they're sending me away," says Hedy Epstein.
Also in the film, a mother who survived to see her child again recalls the day she sent her child off. "In no time, the suitcase was gone, the other children were gone, just emptiness. Then we turned around and went home. I did not talk. It was awful," says Franzi Groszmann.
While Oppenheimer concedes that a recent deluge of Holocaust material has created what she calls "Holocaust fatigue," she hopes that the originality of the material will give it power. It was not easy to find families who would take the children in, she says, but those who did, took part because they believed in the importance of standing up to the evils of Nazism.
"It was in the character of Great Britain to be of service," she says. "That's something we can all take a lesson from."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society