Outside London’s Liverpool Street Station there’s a moving memorial statue by Frank Meisler entitled ‘Kindertransport – The Arrival.
It recognises and commemorates the humanitarian process whereby 10,000 predominantly Jewish children were brought from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland during the years 1938 to 1939, to be re-homed in Britain.
The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of young people, but it did not leave them unscarred.
Forced to leave their families behind in their native countries, these children had to face a completely new and bewildering world on their own.
First performed in 1993, Diane Samuels’ touching and powerful drama focuses on Eva (played here by Leila Schaus) who has to leave her parents in Germany and travel to England.
It’s the late 1930s when she’s met in London by Lil (Jenny Lee), a down-to-earth, sensible and caring woman from Manchester who is to provide Eva with her new home.
The action in this cleverly and appropriately structured play flips back and forth from, first, the Germany of 1938 when Eva is preparing to leave her home, then her early days in England, and a much later time when the adult Eva (now called Evelyn) is preparing to say goodbye to her own grown-up daughter, Faith, who is about to leave her family home.
Faith knows nothing about her mother’s arrival in England, or about her family connections in Germany.
But, in clearing-out things from the attic, she discovers documents from Evelyn’s past that leave her urgently questioning where her mother came from and why.
Evelyn, though, merely wants to forget her past.
Ms Samuels not only got the structure for her play spot-on in terms of story development, which keeps us satisfyingly engrossed for the duration, but she also found a perfect setting.
Marie-Luce Theis’ excellent, multi-faceted design is basically a cut-through attic in Evelyn’s house, but easily doubles as a railway station for the early scenes, and hints at the kind of huts used to house those incarcerated in concentration camps too.
Anne Simon’s sensitive and compelling production is augmented with highly effective, shadowy lighting from Nic Farman and there’s a haunting soundscape from Adrienne Quartly.
Ms Simon elects to describe the Ratcatcher – from the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (or sometimes called the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin) who haunts the play throughout – as a huge bundle of clothes, symbolising the only things the Kindertransport children were allowed to take with them on their journey to England.
Leila Schaus produces a stand-out performance here as the child Eva, coping admirably with the transition in her age during the play and the linguistic challenges of the role.
And there’s convincing and adept support from the entire ensemble with Jenny Lee impressing as the homely Lancastrian Mum, Lil, and Suzan Sylvester turns-in a poignantly persuasive portrayal of Evelyn, traumatised by past events and unable to confront her deeply-buried demons.
It’s only in the last few moments that she gives us the answers we’ve been looking for and we learn of the enduring scars left by her brutally abrupt separation from her parents in Germany.
Kindertransport is not merely a depiction of an important and enormously significant historic event.
Though it certainly serves that purpose, it also proves a salient reminder of the need for acts of selfless humanity – even in the face of overwhelming odds and especially in times of crises such as war.
But Diane Samuels also highlights the inescapable fact that, in helping others, we don’t necessarily spare them from the long-term suffering brought on by excruciating personal trauma.