Profound and moving

2011-09-14 00:00

THE Kindertransport, the scheme that took Jewish children from Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, and sent them to foster homes in Britain in the late thirties is an episode of the Second World War that has not received much attention in fiction, perhaps because of the ambivalent feelings it provokes.

It came at a time when Jewish adults were not allowed to leave those countries, and it offered at least a chance of safety to one group of Hitler’s potential victims. It was a brave plan by selfless people, but not all its results were happy, and not all the foster homes were caring ones. Often the children were too young to comprehend what was happening and the ­resulting trauma left unimaginably deep scars.

It is this that is at the heart of Canadian writer Alison Pick’s profound and moving novel. The Bauers, Pavel and Anneliese, are comfortably off, thoroughly assimilated (or so they feel) Czechs. They adore and indulge their six-year-old son, Pepik, and are fond of and kind to his nanny, Marta. But they close their eyes to the gathering storm as Hitler takes first the Sudetenland and then occupies the rest of Czechoslovakia. And when their situation becomes so clear that they can no longer pretend, it is too late.

Complementing the plight of the Bauers is the work of a contemporary Canadian academic who is documenting the fate of Kindertransport children and helping them to discover who they once were and the fate of their families, people of whom some have no memories. She is also, we come to realise, narrating the story of the Bauers, and she too has a history that goes back to Czechoslovakia, and is linked to theirs.

Pick tells her story with gravity and a compelling lack of sentiment. Her characters are flawed: all too human with their reluctance to accept reality, their weakness in the face of threats, their divided loyalties. The author avoids any mawkishly happy ending. The events of the half century and more that divide the main narrative from its telling preclude that.

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