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The Kindness of Strangers

Archival footage illuminates a remarkable Holocaust story.

Fascinating and engrossing on every level, the beautifully constructed Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport opens with the mournful sound of a train and images of toys and books sitting untouched in what was once a child's bedroom. As the credit sequence ends, an elderly woman addresses an unseen interviewer, recalling the day in 1939 when, as a child in Germany, she boarded a train for England in search of a safe haven from Hitler. Even now, sixty years later, vivid memories flood her nightly dreams: "I wake up, and as old as I am, I am still sobbing."

They were known simply as the Kinder, Jewish youngsters whose parents were determined to get them out of Europe, even if the adults themselves could not follow. In the years leading up to World War II, before Hitler devised his Final Solution, the Nazis encouraged the emigration of Jews -- while making it virtually impossible for them to obtain exit permits to leave. Global isolationism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism were also in effect, as potential host countries closed their doors to refugees. Only Britain relaxed its immigration policies enough to allow Jewish children into the country -- but only children who wouldn't take jobs away from British citizens. In the months preceding the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, thousands of German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian children boarded trains bound for foster homes and hostels in Britain. (The U.S. Congress rejected a similar proposal to accept children.)

Producer Deborah Oppenheimer (no relation to this reviewer) grew up in the shadow of the Kindertransport, although her mother, one of the 10,000 rescued children, could not bear to talk about her experiences. Like the vast majority of Kinder, Sylva Avramovici Oppenheimer never saw her parents again; they died in the Holocaust.

Into the Arms of Strangers is a remarkable documentary on many levels, beginning with the extraordinary archival footage, much of it never seen before, which was gathered by Oppenheimer and researcher Corrinne Collett. We see Germany before the war through a child's eyes: a prosperous nation of crowded shops and busy streets, filled with ice skating and merry-go-rounds, birthday parties and family outings.

Miraculously preserved home movies, as well as newsreels, old photographs and letters, accompany the recollections of the former Kinder who recall their lives for writer/director Mark Jonathan Harris (whose earlier Holocaust-themed documentary, The Long Way Home, won an Academy Award). As the scenes of playful activities give way to Nazi flags and vandalized shops, the witnesses remember the invasion of their homes, their fathers' arrests and their preparations to leave for England.

The transports began in December, 1938, and continued until the Germans marched into Poland. The documentary includes footage of children bidding their parents farewell at the train station, their arrival in England, and their attempts to fit into their new homes. Although grateful to be taken in, the children experienced a terrible sense of culture shock and a never-ending anguish over being separated from their families. "I never dreamt one could be so lonely and keep on living," remarks one woman sadly.

The stories the various witnesses tell are harrowing: the little girl whose father could not bear to lose her and pulled her out of the train's window as the Kindertransport left the station in Berlin; the girl who, once in London, marched up to Baron de Rothschild's front door and begged him to get her parents out of Germany (he did); the teenage boy who was arrested by British authorities after the Nazi invasion of Western Europe, when all German refugees over the age of sixteen, regardless of circumstance, were suspected of being German spies.

Those interviewed include two "rescuers" as well. Norbert Wollheim, at the time a young man of 25, organized the Kindertransports in Berlin, personally escorting the children to London, then returning to Germany again and again to accompany the trains. He rescued thousands of children but could not save his own family: His wife, child and 67 other relatives all lost their lives in the Holocaust. He alone survived Auschwitz.

The memories remain remarkably fresh; the interviewees, now in their sixties and seventies, filter their experiences through the eyes of the children they were in 1939. Although irrevocably changed -- often damaged -- by their ordeals, all of the Kinder seem to have gone on to lead productive lives. Several of them have managed to retain a sense of humor and irony. Listening to Lore Segal, who novelized her experiences as a refugee child in the book Other People's Houses, and Kurt Fuchel, you wish you could sit down and talk with them at length.

Oscar-winning English actress Judi Dench narrates the film, while composer Lee Holdridge and sound designer Gary Rydstrom, better known for his work on big-budget action fare such as Titanic, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, collaborated on the sensitive, highly evocative use of music and sound.

This is not your typical Holocaust documentary; its focus is not on the eradication of European Jewry, but rather the experiences of a relatively unknown group of children who survived the war, the parents who were unselfish enough to let them go, and the people in Britain who opened their doors to the refugees. Emotionally resonant but also spare, never falling into the trap of sentimentality, Into the Arms of Strangers stands out as one of the most quietly powerful films ever made about the Holocaust.

 
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