Secret suffering of ‘Kindertransport’ survivors

Around the time that British playwright Diane Samuels was pregnant with her second child in the early 1990s, she was intrigued by a television documentary on the Kindertransport, the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to foster homes in Britain, where most would never see their parents again.

“In the film there was one survivor, who, after years of remaking her life in England, found herself in a situation where her children were grown, her marriage had ended, and she was left alone in this difficult place,” Samuels said by phone from her home in North London. “After a psychotherapy session one night, the sudden fury she felt was so huge, she had to get out of the car. She found herself sobbing to her dead parents, ‘Why did you send me away? Why did you get yourselves killed?’ And that rage really touched me. If your parents saved your life, how can you say you’re furious at them for sending you away? How do you deal with those feelings, or even admit to them?”

Those questions led Samuels to write “Kindertransport,” which had its premiere with London’s Soho Theatre Company in 1993 and in the United States at the Manhattan Theatre Club the following year, and then went on to be staged in myriad productions throughout the world. The play is widely credited with raising awareness about the Kindertransport and its aftermath in Britain, where it is now on every high school syllabus.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the child rescue this year, L.A. Theatre Works is producing a radio theater production that will be recorded live in performances at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater on June 20-23 and that will be broadcast at a later date on public radio stations, as well as streamed on demand at

The play tells the story of Eva, a 9-year-old girl from a well-to-do Hamburg family whose mother, Helga (Jane Kaczmarek), sends her off to Britain on the eve of World War II. In Manchester, Eva is taken in by the kindly but no-nonsense Lil, who can’t understand why the Jewish girl declines to eat ham or pray in a church.

Juxtaposed against scenes of Eva’s journey is the story of Evelyn (Susan Sullivan), who is actually Eva in middle age, and who has repressed her childhood loss (and her fears of anti-Semitism) by becoming a perfect, stiff-upper-lipped Englishwoman. Evelyn has converted to the Anglican Church and even changed her birthday to the date Lil picked her up at the train station. For Evelyn, survival has meant an acute form of assimilation — until her own daughter, Faith, discovers some old letters in an attic and forces Evelyn to come to terms with her past.

Kaczmarek — who is perhaps best known for playing a harried mom in the hit TV comedy “Malcolm in the Middle” — said she’s reprising her role from the New York production and a 1996 staging at the now-closed Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood (for which she won an Ovation Award), because the piece is one of the most significant she has ever tackled. Since learning about the Shoah as a child in a devout Polish-Catholic family in Milwaukee, she said, “I’ve always had a tremendous affinity for the Jewish people. I’ve visited Israel, lit [Shabbat] candles and played many Jewish roles in my life.” 

“Kindertransport” stands out for the actress, in part, because it allows viewers to regard Holocaust victims as more than just a statistic: “When you think of the 6 million, you can’t comprehend that number, but when you break it down to one story people can begin to understand the unfathomable loss.

“What ‘Kindertransport’ really is about is separation, especially between mothers and daughters, as well as secrets and denial within families,” said Samuels, who interviewed a number of survivors to write the play.

Samuels, who was raised in an Orthodox community in Liverpool, knows about the cost of childhood trauma: “My grandmother lost a previous child, and my mum couldn’t replace the son who had died,” she said. “She suffered all her life with that, but she could never talk about it.” Samuels said she participated in “loads of therapy” to explore her own response to the tragedy.

“ ‘Kindertransport’ explores the healing of wounds passed down from one generation to another,” said Samuels, who is making tweaks to her script to adapt it for Los Angeles Theatre Works.

In a telephone conversation from her home in New York, the production’s director, Jeanie Hackett, described the challenges inherent in staging a play that traverses back and forth in time for radio. To clarify the action for audiences at the recordings, she will place the actors who portray characters in the past on one side of the stage and performers who play present-day characters on the other, with Eva and Evelyn sharing the same mic in the middle. Hackett will also project slides of Kindertransport-era photographs to enhance the atmosphere. 

Meanwhile, Kaczmarek was preparing to reprise her role by listening to classical music that evoked emotions of the period. During a thoughtful interview at her Pasadena home, she said she has been obsessed with the Shoah since reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in fifth grade. Kaczmarek added that she was shocked when Arab countries attacked Israel during the Six-Day War, because “after the Holocaust, in my naiveté, I assumed that everyone loved and admired the Jewish people.”

To play Helga, Kaczmarek pored over books on the Holocaust at the New York Public Library, studying everything from Nazi medical experiments on Jewish children to the number of calories Auschwitz inmates ingested per day. “I wanted to know what kinds of things Helga would have done to try to stay alive,” she said.

Before every performance, she would sit quietly backstage “and make an entreaty to someone who had died in the Holocaust to just fill me with an element of truth.”

But after Kaczmarek had her first child in 1997, the actress thought it would be “too devastating” to ever return to the play. Helga’s anguish stayed with her when she would have to leave her children for a time and they would beg for her to stay; when she visited the pediatrician their cries were so painful that she actually had to walk out of the examining room, while her husband remained.

“There was a time when I really considered being hypnotized to have all the research I did on the camps taken out of my head,” she said.

These days, however, Kaczmarek feels ready to reimmerse herself in the world of “Kindertransport.” “I’m coming out the other side of it again, in terms of going into this as an actress, focusing on technique, and not just being Jane out there sticking knives into my heart,” she said.

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