The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton: Standing up to Tyranny and Cruelty

Meg Waite Clayton is known for her historical fiction set in and around World War II. In 2015’s The Race for Paris, Clayton explored the journalists who raced to Nazi-occupied Paris to get the big scoop. Clayton turns to pre-World War II, specifically the late 1930s and early 1940s, in her latest book, The Last Train to London, which focuses on the Kindertransport (“children’s transport”) program in pre-World War II Europe. This program relocated Jewish and non-Aryan refugee children, primarily living under the Nazi threat in Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, to safety in England.

The Last Train to London is a fictional book about the Kindertransport program. The book is told from a variety of perspectives, including three children who will be a part of this program. Stephan and Walter Neuman are brothers that are heirs to their father’s chocolate factory in Vienna; they are non-practicing Jews. Stephan befriends the math wizard, Žofie-Helene, who is not Jewish but her mother is a political journalist. All three children will become targets of the Nazis and their parents will become desperate to get them to safety. Another important point of view in The Last Train to London is the real-life heroine, Geertruida Wijsmuller. Known affectionately as Auntie Truss, this Dutch woman would help many children get to safety with the Kindertransport program.

Unlike The Race for Paris and Beautiful Exiles, in which Clayton knew a lot about the historical women before beginning her book, she had never heard of Truss before. Instead, Clayton initially decided to write a book about the children of the Kindertransport program. She learned about these children when her “usually chatty 15-year-old son arrived home from our local children’s theater troubling silent.” The theater kids were given the project to research and write about the children in the Kindertransport program and even got to interview some of them. Long after the theater project finished, Clayton was still thinking about these children and read everything she could find on the subject. She saw immense promise in this story but she did not know how to start.

But the Kindertransport program struck a chord in her and she kept researching. Eventually, she stumbled across Truss’ role in the Kindertransport program in a book and then went to her Wikipedia page, which has little information but did have a citation to Truss’ autobiography. But, she says, it was “published only in Dutch and fifty years out of print. One of three U.S. copies happened to be at the university where my son is getting his PhD. He could only get twenty pages though – all that U.S. copyright laws allow – so I found a copy of the table of contents and guessed which pages might cover the kindertransports.” With the help of a Dutch friend and Google translate, Clayton was able to translate the sections on Kindertransport and get a sense of Truss’ personality. She says that “it was just a bit of crazy luck that the character I was searching for was as amazing as she was.”

Her research into Truss also mentioned Adolf Eichmann, and Clayton was intrigued by this connection. Eichmann, a Nazi, was behind the Final Solution, the plan to exterminate the Jews. Once she discovered that there was a connection to Eichmann and Truss, Clayton says, “I was all in.” Some of the sections of The Last Train to London are from Eichmann’s perspective, which Clayton says was an important point of view to include because it makes the reader think: “Will we be an Eichmann or a Truss?” If the reader only sees the situation from the hero’s perspective, “how will we ever come to recognize our own weaknesses before we are too far down a path to turn back?”

During the course of her research, Clayton traveled to Austria, England, Germany, and the Netherlands. She started her journey in Vienna, Austria, where she imagined “Žofie-Helene and Stephan riding the Ferris Wheel in Prater Park, climbing the Hercules statue in the palace courtyard, and running through the cobbled streets to his father’s chocolate factory.” Clayton also visited Harwich, England, where the children of the Kindertransport first arrived. “The camp they were taken to was still there in some form, and that was also moving, to see the little ‘cabins’ the children lived in, on a beach that was windswept and chilly.”

The Last Train to London begins in 1938 Vienna, an increasingly dangerous time to live in Austria. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and his Nazism ushered in increasing anti-Semitism. With the Anschluss in March of 1938 (annexation of Austria), the situation became even more dire for Jews, who were subjected to bigotry, and dicrimination, and violence. This violence culminated on Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” From November 9-10, 1938, Nazis vandalized, damaged, and destroyed countless synagogues, Jewish-owned shops, schools, and homes. (This event was called Kristallnacht because the streets were littered with all the broken glass from these establishments.) In addition to this damage, about 100 Jews were killed on this night and 30,000 more were sent to concentration camps.(1)

For the Jews that survived Kristallnacht, this night served as a wake-up call to what was coming under the Nazis: persecution, limited civil rights, internment in concentration camps, and possibly death. Many Jews tried to flee Germany and Austria but it was difficult to find asylum in places like the United States, Australia, and Great Britain. Following Kristallnacht, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt condemned the Nazi violence and bigotry but he did not change the immigration policies to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to the United States; other countries like France and Great Britain followed this example.(2)

author photo by Adrienne Defendi

Therefore it was a little out of desperation that the Kindertransport was formed in 1938. This program allowed Jewish and non-Aryan refugee children transport to the safety of Great Britain. Immigration laws were relaxed only if British aid agencies agreed to pay the cost for these refugee children. In England, the children would stay with family members or foster families with the stipulation that when the war was over, the children would return home. In addition, no parents or children over seventeen were allowed to emigrate with these children. But Jewish parents were increasingly desperate after Kristallnacht and they wanted their children to be safe, even if it meant a separation. As children began leaving in the Kindertransport, no one knew that the Holocaust would happen and that many of these children would never see their parents again. From 1938 to 1940, roughly 10,000 children were part of the Kindertransport program.(3) After saying goodbye to their parents, the children on the Kindertransport crossed the border into the Netherlands or Belgium and from there, many would take a boat to Great Britain.

Getting the children across the border to Belgium or the Netherlands was a dangerous task. In The Last Train to London, the reader learns about the real-life Dutch woman, Geertruida Wijsmuller, and her role in the Kindertransport program: from 1938-1939, Truss helped countless Jewish and non-Aryan children escape to England. Truss travelled back and forth between her home in the Netherlands to Vienna, Austria, where she would then accompany the children back across the border. In her most famous extraction, Truss convinced Adolf Eichmann to allow her to take 600 children from Vienna and bring them to England. At the time of Truss’ negotiation, Eichmann was the head of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration.(4)

Clayton’s interest in World War II began early. As a child, Clayton delighted in the stories of her Uncle Jim. But while Jim was in World War II, he never told stories about his experiences in the war, which made Clayton wonder about what had happened to her uncle during that time. She went on to attend the University of Michigan, getting a degree in psychology and history, which is when she began to understand Uncle Jim’s reticence. She says that, “In my ‘20th Century Wars from the Soldiers’ Perspective’ class, taught by Professor Linderman, we read both fiction and nonfiction that ripped my guts out, books like Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (WWI), Philip Caputo’s Rumor of War (Vietnam), Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and Anton Myrer’s The Last Convertible, both WWII. I think I found in those readings some sense of why my Uncle Jim never talked. Sometimes fiction really is the best way to tell the truth.”

As she began her career as a lawyer, Clayton learned that her aunt was also in World War II. Through talking to her aunt, Clayton learned about the war from a woman’s perspective and this set her on a path to discover other women’s narratives of their World War II experiences. She began devouring biographies and autobiographies of historical women, including Margeret Bourke-White, an American photographer, and Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist. But Clayton’s favorite was Lee Miller, the American fashion model turned photojournalist, who, she says, “I still want to be when I grow up.”

Now as a writer of historical fiction, Clayton uses her books to explore the true stories of World War II women, some of whom are long forgotten to history. Historical fiction is an especially powerful vehicle, as Clayton discovered in her college English class, and like any fiction, great historical fiction “has to completely immerse the reader in its characters and its world, leave him or her, at the end, in some way transformed.” The Last Train to London hits the mark on these counts.

The Last Train to London is many years in the making and Clayton could not have imagined when she started how relevant her book would end up being in 2019: “the rise of authoritarianism throughout the world the assault on the press, which Hitler called lügenpresse – lying press – who are literally being murdered now without consequence; the plight of the immigrants, the peril to helpless children.” Within all of this, we are in a similar situation as those in 1930s Austria. What will we do? Will we help the less fortunate? Will we stand up to tyranny and cruelty? Do we even know this is wrong? The Last Train to London offers Truss as an example of how to act. Clayton says it is “heartening to know about these kinds of real-life heroes, to step into their shoes for the length of the book and emerge with a better idea of how ordinary people find ways to do extraordinary things.” Perhaps it is fitting to end with a quote by Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust survivor and writer, who said, “One person of integrity, of courage, can make a difference, a difference of life and death.”

[1] “Kristallnacht,” History, accessed August 7, 2019,  https://www.history.com/topics/holocaust/kristallnacht.

[2] “Kristallnacht,” History, accessed August 7, 2019,  https://www.history.com/topics/holocaust/kristallnacht.

[3] Erin Blakemore, “The heartbreaking WWII rescue that saved 10,000 children from the Nazis,” History, accessed August 7, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/holocaust-child-refugees-kindertransport-britain.

[4] “She rescued 10,000 children from the Nazis,” Auschwitz info, accessed August 7, 2019,

https://www.auschwitz.info/en/welcome/announcements/artikel/lesen/she-rescued-10000-children-from-the-nazis-honouring-tante-Truss-in-berlin-180.html.

 

About the contributor: Julia C. Fischer is an art history professor in Texas. She spends most of her free time reading and loves historical fiction and thrillers.


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