The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

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This is a very interesting book, although the style won’t appeal to everyone, about the Kindertransport and one of the women who was most important in it.  Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, known as “Truus”, was a Dutch (Protestant) woman involved in rescuing Jewish children, initially connections of her own friends and acquaintances, from Nazi Germany, from as early as 1933, going to Germany herself and bringing them to the Netherlands, which became more and more difficult as all countries tightened immigration rules.  When the British government agreed to the establishment of the Kindertransport programme, in 1938, Truus was asked by the Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain to travel to Vienna, meet Adolf Eichmann there in person, and try to persuade him to agree to let children from Austria be evacuated.  He tried to trick her by saying that the plan could go ahead if she could arrange for exactly 600 children to leave, in a very short space of time – and she managed to do it.

In total, around 10,000 children were brought to safety in Britain.  The book ends in 1939, but Truus continued to help refugees throughout the war, despite being arrested more than once, turning down the chance to leave the occupied Netherlands for safety in Britain herself.  She was unable to have children herself, and the book shows the sadness that this caused her and her husband Joop, but became known as the “mother of 1,001 children”.

The book’s partly about Truus, and partly about three fictional characters – a teenage boy, a teenage girl, and the boy’s younger brother – who become three of the 600.  The style of writing isn’t the most readable I’ve ever come across, but it’s a fascinating story.  We see Truus in action, and also her home life, and we see how the lives of the two teenagers, misfits who’ve become close to each other,  and their families are torn apart.  There’s also a toy Peter Rabbit.  I’m not sure how big Beatrix Potter was in inter-war Austria, but rabbits seem to be a bit of a thing in books about children escaping from the Nazis.

We also see just how quickly things changed in Austria.  It wasn’t a gradual process as it was in Germany.  Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, was opposed to the Anschluss, and Austria had no equivalent to the Nuremberg Laws until it was taken over.

The title of the book refers to the last Kindertransport train, which was from Prague, to depart before war declared.  It never reached the Netherlands, and no-one knows what happened to the children on it – but, sadly, I think we can probably imagine.  It does have a link to the characters, but it’d be a spoiler to say what.

Some of the language jars slightly: no-one in 1939 said “chalkboard” rather than “blackboard”, and a British person would have said “disembark” rather than “debark”.  OK, OK, that’s nitpicking; but it’s quite a strange book, with newspaper cuttings (which I think are actually fictional, although what they say is factual) about the latest events included in between every few chapters.  I thought it worked quite well, but people might find it off-putting.

It’s also quite unusual in that not only do Hitler, Eichmann and other Nazis feature as characters but we actually see things from Eichmann’s point of view in some scenes.  He has to be included because Truus did meet him in person, but it’s quite strange when we actually “see” his thoughts.  And the book does jump about a lot, between the different characters – not just the main characters, but various minor characters as well.  However, it’s a very interesting story – both the part about Truus, largely based on fact, and the part about the children, who are fictional but who speak for so many real children who were parted from their families by horrific events, but whose lives were saved,

The Kindertransport was sanctioned by the government here in that they agreed to make an exception to the immigration laws in the case of the children concerned,  but it was all organised by private individuals.  The treasurer of the Refugee Children’s Movement went to my old school, and two of the prominent committee members name-checked in the book went to our brother school.  Sorry, I just had to say that!  I’m not just being cliquey, honestly: I’m making a point that these were ordinary people, not aristocrats or politicians or celebs.  They put in a huge amount of work to persuade the government to agree to it, to raise money and win popular support, and to find homes for the children.  We’ve rather lost that civil society thing now: governments are expected to deal with anything and everything.  The work that these people did, on a voluntary basis, was very admirable, to put it mildly.

But they, at least, were safe in Britain – it was Truus who actually went into the Third Reich, putting herself in danger, to bring the children out, and without any personal reason for doing so, only that she wanted to help.  I’ve read better books than this, but it’s an amazing story, and she was an amazing woman.