A child’s-eye view can be lucidity itself, seeing things with a clarity and a gift for the telling detail that is powerfully instructive. Because “Into the Arms of Strangers” is as much a story about childhood as it is about the Holocaust, it’s an especially moving and effective piece of work.
As its subtitle indicates, this documentary is intent on telling “Stories of the Kindertransport,” a British rescue mission that, in the nine months leading up to World War II, saved 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, living in German territory.
It’s an uplifting story but a wrenching one, too, when you factor in the grief of parents voluntarily relinquishing their children to save their lives and the agony of children who often discovered after the war that their parents had, in fact, died in concentration camps.
At least one other documentary, “My Knees Were Knocking,” has dealt with the Kindertransport phenomenon, but this one makes more of an impact. As produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, who made the film into a kind of crusade after discovering that her late mother was one of the rescued children, and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, who last did the Oscar-winning “The Long Way Home,” this is a polished piece of work that slowly but convincingly builds its involving story.
Making the film as strong as it is are the testimonies of its witnesses, not only the former children, now old and gray, but some of the people who were adults when the story unfolded, including Franzi Grossman, the 95-year-old mother of Lore Segal, one of the children transported, who says simply but painfully of giving up her daughter: “The hurt is unbelievable. That cannot be described.”
Carefully shot by cinematographer Don Lenzer, “Strangers” makes good use of a consistent visual backdrop for its interviews, enabling us to more easily focus on what its people are saying. Speaking six decades after the fact, the trauma is still alive inside these survivors, and it is gripping to experience how much they feel things, how intense the emotion remains. “I still have dreams,” one woman says, “and old as I am, I wake up sobbing.”
Growing up in Germany and Austria, these children freely admit to being pampered, even spoiled by indulgent parents. The gravity of their changed situation once Hitler came to power dawned on them slowly--a birthday party no one attended, a beating outside school--but after Kristallnacht, there could be no doubt that their world had been obliterated.
That night, Nov. 7, 1938, illustrated here by some rare and devastating home movie footage, saw the mass destruction of Jewish businesses and synagogues. Moved by the clear danger, the British government, in what the film calls “an act of generosity and charity almost without parallel,” agreed to admit refugee children ages 17 and under. (A similar bill, it’s worth noting, died in committee in the U.S. Congress. Separating children from their parents, one conservative opponent said in pre-Elian Gonzalez days, was contrary to the laws of God.)
“Strangers” is especially strong on the world-turned-upside-down chaos parents and children faced in having only a few days to prepare for a journey into the unknown that might separate them from each other forever. Things were worst of all at the train stations on the day of departure: One woman, Lory Cahn, recalls that her father was so distraught at seeing her depart that he reached through the open car window and literally pulled her off the moving train. (Cahn survived the war, though her parents did not, but at age 20 he weighed only 58 pounds after years spent in eight camps.)
The children’s shock on arriving in the safe haven of Britain, not knowing the culture or the language, was quite high. “I cried for years,” one woman remembers, “I never dreamed one could be so lonely and go on living.” But most children made the transition, some even arranging for their parents to come after them. And Kurt Fuchel still remembers the euphoria of his first day with his new friends, coming home and proclaiming, with the exuberance only 7-year-olds have: “Somebody who’s not Jewish wants to see me tomorrow.” It’s details like that that make “Into the Arms of Strangers” a memorable experience.
* MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements. Times guidelines: some concentration camp footage.
‘Into the Arms of Strangers’
A Sabine Films production, released by Warner Bros. Director Mark Jonathan Harris. Producer Deborah Oppenheimer. Screenplay Mark Jonathan Harris. Cinematographer Don Lenzer. Editor Kate Amend. Music Lee Holdridge. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
In limited release.