Book Review: Escape from Berlin, Irene N. Watts (2013)

October 30th, 2013 2:22 pm by Kelly Garbato

“For those who do not look away”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

In the nine months before the outbreak of World War II, and thanks to the efforts of Jewish and Quaker delegates from Germany and Austria, some 10,000 children were ferried to safety in Great Britain. Most of the children rescued through Kindertransport were Jewish, living in Nazi Germany and neighboring Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and thus in danger of persecution; others were orphans in need of more permanent care during wartime. The children were transported to England, where they were placed in foster homes, hostels, schools, and farms. (Among those rescued? None other than noted American sex therapist – and former Israeli scout and sniper – Dr. Ruth Westheimer. The Wiki entry on Kindertransport makes for interesting reading, and also provides a list of memoirs and historical novels written about this oft-forgot piece of WWII history.)

Author and playwright Irene N. Watts arrived in England via Kindertransport on December 10, 1938. She was just seven years old (the same age as protagonist Sophie) and traveled alone. While the events in Escape from Berlin are not autobiographical, the story is no doubt heavily influenced by the experiences of Watts and children like her. December 1, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of the first Kindertransport; Good-Bye Marianne, Remember Me, and Finding Sophie are published together here for the first time in honor of the occasion.

Marianne Kohn has spent all of her eleven years in living Berlin with her mother and father. The growing air of anti-Semitism, while sometimes puzzling, is part of Marianne’s daily landscape: she’s used to signs barring admittance to “Jews and dogs,” and public park benches (or entire parks) which are reserved for Aryans only. In the days leading up to World War II, however, life grows increasingly perilous for her family. Marianne is expelled from school when the government passes a new law preventing Jews from attending public schools; similarly, the Nazis prohibit Jews from owning businesses, thus forcing her father to sell his beloved book shop. Even this doesn’t save him from scrutiny, however; the new owner finds some banned books in stock and promptly reports him to the authorities. (“Berlin was full of eyes,” Marianne recalls.) Though he’s ultimately released by the Gestapo, Vati goes into hiding. Faced with dwindling options, Mrs. Kohn decides to do the unthinkable: send Marianne away to England, where she’ll be safe from persecution. Thanks to her volunteer work at an orphanage, Mutti is able to secure a place for Marianne aboard the very first Kindertransport run. The adults wait with bated breath: will the Nazis honor their agreement and allow the train to leave undisturbed? What will become of their children? Is this goodbye their last?

Among those children sharing Marianne’s train car is seven-year-old Sophie Mandel. Hoisting her daughter into the car just seconds before departure, Sophie’s mother Charlotte beseeches Marianne to care for the little girl on their travels. Though their time together is short, the two forge a bond that outlasts the war – a connection that’s rekindled the moment they spot one another across the throngs crowding Piccadilly Circus on V-E Day. Marianne and Sophie rediscover one another at a pivotal moment in their young lives: now that the war is over, how will their existence – forever precarious, always shifting – change?

Escape from Berlin is a harrowing and heartbreaking look at war, genocide, and hatred through a child’s eyes. The girls offer unique perspectives on what it was like to live as Jews in Nazi Germany, refugees in wartime England, and evacuees in rural Wales.

Their experiences couldn’t be more different; whereas Sophie is lucky enough to be taken in by family friend Aunt Em, who loves her like her own, Marianne is shuffled from one lackluster foster home to another. Her initial sponsor, Mrs. Abercrombie Jones – “Aunt Vera” for short – was angling for a 14-year-old refugee so that she could keep the girl home from school and exploit her as an unpaid domestic servant. She only “settles” for Marianne to avoid embarrassment. Among other indignities, Mr. and Mrs. Jones laugh at her poor English, force Marianne to attend church, and downplay the gravity of the events unfolding back in Germany. (Admonishing Marianne for her efforts to find work – and thus temporary residence – for her parents, Vera scoffs, “They must wait their turn like other refugees. It is not a question of saving, but of good manners.”) When her school is evacuated to Wales, Marianne first stays at a Methodist home for unwed mothers; upon discovering that she’s Jewish (“Satan!”), the nun promptly throws her out – in the dark of night. Then it’s on to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Roberts who, nearly delusional with grief, attempt to remake Marianne in the image of their deceased daughter. In additional to general smothering and forced intimacy, they rename the poor girl and make her eat pig flesh. Their false love quickly turns to disgust and anger when Marianne’s headmistress requests a transfer on her behalf.

In contrast, Sophie couldn’t be happier living with Aunt Em (wartime rations be damned). Though Em – Margaret – stresses that the situation is temporary, for her parents will surely return for her after the war, Sophie hopes to lives with Em forever. Her friends, her family, her life – all she has is in England. While Marianne daydreams about being reunited with her parents, to some extent Sophie dreads this development and the uncertainties it brings. When she receives a letter from her father Jacob after the end of the war, Sophie’s world threatens to unravel.

One thing Marianne and Sophie share is their quest for identity: in their native Germany, the girls are persecuted for their religion and ethnicity; in England and Wales, they are regarded with suspicion as possible traitors. (Indeed, Wiki reports that “In 1940, the British government ordered the internment of all male 16- to 70-year-old refugees from enemy countries — so-called friendly enemy aliens. Many of the kinder who had arrived in earlier years were now young men, and so they were also interned. Approximately 1,000 of these prior-kinder were interned in these makeshift internment camps, many on The Isle of Man.”) Too Jewish for Germany, too German for England; “born on the enemy side,” Marianne and Sophie don’t quite fit in anywhere.

Especially disturbing are the various accounts of foster homes, both for Jewish refugees living in England, and English evacuees staying in Wales. Foster homes for Kindertransport children needn’t be Jewish, or even speak the child’s native language. Nor did these homes receive all but the most cursory of inspections. As a result, it’s not difficult to imagine the isolation and alienation faced by many children; their vulnerability also made them easy targets for abuse. Even children from “good” English families faced hardships in Wales; Watts describes children being exploited for their labor, physically abused, and starved. Sexual abuse is hinted at but never described outright. (Upon their arrival in Wales, the youngest and prettiest girls are “signed out” the fastest – as though they are library books!) While you’d hope that those offering refuge to the most vulnerable among us would be motivated by charity and goodwill, this wasn’t always the case.

Since it’s written from the perspectives of an eleven- and a fourteen-year-old, Escape from Berlin is perhaps most suitable for the middle school crowd. That said, I’m 35 and enjoyed it immensely. This is one story that deserves to be told. Prior to reading this book, I’d never heard of Kindertransport – or at least not that I can recall. And that’s not okay. After all, what better way to engage children with history than by approaching them at their level?

“Sorry is such a little word,” Marianne tells Sophie. While Escape from Berlin aroused in me feelings of grief and sorrow, it also encouraged me to think about another aspect of WWII history that I’d never before considered. Only by remembering past mistakes can we hope never to repeat them. Remember – and be that person who refuses to look away, in the present as well as in the past and future.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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