Book Review: Survivors Kindertransport story offers soft-focus view of parting

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In July 1939, a small girl with a red ribbon in her hair and a stuffed dog in her arms sits on her suitcase in a London railway station.

A man and a woman examine a photograph and recognize her. The little girl is one of almost 10,000 young refugees who arrive in Britain with the Kindertransports.

Nearly 60 years later, Dorrith M. Sim tells the story of the Kindertransports, drawing on her own recollections as a child who left Germany in 1939.

"In My Pocket" is designed for readers aged 5 to 8. While it's difficult to reveal tragic tales to very young children and even more problematic to talk to them about a monumental tragedy such as the Holocaust, the strength of "In My Pocket" lies in its understatement.

It is a snapshot captured in memory, rather than a panorama, and it is in soft focus. Small minor notes echo in the writer's spare prose, which is complemented by Gerald Fitzgerald's wistful illustrations, painted in a deep but not somber palette.

A little girl in a dark coat stands at the bow of a boat "full of children escaping from danger," clutching her toy dog as she peers at a gull. Children hug parents at Hamburg's railway station, hearing that the train and the boat will take them "to a new life. The parents cried. We cried, too."

The little dog drops out of the girl's arms as she waves goodbye from the train. A man rescues it and throws it to her, just as the train begins to move. On the boat, some children get lost in the middle of the night looking for the bathrooms and cannot find their way back to their cabins.

"It was strange sleeping without my parents," Sim writes.

The man and woman who meet her train take the young girl to a new life in Edinburgh, Scotland, where her new family has a car and a real dog.

"In Germany, I couldn't play in our street with other children because I was Jewish. Now I played with my new Scottish friends. Soon I was calling the woman and man Mummy and Daddy. I saved Mutti and Vati for my real parents," she writes.

The phrase "in my pocket" becomes a metaphor for the little girl's memories of her past, which stay with her even though they are tucked away. A letter comes from her parents in Germany soon after her arrival, saying, "We hope to be with you very soon."

"I hoped so, too," the little girl reflects. "I kept Mutti and Vati's letter. I read it every day. I kept it with me, safe in my pocket, until there was no more war."

Today Sim continues to live in Scotland and is the grandmother of eight. Born Dorrith Marianne Oppenheim, the author herself arrived in Britain on July 26, 1939, from Germany. She was 7. Her passport and Kindertransport identity document decorate the book's title page and the inside covers.

In the introduction, she tells why the children were evacuated.

"We had done nothing wrong, but most of us were Jewish and we weren't safe in our homes."

In Scotland, she writes, "I learned English, new customs and a new way of life." But after the war, she waited a long time for news of her parents.

Sim does not reveal whether she saw her parents again, but she does write that many of the children did not. Today she's an active member of the Reunion of Kindertransport, an international organization that educates others about the Holocaust and helps those who were in the Kindertransport share their experiences with one another.

Certainly, "In My Pocket" has sorrowful undertones, but it is not a pessimistic story. The little girl with the red ribbon in her hair begins a new life in a new country. She plays and skips and enjoys being a child. But she never forgets.

Children need to learn about the Holocaust. But the thought of young children being evacuated en masse, waving goodbye at railroad stations and being taken in by new families is distressing and requires some preparation.

This reviewer suggests that parents read Sim's story to themselves first, then read the author's introduction and share the story with youngsters at a time other than bedtime.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].