Painful miracle

During World War II, the Nazis’ tally of shame included nearly 2 million murdered children. But 10,000 Jewish kids from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland managed to get out just before the War began, spirited away in the famed Kindertransport movement.

They were tangential victims of the Holocaust, riding out the conflict in remote corners of the British Isles. Most never saw their families again, ultimately emigrating to America or other safe havens. And, like many adult survivors, they generally didn’t talk about their experiences.

Filmmaker Melissa Hacker got them talking. Her documentary “My Knees Were Jumping” earned rave reviews when it debuted at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Now, the film has just been commercially released on DVD.

As the daughter of a Kindertransport herself, Hacker knew a great deal about the movement and its transgenerational echoes. She managed to make a movie that is as much personal as it is historical, and therein lies its poignancy.

Hacker’s late mother, Ruth Morley, was an Oscar-nominated costume designer, photographer and free spirit. But she began life in pre-war Vienna, a privileged child of middle-class Jewish family. In the wake of Kristallnacht, her parents made the ultimate sacrifice, putting their young daughter on a train bound for Holland and a ship across the Channel to safety in England.

Tackling a topic of which very little period footage exists and creating a highly watchable film is no easy feat. Brief newsreels of Kindertransport children arriving at a British port and happily playing leapfrog at an orphanage lend authenticity. But the heart of the film beats in the interviews with Morley and other Kindertranports, all reflecting on the miracle and concomitant pain of their survival.

We learn that not all placements in England were successful, with some stories more akin to Charles Dickens than Jane Austen. One lad was mistreated by his farmer caretaker, whom he later attacked with a pitchfork. Another says that though he was fed and clothed, “Through all those years, not one hug. I felt I lost my childhood.”

Hacker filmed a 1990 Kindertransport reunion, at which survivors spoke eloquently of their experiences, and also showed great joy in fellowship. They no longer look like the bewildered kids they once were, but rather like comfortable country-clubbers from Massapequa. But the past is never far away. One woman holds up the numbered tag that she wore around her neck as she was loaded onto a train in 1938.

Balancing Morley’s elfin spirit are two other women interviewed at length: the reflective Lore Segal and the seemingly shattered Erika Estis. The former speaks eloquently of her sense of betrayal at being left behind, yet is shown on camera with her mother, an equally perceptive woman who somehow survived the Holocaust.

Estis appears never to have overcome the pain of her loss, despite having raised a happy family in America. Her suffering crystallizes in a devastating scene in which she reads aloud the last letter from her murdered father, which begins: “Meine gudes geliebt kind (my good golden daughter) …” It’s a haunting farewell from a ghost, though Estis seems beyond tears. “I didn’t think I should survive,” she says. “I wasn’t even pleased that I did for a long time.”

It is odd how little emotion the Kindertransports and their children express. Only Estis’ 15-year-old granddaughter refers in passing to her eyes welling up thinking about grandma’s courage. But Estis dismisses it all with a wan smile.

As a filmmaker, Hacker displays great confidence as she hammers home the fear and loathing of the times. However, the historical background sequences, narrated by Joanne Woodward, come off as overly simplistic.

But Hacker does not try to be Ken Burns. Ultimately, “My Knees Were Jumping” is about a daughter’s quest to understand her mother. As she says in her own voiceover narration early on, “Somehow my mother’s childhood memories became my own.”

“My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports” (Docurama Home Video, $24.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.