Author Meg Waite Clayton
Author Meg Waite Clayton

Bay Area novelist brings Kindertransports to life

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Meg Waite Clayton knew she was writing a novel about the Kindertransports — organized rescue efforts that took 10,000 mostly Jewish children out of the Third Reich on the eve of World War II — but she didn’t know whether to focus on the transports out of Vienna or Prague.

Clayton had made a research trip to Vienna but was not feeling connected to the city. Then she visited an exhibit there featuring the contents of suitcases taken by the children — items such as storybooks, doll clothes, family photos, Band-Aids and a hairbrush.

“I expected the photos. I didn’t expect the hairbrush and Band-Aids,” said Clayton, a Palo Alto resident whose novel “The Last Train to London” is being published this month by HarperCollins. “You imagine a mother brushing that child’s hair. Seeing that exhibit in Vienna rooted me and the story in Vienna.”

“The Last Train to London” centers on three characters during the years 1936-38: a teenage Jewish boy in Vienna, a non-Jewish girl with whom he is developing a shy, tender romance, and a courageous Dutch woman who faces down Nazi border guards and even Adolf Eichmann himself to spirit Jewish children out of Germany.

The boy and girl are fictional. The Dutch woman is based on a real-life figure, the late Geertruida “Truus” Wijsmuller-Meijer, a Christian who had no children of her own but made rescuing Jewish children from the Nazis her life’s work.

The novel paints a vivid picture of life in Vienna in the weeks before the Nazi annexation — a time when 15-year-old Stephan Neuman nurtures adolescent dreams of becoming a famous playwright, when Jews like Stephan’s parents play a prominent role in Viennese society, and when few people imagine that Hitler might take over what was then a proudly independent country. Within the span of a year, everything changes and the Kindertransport becomes Stephan’s sole hope for survival.

The idea for “Last Train” took root more than a decade ago. Clayton’s son was involved in an effort by the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre to interview local Kindertransport participants and write a play about their experiences. The play never materialized, but the stories kindled her imagination.

“I was fascinated by the idea of parents turning over young kids to the hands of total strangers, to live in a city where they didn’t know the language,” she said. “It was so compelling, so moving, so fraught.”

Cover of "The Last Train to London" by Meg Waite ClaytonFor a long time, Clayton didn’t think she could write this story. She was raised Roman Catholic, and though she’s had close Jewish friends throughout her life, she felt it wasn’t her story to tell.

Then — in the course of researching the Kindertransports — she learned about “Tante Truus,” as Wijsmuller-Meijer was called by the children she rescued.

“When I read that, I knew this was my story,” she said. “Truus was Christian like me, someone I could inhabit as my way into the story.”

Clayton, a history major, was determined to be historically accurate. She did research in Vienna, Amsterdam, Salzburg and London. When she learned of a 50-year-old biography of Tante Truus that was out of print, not for sale on the Internet and only available in Dutch, she enlisted a friend in the Netherlands to obtain a copy through inter-library loan and scan it for her. Then she used Google Translate to turn the PDF into English, one paragraph at a time.

Clayton started work on the book in earnest in 2015. The changes in U.S. politics over the following four years transformed her sense of the story and gave it a new sense of urgency.

“When Trump was elected, even before we had kids in cages at the border, I could see parallels between his rise and the rise of Hitler,” she said. “I don’t want to overstate it … but many of the techniques Hitler used are things I see Trump using, like calling the media ‘lügenpresse,’ or ‘lying press.’

“One moment Austria voted to repudiate Nazism, and two months later Hitler walked in. I felt I needed to get this done now, so people could see how fast and dramatically things can change.”

Clayton has received more marketing support from her publisher for “Last Train” than for any of her previous six novels, including “The Wednesday Sisters,” which Entertainment Weekly named as one of the 25 essential best-friend novels of all time. Already “Last Train” is being translated into 18 languages; the first foreign rights to be sold were for a Hebrew translation, in an auction with multiple bidders. She has no fewer than seven Northern California bookstore readings coming up this month, and later this fall will speak at Jewish book fairs in Atlanta, Detroit, North Carolina and Toronto.

For Clayton, the story’s appeal lies not only in the wrenching drama of parents relinquishing children to save them, but in the courage that fueled the Kindertransport.

“I wanted to write a book that is fundamentally hopeful and inspiring, which is why it was important to have a rescuer character like Truus,” she said. “At the same time, I didn’t want to end the book in a completely happy place, because there is no completely happy outcome here.”

Meg Waite Clayton book launch is 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at Books Inc. (Palo Alto). She also will appear at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at Mrs. Dalloway’s (Berkeley), 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at Copperfield’s Books (Sebastopol) and 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at Book Passage (Corte Madera). For full schedule, visit megwaiteclayton.com/events.

Ilana DeBare

Ilana DeBare, a former board member of J., is working on a novel. She lives in Oakland.