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Remembering, Representing and Re-Imagining the Kindertransport: Issues of Genre

Written by Stephanie Homer, recent PhD student, IMLR |

Stephanie Homer has recently completed her PhD study at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study (UoL). Her thesis examines how literary genres influence the representation of the Kindertransport. Her research interests include German-speaking refugees from National Socialism, the literary representation of trauma, reader empathy, and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

When we think of the Kindertransport today, the name Sir Nicholas Winton may spring to mind, or, instead, we may think about Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport statues dotted across Europe, including London’s Liverpool Street Station. We may have heard of the Kindertransport in passing, invoked in recent discussions on the Syrian refugee crisis, or we may even remember it being carelessly mentioned by Teresa May in her 2019 resignation speech. With the dwindling numbers of Kindertransportees alive today, living memory is increasingly being transformed into culturally-mediated representations; a trend noticeable in the prolific publication of Kindertransport fiction since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This change in memory invites a critical investigation into the ways we will relate to and remember the Kindertransport in a post-survivor era.

As members of what Eva Hoffman has coined the “hinge generation”, we find ourselves at a critical juncture, and it is becoming increasingly important to question the ways in which the representation of the Kindertransport in the public sphere is influenced by the literary genres that give texts shape. My doctoral research responds to pressing questions, such as: how are we remembering the Kindertransport in the public sphere? What impression of the Kindertransport is being received by the younger generation today? How does fiction written by non-Kindertransportees differ from the memoirs and autobiographical fiction written by those who were brought from Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in Britain and other countries? What aspects of the Kindertransport experience are being emphasised, re-imagined, re-framed, or even pushed to the periphery in different genres?

My research investigates the strengths, capabilities, and limits of three genres: memoir, autobiographical fiction and recent fiction written by non-Kindertransportees. It demonstrates how the choice of genre influences the construction of the texts, the representation of the Kindertransport experience, and the position of the reader and, consequently, the way they are invited to consider the text. An investigation into genre has been revealing and my research shows how there are inherent tensions in each genre that influence representation. Indeed, my research supports Daniel Chandler’s assumption that he made in his Introduction to Genre Theory: “[g]enres are not simply features of texts, but are mediating frameworks”.

When exploring my chosen memoirs, it became clear how memoirists are faced with questions of how best to represent the self and how to represent traumatic experience; the often unnarratable presence of traumatic memory threatened the memoirists’ ability to emerge as agents of self representation – something Leigh Gilmore argues is the memoirist’s aim when writing. Luckily for the writer, the memoir genre is multifarious in nature and allows the inclusion of diary entries and letters, historical fact, retrospect, self reflection on the process of remembering, and imagination. My chosen memoirists draw on many of these elements which allows them to construct an account of their past and navigate traumatic episodes that evade direct, organic recall and representation. It is particularly intriguing how, despite the raw feelings of loss, grief and longing, and the trauma-like gaps in their narratives, memoirists attempt to create a sense of wholeness and completion, giving the reader the impression that they are emerging as the active agent of self representation. One memoirist, for instance, claims: “[m]y task is completed; I seem to have travelled a full circle, reopening doors I had left locked for most of my life”.

Despite this attempt to display a sense of wholeness and a confirmed sense of identity, the reader is not always able to extract a vivid, lingering understanding of the Kindertransportee’s childhood experience. Instead, the memoirs appear governed by the memoirists’ attempts to construct and shape the past, and the image of the child gets lost amongst the key memorable events at school, later achievements, and the suffering of family members in the Holocaust. Accounts are permeated by the loss of the parents and loved ones, and this collective Holocaust trauma at times overwhelms the narrating voice. Marion Charles, for instance, struggles to reflect on her own suffering due to the experiences her family members faced in concentration camps: “was für ein relativ unbeschwertes Leben ich führte, während meine Mutter, meine Freunde, meine Familie und alle Juden so viel erleiden mussten” [“what a relatively unburdened life I had led, while my mother, my friends, my family and all Jews had to suffer so much”].

Interestingly however, autobiographical fiction is able to fill the child-shaped void in my selected memoirs. The strength of autobiographical fiction is its ability to re-imagine the everyday thoughts, actions, and immediate responses of the child through the use of internal focalisation and the shifting  of the narrative perspective to the experiencing child, rather than the reflecting adult memoirist. My analysis of autobiographical fiction supports Hywel Dix’s assumption that autobiographical fiction – or autofiction – encourages an experimentation and exploration of self, allows the author to re-write trauma and to depict the immediate reactions of the protagonists. The autobiographical fiction I examine is limited to a specific time period of the 1930s and 1940s and this provides an in-depth representation of the refugee experience and the refugee’s feelings of alienation, inferiority, and self-deprecation. Traumatic experience is rendered visible in the way the refugees view the world around them, their relationships with others, and moments of miscommunication with other characters. With a droll, dry and ironic writing style, Lore Segal and Karen Gershon present an uncomfortable read, with references to suicide and another possible attempted suicide, and one protagonist’s sexual experimentation with her brother that is brought about by her loneliness and dislocation. Whilst this genre is capable of offering an insight into the daily, domestic, and intrinsic world of the child refugee, feelings of grief and the constant, if unspoken, knowledge of the Holocaust – two aspects that are inescapable in memoirs – are pushed to the periphery or hardly mentioned in these autobiographical fiction novels.

Recent fiction offers a diverse range of plots, characters, and national perspectives. Whilst it is easy to assume that the fiction writer, who does not have to conform to expectations of veracity, can enjoy the creative liberties afforded by the fiction genre, it appears as though these authors still have to navigate generic tensions. Authors who have written fiction on the Kindertransport from a non-experiential perspective appear to be positioned between the historical past and the reader’s present; they often write with the intention of preserving the Kindertransport as a historical event in public consciousness, whilst also hoping to engage and excite the reader and compete against other popular books hitting the shelves. My research explores Jakob Lothe, Susan Rubin Suleiman, and James Phelan’s assumption that two main strengths of fiction are its “flexibility and explanatory power”.

The flexibility of fiction can be found in the range of plots and contexts in which the Kindertransport is placed. Indeed, a real strength is that several of these novels depict the post-war lives of the Kindertransportees, which is an aspect that is not represented in detail in memoirs or autobiographical fiction. Fiction can even situate the Kindertransport in the present day. In these texts, the mortality of the refugee is a pressing concern and future generations, such as the characters of the grandchildren, enter into dialogue with their grandparents about their past. In this respect, questions about how the younger generations are remembering, issues of postmemory, and the gaps that emerge between personal and institutional or public memory are emphasised. Novels that find new ways of engaging with the Kindertransport, for example by viewing it from today’s position instead of recreating a historical period, are able to make this chapter of history more concrete and meaningful to the reader.

The explanatory power of fiction, however, is considerably more difficult to assess; fiction’s explanatory power can increase the reader’s understanding, yet also raises issues of ethics. Aspects such as trauma, which may be bypassed or unnarratable in memoirs, are given physicality in fiction. Unspeakable trauma is represented, for example, as both a physical wall in Lody van de Kamp’s novel Sara, het meisje dat op transport ging, and also manifests in the tightening of the throats of three generations of the same family in Renate Ahren’s Das gerettete Kind. Whilst this may enable the reader to view the ongoing or long-term impact of upsetting experience, there is a danger that trauma becomes a literary trope. Indeed, Jake Wallis Simons’s novel, The English German Girl, is driven by the constant and dramatic return of trauma, which conflicts with the rather rounded, optimistic ending he affords his protagonist. Even more concerning is Jana Zinser’s representation, The Children’s Train. In her story of good versus evil, the author positions the Kindertransport alongside the Holocaust and the suffering of those in concentration camps is emphasised. The Kindertransportee protagonist is made into a heroic figure who joins the underground resistance, returns to Germany, and blows up a concentration camp. The other Kindertransportees in this novel remain two-dimensional; they are repeatedly described in terms of their “bravery” and “determination”, and their own suffering is ignored. Although Zinser re-imagines the fates of the parents – which is often something that memoirists struggle to represent as they often lack concrete knowledge of what happened to them – this fictional representation elicits shock and pity from the reader, rather than a critical reflection.

A key aspect of my research is the understanding of empathy. Aleida Assmann’s theory of cultural memory suggests that for an event to be made durable in cultural memory and in the public sphere, it must invite psychological identification and intellectual engagement. The three genres I explore appear to encourage different empathic reactions from the reader, which is often determined by the position of the reader and the writer to the text. By offering a connection to a recognisable, present day setting, and by raising pressing questions of remembering as well as providing an insight into the protagonist’s consciousness, fiction that is set in the present day – such as Renate Ahrens’s Das gerettete Kind and Alison Pick’s Far to Go – are capable of eliciting identification, empathy, and a critical reflection from the reader.

Autobiographical fiction written by Lore Segal and Karen Gershon are playful with distance and intimacy in their texts, both drawing in the reader and, at times, repulsing them and thus disrupting the reader’s psychological identification. This also encourages a critical reflection as the reader “aligns herself with the ‘intentional’ perspective of the hero and simultaneously recoils back into the totalizing outsideness of the author”, as Iyla Kliger argues.

Memoirs, as historical accounts, demand an active reader who views the lived account presented in the memoir with a sense of historical responsibility. Consequently, the reader is often placed in the position of a co-witness, as seen in Vera Gissing’s Pearls of Childhood, or prompted to actively contemplate Jewish persecution (Marion Charles), or the limits of individual and national memory (Edith Milton and Martha Blend). Whilst the memoir genre has the power to encourage this critical engagement, the reader may find it more difficult to empathise with the narrating voice, which often seems unreliable or pre-occupied with constructing an account of the past which appears whole.

Due to their differences, genres can offer varied and valuable ways of engaging with and representing the Kindertransport and its impact on the refugee. Yet, as these texts are built on generic tensions and have various capabilities and limits with regard to what they can address and represent, it is important to critically consider what genres can or cannot do. A reliance on any one genre alone can give a skewed impression. If we are to effectively remember the Kindertransport in the decades to come, it is important that we engage with a variety of genres and perspectives. By considering these three genres, for example, the reader has access to the perspective of the self-aware memoirist, the viewpoint of the child refugee, and an understanding of the Kindertransportee in their post-war years.

In this respect, this research has the potential to inform the teaching of the Kindertransport in schools and proposes that whilst fiction may be perhaps the most attractive genre to a school-aged or teenage reader, recently published novels should be taught alongside excerpts from Kindertransport memoirs and autobiographical fiction. Moreover, authors approaching the Kindertransport today should attempt to ask new questions about the Kindertransport or the refugee experience, rather than simply reconstructing a historical period and writing their narratives around set dichotomies such as love and loss, hope and despair. Crucially, in order to make the Kindertransport durable and thinkable in the cultural sphere for generations to come, current novelists should aim to engage the reader intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally.

Stephanie Homer, recent PhD student, IMLR 

Memoirs: Gissing, Pearls of Childhood (1988); Martha Blend, A Child Alone (1995); Edith Milton, The Tiger in the Attic (2005); Marion Charles, Ich war ein Glückskind (2013).

Autobiographical Fiction: Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1958); Karen Gershon, The Bread of Exile (1985); Irene N. Watts’s trilogy, Escape from Berlin (2013). Fiction: Jake Wallis Simons, The English German Girl (2011); Jana Zinser, The Children’s Train (2015); Lody van de Kamp, Sara, het meisje dat op transport ging (2017); Renate Ahrens, Das gerettete Kind(2016); Alison Pick, Far to Go (2010)