In her acceptance speech during the 73rd Academy Awards, Deborah Oppenheimer praised Kindertransport survivors for their “honesty, eloquence and humanity.” Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris won the Documentary (Feature) Category for Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.
Oppenheimer, whose successful producer/screenwriter television credits include “Family Ties,” “George Lopez, and the “Drew Carey Show” was at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region last month for a private screening of the award-winning documentary.
Inspired by the courage of the families who faced a horrifying present and uncertain future, Oppenheimer and Harris produced the film in memory of Oppenheimer’s mother Sylvia. She was one of the 10,000 children up to age 17 whisked to England through Operation Kindertransport (Children’s Transport). The rescue mission took place December 2, 1938 through September 1, 1939—a period between Kristallnacht and when Great Britain entered World War II.
This video memoir captured happy moments and harsh realities of Kindertransport, an operation that afforded legal immigration to Britain for the kids. Using talking-head style interviews interspersed with historic footage, at least a dozen survivors recounted their lives from cared for and carefree to ostracized and isolated, from being “the center of the universe” to “realizing I was different.” One interviewee said “The hurt was unbelievable. It cannot be described.”
This “army of helpless children” came from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Danzig. Approximately 1.5 million children died during the Holocaust. England was the only country willing to relax its immigration restriction. The rescue plan was approved in the House of Commons during the term of Prime Minister Chamberlain. The Nazis let the kids leave without packing any valuables in their suitcases. In the documentary, survivors recalled thinking “my parents really love me and that is why they are sending me away.” As they boarded the plane and trains, others remember their parents reassuring them with the words “We will follow; don’t worry.” The arrival location in England was Liverpool. Children were dropped off at the rate of 300 per week “into the arms of strangers.”
“My mom would not talk about it when I was growing up so I never heard about Kindertransport,” recalled Oppenheimer. Cancer claimed Sylvia’s life at age 65 and never got to tell her story. Oppenheimer’s father found letters in a drawer and gave them to his daughter. This set the producer on her quest to discover three things: What is Kindertransport? What happened to her parents? What happened to her grandparents?
The Red Cross Connection
In conducting her research, Oppenheimer said there were 10,000 children so there should be 10,000 stories—good or bad. Families of the relocated children found out that they could go to the Red Cross if they wanted to send messages. They were allowed to write letters of no more than 25 words to enable them to be in touch with family and friends. Oppenheimer was able to collect 1,000 letters between children, and between children and their parents. “That was their way to be able to communicate. It was their salvation to get letters from the Red Cross. So, your organization was so important in a time of need.” Some of the children felt that when the letters stopped coming, their parents may have been killed.
Letters were Oppenheimer’s link to her mother’s past. “Red Cross messaging and tracing services are a lifeline especially if you are hanging on to every bit of information,” said Svetlana Fusekova, manager of International Services of the American Red Cross. Oppenheimer praised the Red Cross for being a part in the lives of the Kindertransport kids. She also praised the International Services staff for reaching out to her to ask if there could be a local screening of the documentary with her as a special guest speaker.
Lexicon and Beyond
What was a little-known mission of mercy is now part of the lexicon. In 2014, the Library of Congress named Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport as one of the 25 greatest movies of all time. The Academy Award in 2001 was a force multiplier in raising awareness about Kindertransport. Excerpts of the documentary are looped in Holocaust museums worldwide.
Oppenheimer noted that of the 10,000 children saved through Kindertransport, two went on to become Nobel Prize winners. Many take pride in how their own families have grown, raising new generations. Some survivors, like Hedy, remains an outspoken social activist. Now in her 90s, she feels it is her duty to speak up.
In her 2001 interview in the New York Times, Oppenheimer said “For me, the power of the story is a 60-year perspective on loss and survival and what you do with that.”
For more information about Kindertransport:
"Into the Arms of Strangers" along with study guide and companion book.
Read American Red Cross Restoring Family Links blog about Nicholas Winton
Visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Visit The Kindertransport Associate which will have their national conference this month.