If you’re passing through Liverpool Street station tomorrow and hear a bit of a commotion going on around the platforms, don’t be alarmed. You’ll have come across the finale of an amazing theatrical project called ‘Suitcase’ that’s been popping up on the platforms and concourses of stations across the country over the last month to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first arrival of the Kindertransport to Britain.
On December 2, 1938, the first unaccompanied (predominantly Jewish) child refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe arrived in Britain, at the start of what became known as the Kindertransport. The children were fleeing a Jewish orphanage in Berlin that had been burnt down on Kristallnacht (when Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues in Germany and parts of Austria were attacked on November 9-10, 1938). On December 2, the train arrived at Harwich, and many of the children were sent onto Liverpool Street. Over a period of 18 months more than 9,500 children were saved from almost certain death. Very few ever saw their parents or extended families again.
The play, written by Ros Merkin and produced by her sister Jane, the daughters of Johanna who arrived in Britain from Vienna on the Kindertransport in December 1938, involves taking small groups of audience on a journey through the station, and recreating the scenes of bewildered children, the waiting foster parents, transport organisers and bemused railway workers and bystanders. The production is accompanied by a stirring musical score by musician and DJ Max Reinhardt.
‘It’s been really amazing to be part of,’ said Jane Merkin, ‘And a real challenge to use the station locations, which are noisy, disruptive and chaotic – just like the Kindertransport children would have experienced when they arrived,’ she said. Her mother, who died in 1994, arrived in Britain at the age of 10, with her sisters aged seven and five. They were dispersed into different families around Sunderland. Their nine month-old brother Max and mother were gassed at Auschwitz concentration camp; their father died in the camp at Dachau. ‘She never wanted to talk about the experience when she was alive,’ said Jane, ‘But suffered with depression all her life.’
‘It’s important to let people know that the experience of child arrivals isn’t new,’ says Judith Dennis, Policy Officer at the Refugee Council, which is partnering the project. ‘We’d like people to think about what it feels like for children to be separated from their families, not knowing if their family has been imprisoned or killed back home,’ she said. Today, most children seeking asylum in Britain arrive from Albania, Eritrea, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. But only 20 per cent are initially given refugee status. ‘It’s important that we remember that they are children, and also that we believe the things they tell us about their situations.’ Rebecca Taylor
Tickets to the event (there are three performances) are sold out, but passersby are encouraged to stop if they come across different scenes being enacted during their commute. For times see suitcase1938.org
Watch this incredibly touching video of Sir Nicholas Winton, organiser of Czech Kindertransport, meeting the people he saved: