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Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport is a Holocaust documentary with a difference. It is of course produced to help new generations understand a dark chapter in history that is fast slipping from the memories of survivors that lived through it. But this story actually has a few good endings. We hear from lucky survivors, not bereaved relatives or researchers unearthing evidence of a heinous crime.
The years just prior to the outbreak of WW2 in Europe were a social catastrophe, with Jews and others affected by the Nazi menace using whatever means possible to leave Germany and occupied countries. The individual situations varied greatly. Wealthy people and those with international contacts found ways to depart, if they were willing to abandon their property. From 1937 onward various rescue programs were formed to get endangered people out of these countries, usually by buying their freedom in one way or another. These efforts were frequently blocked by countries refusing to accept refugees, of which the "neutral" United States was one of the worst offenders. The anti-Semitic denial of visas was so bad that entire shiploads of refugees were returned to Germany and probable grim fates. Hollywood liberals later branded as Red traitors were among the groups that raised money to buy entry for refugees, often on a per-person basis, to countries like the Dominican Republic.
One of the most publicized and successful efforts was the Germany-to-England Kindertransport program, which in a narrow space of time saved ten thousand Jewish German children, relocating them by the trainload. Mark Jonathan Harris's documentary uses a marvelous set of interviews and excellent vintage film footage to tell the story. A dozen former rescued kinder recount their own experiences, all of which are fascinating.
It's also less emotionally devastating than most films about the Holocaust. Because so many perished in terrible anonymity, these survivors are obviously exceptional people. It's frankly a blessing to hear from them.
The film allows each kinder (and in one case, an English foster mother) to tell their story. Just as opportunities to escape were closing for Jews in Germany, the kindertransport program came up. The Nazis were perfectly agreeable to children leaving, as long as they took no valuables with them. A coordinated effort in Germany and England arranged for the transport by rail and boat across the English channel, and set up halfway houses for foster parents to take in children for the duration of the war. The film shows how the U.S. congress blocked attempts to participate in the program. When a politician refuses to save children because "it's immoral to separate children from their parents", we have to conclude that his sympathies are with the Nazis.
Using family photos, the surviving children (now in their elderly years) explain how many of them were spoiled, happy kids. Sending away one's children was a fearsome choice that many families couldn't make. Mothers panic at the idea and one girl accuses her parents of trying to get rid of her -- a notion she quickly drops after she lives among her fellow refugee kids for a few days. Before the war started mail could still be sent, so we hear quite a bit of communication between trapped parents and distant children. What may have honestly have begun as a safety measure to last only a few months, quickly became a worst possible scenario. Most of the families left behind were arrested or rounded up for deportation, never to return.
In England, we witness the foster adoption process, which of course favors cute little blond kids between 3 and 6. The Kindertransport took children up to 16, and placing older boys was just as difficult then as it is now. A few English families thought they were getting free servants, which caused problems. The adoptive parents had 'getting to know you' issues with little kids that didn't speak English.
The individual stories are fascinating, especially after we connect the faces of the kids in the old photos with the people talking to Harris's camera. Older boys found jobs, but then were rounded up as enemy aliens. One was sent to Australia as if he were a criminal, yet volunteered for the British Army when he came of age. Charged with helping her parents, one little girl knocked on doors until she found a rich English sponsor, who helped arrange visas and passage for the girl's family members (this required guarantees and money deposits, etc.). So she essentially saved them all.
One of the more dramatic stories involves a girl slated for the kindertransport, but pulled off the train at the last minute by a father who couldn't part with her. She tells the story of losing her entire family in the camps, and barely surviving herself. The stories are rough, but laced with happy accidents and ironies. Some of the survivors are now grandparents with generations of new family members.
The film clips used are totally unfamiliar images of German street scenes and the kindertransport activities; director Harris edits them for maximum effect. The most edifying aspect of the show is that it avoids the pitfall of sentimentality. Although some of these stories of survival are borderline miraculous, nobody was spared enormous personal losses. Avoiding emotional extremes, Into the Arms of Strangers respects the individuals involved and the historical truth as well.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport is an excellent full-frame encoding. The polished production presents the historical clips in excellent quality and the new footage is handsomely filmed. Although released by the WAC, the menus show that the film was prepared for a standard release, and is actually a reissue of an old snapper-case edition. The audio is in 5.1 surround; the sound designer and mixer is the noted Gary Rydstrom.
The extras are also not typical for Archive discs. Two audio commentaries are present. One is with Mark Jonathan Harris, with his producer Deborah Oppenheimer. It's accessed by seamless branching. The second gives us Gary Rydstrom, researcher Corrinne Collett and composer Lee Holdridge.
Additional interview material offers more input from five of the interview subjects, and a photo gallery gathers images into three categories. A text section offers biographical information on the interview subjects. And another extra gives us film coverage of the film's London and Berlin premieres.
A special extra is a little speech from Lord Richard Attenborough, who tells the story of how two kindertransport girls became his 'sisters' -- they were only meant to briefly stop over at his parents' house but ended up staying on for the duration of the war. It's a great story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport rates:
1. So far I've received three personal notes about this review, from people with similar events in their personal backgrounds. Those are confidential, but there is also this note from correspondent Tom Giegel, (12/04/13) which I couldn't resist posting:
Hi, Glenn, Just thought I'd let you know that I kept my promise to watch my DVD copy of Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport yesterday evening, and I thoroughly enjoyed this profoundly poignant film. It was for me emotionally powerful; several times during the film I'll admit to having choked up, with my eyes swelling with tears. Those telling of their experiences in England were and still are survivors of the Holocaust, even though they never were deported to death camps. I was reminded near the film's end, with the man who declared that he was meant to survive and raise a family, of the tag ending to Schindler's List which shows some of the thousands of descendents of "Schindler's people." England's great act of humanitarianism in accepting these otherwise doomed children bestowed life to thousands of "Kinder" descendents, lives that they would not have otherwise experienced had their parents, as children, not been given such refuge.
Thanks again Glenn for your review, and for motivating me to watch this memorable film. Hope many others will watch as well. Oh, and Richard Atttenborough's personal story of having two 'Kinder' sisters was a joy to watch. (Reminded me of how much I miss seeing him in films.) Take care, Glenn, Tom Giegel
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