Moving drama about a child fleeing the Nazis

Keiron Pim This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Kindertransport, which saved almost 10,000 children from the clutches of the Nazi regime. A powerful play in Norwich explores the issues faced by these children. KEIRON PIM reports.

Keiron Pim

So many poignant tales emerged from the horrors of the second world war, but few have more emotional impact than the story of the Kindertransport.

As the Nazi Party strengthened its grip on a swathe of central Europe in the late 1930s and anti-Semitic rioters perpetrated the pogrom known as Kristallnacht, Hitler's regime agreed a deal with the British government whereby almost 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, were allowed to leave their homes and families to be whisked away to a new life in Britain.

The children of the Kindertransport were lucky to have escaped the fate they might have met had they remained in mainland Europe: only 11pc of Jewish children alive in 1933 survived to 1945, and a total of 1.5 million children were killed in the Holocaust.

But their good fortune was mixed with a heartrending sadness. They said a hurried goodbye to their mothers and fathers not knowing whether they would see them again, and many of them never did, only finding out after the war that they had been made orphans by Hitler's 'Final Solution'. On top of this they faced the emotional trauma of adapting to a new country and in many cases a new identity.

It is this scenario that is explored by a moving play that opens at Norwich's Sewell Barn Theatre tonight.

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Diane Samuels' play, simply called Kindertransport, focuses on nine-year-old Eva, who arrives in Manchester, anglicises her name to Evelyn and tries to bury all sign of her previous life. It is only decades later when her daughter discovers some old letters in the attic that Eva, played by Susanna Heymans, is forced to confront what she went through as a child, which in turn affects her relationship with her daughter.

Director Carole Lovett explained the choice of play for the popular amateur theatrical company's latest production.

“This year there has been a lot of interest in the Kindertransport with the 70th anniversary approaching.

“But as well as this we felt it was important, just as a piece of literary work. It's a wonderful play, put together so well - it's worth doing whatever your political or religious convictions.

“It's very interesting. It deals with one Kindertransport child who has put a lot of stuff in the background of her life because she needs to move on, but of course there are still hidden demons.

“There is a lot about the relationship between mothers and daughters as well.”

Carole added that a character called the Ratcatcher appears in a variety of guises throughout the story. Modelled on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, this character plays on Eva's enduring fear of men in uniforms, a legacy of her experience of fleeing Germany.

The play debuted in 1993 and won its author a Verity Bargate Award, which recognises emerging playwrights. This production comes 10 years after the Sewell Barn Theatre reopened following a devastating arson attack.

Back in the 19th century the converted barn was owned by the brother of Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty, and it is said that it was used as a stable for the family's horse that inspired the classic book.

By 1980 the building had fallen into disrepair as a store and bike-shed for the nearby Blyth-Jex School but that year saw it transformed into an intimate theatre seating 110 people. Since then, the hiatus caused by the fire aside, the building has remained home to a company with a reputation for staging quality amateur theatrical productions.

“We are using six actors - five ladies and a man. I couldn't have better actors. I have been so impressed by their talent and commitment,” said Carole, a retired teacher who has acted in many of the theatre's previous productions, most recently taking the role of Paulina in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

She added that the production had benefited greatly from the advice of Ilse Bell, who lives in Norwich and arrived here on the Kindertransport as a 14-year-old.

“Her willingness to share her experiences of that period of her life have enabled our cast to really understand the effect on those young children, uprooted from their homeland and sent far away to a strange country without the support of parents and not speaking the language.”

“She has been tremendous. Although her story is different from Eva's, her reactions were exactly the same and she said that the play's writer has got it spot on and this was exactly how she felt.”

Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels, is at the Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich on April 24-26 and April 30, and then from May 1-3, beginning at 7.30pm. Admission is £7 or £5 for concessions. Tickets are available from Jarrold's customer services on the department store's second floor - call 01603 697248.