A Candle In the Dark, Faraway Home and A Bear Called Paddington offer fictional representations of the Kindertransports. The events of Kristallnacht in November 1938 encouraged the organisation of transports for Jewish children from the Reich. Now, seventy-nine years after the first Kinder arrived in England in early December 1938, Amy Williams questions to what extent novels related to the plight of these Jewish children might help readers to consider how refugees are treated and received by their host nations?
- Can novels related to the Kindertransports teach us how to engage with refugees today?
- Do these fictional works leave their readers with a sense of moral awareness or responsibility to help refugees today?
A Candle in the Dark
Adèle Geras’s novel tells the story of a British foster family, who welcome a Kind into their home. The book presents a society that is empathetic towards the child’s needs, including allowing them to retain their religious beliefs.
For example, the children and teachers at the Kind’s new school embrace their need to celebrate Hanukkah during a Christmas play and in doing so the novel suggests ordinary Britons not only warmly received Kinder but also accepted their culture, religion, and beliefs.
One of the teachers explains to those who are about to watch a Christmas play that Silent Night will be replaced by a Hanukkah song. Although one character is dismissive of the Kind’s need to celebrate Hanukkah the rest of the community support the teacher’s decision to include this song in the festivities. The Kind sings this song and brings tears to the eyes of the onlookers suggesting they are empathetic to the plight of the Kinder.
The Kindertransport Memorial, Liverpool Street Station, London.
However, other novels critique the British national narrative of the Kindertransports. For example, Marilyn Taylor’s Faraway Home highlights how new identities were sometimes forced upon Kinder by their foster families.
For example, Karl explains to Rosa that a foster family are going to look after her and that they will be like parents to her, but Rosa frustratingly says that she already has parents. Mrs Gould buys Rosa a new doll and tries to replace Rosa’s old one by putting it away in a box which shows how some British foster parents did not understand that the Kind missed their homes and that they struggled to feel connected to them as they were so far away. Moreover, the reader is repeatedly told that Rosa seems to dislike the doll. Later the doll is imposed upon her again but this time she throws it onto the floor and it smashes into pieces. Rosa refuses to embrace the new doll rather she wants her doll from home. Therefore, a loss of the self is presented because a new identity is forced upon the character.
Faraway Home is critical of British responses to the Kinder as it presents a lack of support from those around them. It suggests that without the right guidance and help, refugee children struggle to adapt to a new way of life in their host nation, and portrays some British characters as unsympathetic to the Kinder’s needs.
A Bear Called Paddington
One final novel to reflect upon is A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. This story was inspired by the Kindertransports, as Mr. Bond saw the Kinder arrive at Liverpool Street Station, London with their suitcases and with their labels around their necks – images now synonymous with Paddington Bear.
The Kindertransport memorial and Paddington statue are similar in design.
Bond’s story about the arrival of a small, bewildered bear and the goodness of the people, who look after him is known across the world. It speaks to people about the courage to care and to act, yet at times it also reflects upon people’s lack of understanding and compassion. This month Paddington 2 will be released in cinemas. The British store Marks and Spencer’s new Christmas advert features the bear, and their shop windows are full of associated merchandise. Although, Paddington is a story about compassion, does the cuddly bear necessarily encourage us to think about the real human refugees who are still living in camps in the cold, many of whom have been separated from their families?
Commercialising Paddington at Christmas.
Paddington is an important figure to bring into this debate because his refugee story is promoted around Christmas – the season of good will. The story of Paddington Bear highlights how people care for and help refugees but he does not look like a human refugee child. Associating him with Christmas effectively distances him from the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe (on which he was modelled) and the recent refugees from Muslim countries. Instead, his story Christianizes the rescue narrative and threatens to commodify it. Paddington is cute, loveable and full of curiosity, and he is a gift one can give for Christmas. However the Paddington Project, established in 2016, seeks to remind people about the historical influences and contemporary relevance of the bear’s story by encouraging young people to share teddy bears with refugee children.
Teaching with Kindertransport Fiction
Together, these fictional stories related to the Kindertransports highlight Britain’s complex history, and memory of inclusion and exclusion of refugees:
They can reflect upon Britain’s long history of helping those in need, or draw attention to the ways some refugee children are neglected. However, they can also commodify the image of the refugee, which threatens to distract from their real hardship.
It is necessary, therefore, to critically engage with such literature. The links below offer useful sources about the Kindertransports to help contextualise these novels in the classroom:
- The National Holocaust Centre, UK offers a detailed introduction to the Kindertransport
- The Imperial War Museum presents six stories through six objects in a resource that humanises the Kindertransport experience
- The Kindertransport Association showcases the individual memories of some of the child refugees who came to Britain
- The Holocaust Educational Trust, UK offers general guidelines about teaching the Holocaust in the English classroom
Amy Williams is a PhD candidate at Nottingham Trent University funded by Midlands3Cities/ AHRC. Her research focuses on memories of the Kindertransports in national and international perspectives. Her Masters dissertation explored the fictionalisation of the Kindertransports. On a recent placement at Beth Shalom (The National Holocaust Centre, UK) in Nottinghamshire, she was involved in the development of two exhibitions ‘Rethinking and Re-evaluating the Narratives of the Kindertransports: Testimony, Artefacts and Identity’ and ‘Legacies of the Holocaust’.