Little-known Dutch pre-WWII profile-in-courage (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, England, 1936 – 1940): Had the International Women of Courage Award existed in the late 1930s (created in 2007 by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) – Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer from Amsterdam, affectionately called Tante (Auntie) Truss – would surely have received it. The Last Train to London, Meg Waite Clayton’s seventh novel, offers a revelation about an extraordinary Dutch woman who wasn’t even Jewish who rescued 10,000 Jewish children out of Germany and Austria before WWII ignited, when Hitler rose to power and invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria.
To see the desperation and chaos of these historic times when parents sent their children away before their destiny was sealed by the Nazis, take a look at this short video:
Seeing those images and then reading the novel’s preface – an excerpt from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize speech fifty years after the novel opens in 1936 – beautifully summarizes the resounding message of Truus’ life: “one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.”
Clayton’s meticulously researched, chock-full of details (460+ pages worth, fast-moving in brief chapters) novel is divided into four sections – Part I, The Time Before, 1936; Part II, The Time Between, 1938; Part III, The Time After, 1939; and Part IV, And Then … – that layout before and after. The 1938-1940 years mark Truus’ heroic accomplishments, with the help of other historical saviors, pitted against evil historical figures.
You can’t help but wonder if Truus’ death in 2016, the year the 45th President of the United States was elected, inspired some of the prose. Like quoting Hitler as saying “the lying press.” And asking: “how has Hitler convinced all of Germany that lies are the truth and the truth is a lie?”
Historical fiction is hot. Inventing characters illuminates and humanizes history and statistics, provides lessons to guide us, as long as we can connect with them, find them believable, interesting, relevant, informative. In this novel, we want to wrap our arms around three fictional characters, fittingly children: two Jewish brothers and a non-Jewish best friend forced to mature well-beyond their tender years. Their sensitivities, loyalties, attachment to one another, terrifying fears, uncertainties, and suffering feel real. Combined with Truus’ rescuing truths, the novel builds suspense and hope as to whether history and fiction will intersect. Did Truus save the three child protagonists?
The number of Jewish children killed by the Nazis is estimated at 1.5 million. Another 10,000 didn’t perish because of the children’s transport program. How many more survived through hiding and escape? Added up, these numbers are impossible to grasp. But when they’re no longer a number but real individuals, we emotionally feel the weight of their pain and losses.
Stephen Neuman is the sixteen-year-old Jewish son of a famous chocolate-maker in Vienna. His family symbolizes Jews Hitler rounded up and attacked over two brutal historic days in 1938 – the Kristallnacht – vividly announcing to the world his intention to wipe out all Jews in as many countries as he could.
Austria has a long history and love of chocolate, even a Museum of Chocolate, so the family’s business is apropos. As is their cultured life in Vienna – arts, music, literature, theater. Stephan aspires to be a playwright; his idol is the prolific Austrian Jewish writer who wrote some plays, Stefan Zweig, considered one of the most popular writers in the world back then. His inclusion also a terrific choice for the era, especially since he escaped Nazi Germany only to be so exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering he tragically took his own life.
Walter is Stephen’s young brother forever clinging to his Peter Rabbit and his brother, who protects and cares for him as their mother is ill, confined to a wheelchair. Mutti is another emblematic Jewish character, as the Nazis had no use for weakness. Her sister, Aunt Lisl, loves the boys as if they were her own. Childless, she’s married to Michael, a Christian; they live in the Neumans’ opulent mansion. Michael represents the unbearable choice of having to choose family over one’s own life. Trying to balance both, he walks a dangerous tightrope.
Žofie-Helene is Stephen’s fifteen-year-old new best friend he meets early on through her adoring grandfather, Otto, Stephan’s barber. They’re instantly drawn to each other. Žofie’s prose shows she’s brilliant, a protégé of her renowned mathematical logician professor, Kurt Gödel, famous for his “Incomplete Theorem”. Her independent streak comes from her mother, Käthe, who publishes an anti-Nazi newspaper; her historical news articles punctuate what’s swirling around the fiction.
Unless you’re mathematically logically inclined, you’ll likely not fully grasp this confounding way of thinking, except to glean that just as some things cannot be proven in math they do carry over to Žofie’s trying-to-make-sense of her adolescent world. For instance:
“This very sentence is false, she said. The sentence has to be true or false, right? But if it’s true, then, as it says itself, it’s false. But if it’s false, then it’s true. So it has to be both true and false.”
OK, so we may be a bit lost there but not when she transfers math logic into relationships, like when Stephan wants to hold her hand but she hesitates:
“How could you take the hand of someone who had so quickly become your best friend without risking the friendship?”
This human paradox (paradoxes from math logic are titles of their Vienna chapters) befuddles Žofie and Stephen for a long time as they both care for each other and are afraid to jeopardize their friendship. Until it becomes vital and urgent once the Nazis invade Vienna.
Tante Truus’ historical tale is told in alternating chapters. Also childless (she and her loving banker husband, Joop, ache for not being able to have a baby of their own), her love for children drove her to save thousands of innocent Jewish children.
Some may prefer history painted into novels in broad brushstrokes, rather than chock-full of details as this one is. Yet it seems necessary to pack in facts to see how rapidly and dramatically pre/post-Nazi occupation changed lives, forever. Facts, like people, can mean all the difference in the world, as we’re witnessing in the Trump era.
Adolph Eichmann makes his first appearance on page 22. His role in the Holocaust looms larger than perhaps we realized, as the expert who devised the plan to solve Germany’s “The Jewish Problem”.
Britain’s Helen Bentwich, “a real and important contributor to the Kindertransport effort,” who coordinated with Truss, offers another stark contrast to heinous historical people. The above quote is taken from the postscript (Author’s Note and Acknowledgements), which delivers quite a punch when we learn how the lives of the novel’s characters turned out.
More prose feels pointedly designed for today: “Everyone is too wrapped up in their own families and their own lives to see the politically darkened clouds piling up on the border between Germany and Austria.” How many overworked, stressed American families are paying attention to the facts of our national security crisis? And: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather going forward in the face of it.”
Will these Holocaust heroes and loud alarm bells help to awaken America before it’s too late?