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'Into The Arms Of Strangers'

'Into The Arms Of Strangers' is a powerful documentary about love in the face of Nazi brutality

Friday, December 01, 2000

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The generation that lost or won World War II is slipping away. With them, their stories are dying.

'Into The Arms Of Strangers'

RATING: PG for thematic elements

NARRATOR: Judi Dench

DIRECTOR: Mark Jonathan Harris

WEB SITE: www.intothearms



"Into the Arms of Strangers" is a powerful documentary that tells the story of a nearly forgotten tragedy that foreshadowed the Holocaust. It's a story of great love and great hatred, of international indifference that appeased early Nazi expansion and of oppression so brutal that parents paid to have their children sent away forever.

By November 1939, German and Austrian Jews were the legal targets of a fervent nationalism that had boosted the economy, military and self-esteem of Germans of Aryan descent. Open public support for the brutality of the Kristallnacht convinced many Jews that it was time to leave, but no nation, including the United States, would take them. In response to appeals from English Jews, Parliament approved a plan that would allow Central Europeans to send a limited number of children across the channel for temporary relocation in the homes of foster parents or orphanage camps. For a price of 50 British pounds per child (about $1,000 U.S. by current standards), parents deported their children on the Kindertransport.

Written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, who won an Academy Award for another World War II-themed feature documentary, "The Long Way Home," "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" combines color and black-and-white period footage, family snapshots and recent interviews with grown children and foster parents. Distributed by Warner Bros., it's an effort to preserve the memory of an abomination that was nearly lost in time.

The scope of the documentary is breathtaking. From the broad strokes of geopolitical motives and strategies, Harris zooms in on small, personal stories of anguish and separation. Background on the rise of the Nazis and the open support of the German people helps to explain the desperation of parents willing to pay to have their children sent away.

Slowly and compassionately, British actress Judi Dench narrates the film, building platforms of information from which the people who lived it share their stories.

One woman recalls the Night of Broken Glass and the way her stubborn father openly chastised the Nazis for humiliating elderly Jews in their neighborhood. Harris fades from her studio interview to a faded photo of her father. While she and her mother watched, the soldiers beat him to death.

Ten thousand young Central European Jews rode the Kindertransport from 1938 to 1939, though, says Dench, some 1.5 million children were killed in the Holocaust. One woman remembers the painful experience of packing a single bag and waiting with her parents at the station for a Kindertransport train. As the train began to pull away, she held her father's hand through the open window. At the last moment, he squeezed her hand and pulled her through the window to the ground. Within a year she was finally separated from her parents by the Nazis, who sent the family to the Auschwitz death camp where her mother and father were tortured and killed. In the pained, understated words of a survivor, she confesses to her interviewer that she sometimes wonders if her father made the right decision at the station.

The ordeal of the Kinder didn't end with their exodus from the Fatherland. Through sweeping vistas and tight, living-room shots, director of photography Don Lenzer revisits their new homes in England, while Dench outlines their initial culture shock and gradual acculturation. In a world at war, one child's greatest torment was that his foster mother was less physically affectionate than his birth mother. As the war escalated, some English kids became increasingly intolerant of the presence of Germans in their neighborhood. Yet many Jewish children, remembering the oppression of their old neighborhoods, were astonished to be invited to the birthday parties of Gentiles.

A few dramatic re-creations augment the storytelling, but the heart of "Into the Arms of Strangers" is quietly shared through the words of the now-elderly Kinder. If history is more than merely dates in a textbook, the documented stories of the Kindertransport offer an important contribution to the vault of human experience.

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