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Los Alamos Little Theatre will mark the 75th anniversary of the United Kingdom’s historic Kindertransport program with its March production of Diane Samuel’s award-winning drama of the same name. Opening Friday night, “Kindertransport” focuses on the life of one of the children rescued by England’s evacuation program for Jewish children in Germany begun on the eve of World War II.
Before the outbreak of the war, the people of Europe were aware of the dangers to the Jewish people living within the borders of the expanding German state, but there was little desire to open borders to refugees seeking to flee the Nazi regime. Attitudes shifted rapidly after the Kristallnacht pogroms of Nov. 9-10, 1938, in which Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed by German storm troopers.
In the UK, Parliament passed a bill waiving immigration requirements for unaccompanied children from the ages of infancy to 17. Members of the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later known as the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), began organizing on the ground in Germany and Austria, setting up systems for the selection and transportation of children.
On Nov. 25 of that year, British citizens heard an appeal for foster homes on the BBC Home Service. More than 500 homes responded to that first appeal, and, on Dec. 2, the first boat arrived in Harwich with 200 child refugees. Over the next nine months, 10,000 unaccompanied children arrived in England from Germany, Austria, and later Poland and Czechoslovakia. The evacuations continued until the outbreak of war between Germany and Great Britain.
Most of the evacuees never saw their families again.
“Kindertransport” the play, explores the life of one of the refugees during and after the war. Young Eva Schlesinger, (Nora Cullinan), is sent to safety in England in early 1939 by her mother, Helga (Jess Cullinan). Eva is taken in by Lil Miller (Carolyn Conner) and reluctantly settles into a life in Manchester. When she is unable to reunite with her parents, she sheds her German Jewish identity and transforms herself into the Englishwoman, Evelyn (Kirste Plunket).
Decades later, Evelyn’s daughter, Faith (Alexis Perry), discovers a box in the attic filled with old letters and photos, and the truth comes out. Eva’s story is revealed, haunted by the images of the Ratcatcher (Warren Houghteling), a chilling figure from a childhood storybook. Past and present play out in the attic, sometimes occupying the same space.
While Evelyn/Eva is a fictional character, her story is based on the experiences of many of the surviving kinder of the relief effort, many of which have been chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary feature film, “Into the Arms of Strangers.”
LALT is says it is proud to commemorate the 75th anniversary of a little-known piece of heroic history with the production of this award-winning drama. Director John Cullinan calls the play, “not only one of the best family dramas of the last 25 years, but one of the best plays I’ve ever read. Period.”
The author, Diane Samuels, writes: “Whilst I did draw on key moments and detail from the spoken and written testimonies of Kinder, and whilst most of the experiences of Eva/Evelyn did happen to someone somewhere, the play is primarily a work of creative imagination, written from the heart. My play does focus on a particular happening at a time of massive upheaval in the world, yet it also looks beyond the specifics of this historical event and taps into a universal human experience: that of a child’s separation from its mother.
“Most of all, my focus when writing the play was to probe the inner life where memory is shaped by trauma, history meets story, in order to gain psychological and emotional insight into how a damaged psyche can survive, possibly recover, and whether there might ever be an opportunity to thrive,” Samuels said. “This journey within is what ‘Kindertransport’ also offers each member of the audience and reader if they allow themselves to go where it ventures no matter where or when they live.”
“Kindertransport” runs from March 7-22, with performances 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on March 16. Performances take place at the Performing Arts Center, 1670 Nectar St., in Los Alamos. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for seniors and students, and can be purchased at the door or online at LALT.org.