In her acceptance speech during the 73rd Academy Awards, Deborah Oppenheimer praised the Kindertransport survivors featured in her film for their “honesty, eloquence and humanity.” Oppenheimer won the Oscar in the Documentary (Feature) Category for Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, which chronicles how 10,000 Jewish children from several Nazi-occupied countries were transported to Great Britain in the months prior to World War II.
Oppenheimer, a successful television producer and screenwriter, spoke Aug. 26 at a private screening of the film held at the L.A. Region headquarters for Red Cross volunteers and friends. She and fellow producer Mark Jonathan Harris made the film in memory of Oppenheimer’s mother Sylvia - one of children whisked to England through Operation Kindertransport (Children’s Transport). The rescue mission took place December 2, 1938 through September 1, 1939—a period between Kristallnacht and when Great Britain entered World War II. This video memoir captures happy moments and harsh realities of Kindertransport, an operation that afforded legal immigration to Britain for this “army of helpless children” who came from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Approximately 1.5 million children died during the Holocaust. England was the only country willing to relax its immigration restriction. The rescue plan was approved in the House of Commons during the term of Prime Minister Chamberlain. The Nazis let the children leave without packing any valuables in their suitcases. In the documentary, survivors recalled thinking “my parents really love me and that is why they are sending me away.” As they boarded the plane and trains, others remember their parents reassuring them with the words, “We will follow; don’t worry.” The arrival location in England was Liverpool. Children were dropped off at the rate of 300 per week “into the arms of strangers.” “My mom would not talk about it when I was growing up so I never heard about Kindertransport,” recalled Oppenheimer. Cancer claimed Sylvia’s life at age 65, and she never told her story. Oppenheimer’s father found letters in a drawer and gave them to his daughter. “The power of the story is that it’s a 60-year perspective on loss and survival,” said Oppenheimer.
The Red Cross Connection
Families of the relocated children found out that they could go the International Red Cross if they wanted to send messages to their children. They were allowed to write letters of no more than 25 words. Oppenheimer was able to collect 1,000 letters between children, and between children and their parents. “That was their way to be able to communicate. It was their salvation to get letters from the Red Cross. So, your organization was so important in a time of need.” Some of the children felt that when the letters stopped coming, their parents may have been killed. Letters were Oppenheimer’s link to her mother’s past. “Red Cross messaging and tracing services are a lifeline especially if you are hanging on to every bit of information,” said Svetlana Fusekova, manager of International Services of the American Red Cross. Oppenheimer praised the Red Cross for being a part of the lives of the Kindertransport kids. She also thanked the International Services staff for reaching out to her to ask if there could be a local screening of the documentary with her as a special guest speaker.
For more information about Kindertransport:
http://www.intothearmsofstrangers.com/ which has a study guide and companion book.
http://www.kindertransport.org/events.aspx which will have their national conference in October 2015.