The Last Train to London: A Novel
- By Meg Waite Clayton
- 464 pp.
- Reviewed by D.A. Spruzen
- October 7, 2019
A heart-rending story of the WWII-era Kindertransport and the brave Dutchwoman who led it.
Following Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938 and the violence of Kristallnacht the following November, an extraordinary attempt to bring 10,000 children to safety in Britain began. A similar operation to the United States was attempted, but the opposition of the American Congress and public opinion convinced Franklin Roosevelt to decline action.
Although fiction, The Last Train to London is based on the real Vienna Kindertransport effort led by Geertruida Wijsmuller of Amsterdam (“Tante Truus” to her young charges). She began rescuing small groups of Jewish-German children as early as 1933, although the book spans a December 1936 to May 1940 timeframe.
It deftly weaves the story of how this brave and committed woman went about her mission and, in particular, the impact she had on two Austrian teenagers: Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy Jewish chocolatier, and Zofie-Helene Perger, the Christian daughter of the anti-Nazi editor of a small newspaper.
I say “weaves” because of how the story is presented — planes of action spun on a loom that form a complete tapestry. As seems to be the author’s signature style, there are no chapter numbers, just headings that give a date and location or a topic. I don’t recall a chapter longer than five pages, and there are a few totaling only one paragraph, presenting, in their totality, many different viewpoints.
We meet Stephan’s and Zofie-Helene’s various family members, Tante Truus and her husband, and even the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who developed methods of pillage and destruction that became a tragic pattern throughout the Reich. This kind of structure could be confusing and choppy, but it runs without a hitch under Meg Waite Clayton’s deft handling. It doesn’t hurt that her writing is so rich yet economical.
From the opening, Clayton throws us into a cold December day:
“Stout flakes softened the view out the train window: a snow-covered castle on a snow-covered hill ghosting up through the snowy air, the conductor calling ‘Bad Bentheim; this is Bad Bentheim, Germany. Passengers continuing to the Netherlands must provide documents.’ Geertruida Wijsmuller — a Dutchwoman with a strong chin and nose and brow, a wide mouth, cashmere-grey eyes — kissed the baby on her lap. She kissed him a second time, her lips lingering on his smooth forehead. She handed him to his sister then, and pulled the skullcap off their toddler brother.”
As the train comes to a stop, the little boy leaps to the window, shouting, “Mama!” When the woman he’d glimpsed turns, the child realizes that it is not his mama, after all. Tante Truus comforts him as best she can, unwilling to make promises she cannot keep.
She sends the children to the lavatory when Nazi guards board the train and manages to sweet-talk one of them into ignoring the fact that the exit visas for the children he can hear but not see have not been produced. It turns out that his wife will soon give birth, and Truus persuades him that he should offer her a special gift to mark the occasion. She gives him her ruby ring (it’s a fake; she has had several made for just such occasions). He leaves without raising the alarm.
Next stop, Vienna, where Stephan, a budding playwright who will soon turn 16, meets Zofie-Helene, 15, a brilliant mathematician; a strong and lasting bond forms that soon turns into love. We see how these resourceful youngsters weather the dreadful downfall of their families, their way of life, and their country. Truus now makes official trips to Vienna, as Eichmann’s policy is to strip Jews of their assets and get them out of the Reich.
Later, he becomes bent on the total destruction of “undesirables” and taunts Truus with an offer. If she can gather 600 Jewish children (no parents allowed) in just a few days, they will be allowed to leave. If she is even one child short, none can go. It is a daunting task. An elderly man, Desider Friedmann (one of the real-life heroes who would later die at Auschwitz), proves a staunch ally.
Will the evacuation go forward? Can they amass so many children for this journey to safety?
I have read and written a great deal of fiction set during and around World War II, and the works that stand out in this crowded field are those with a unique hook — usually an extraordinary character or an aspect of the conflict that is not often explored.
In The Last Train to London, there are three such remarkable characters (Tante Truus, Stephan, and Zofie-Helene), and the astonishing events surrounding the rescue mission are not widely known. Despite one quibble — I would’ve liked a glimpse into the future of lovebirds Stephan and Zofie-Helene — my own journey through this story was a rollercoaster of sorrow, anger, joy, and hope.
D.A. Spruzen earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte and teaches writing in Northern Virginia. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. An historical novel, The Blitz Business (Koehler Books), a poetry collection, Long in the Tooth (Finishing Line Press), and other novels are available on Amazon.