Recent bestsellers “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” and “The Lilac Girls” focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and the barbarity of the concentration camps. “The Last Train to London,” an excellent new novel by Bay Area resident Meg Waite Clayton, is a fictionalized account of how a Dutch woman, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, saved a thousand Jewish children from those camps.
The novel begins in 1936, as Wijsmuller-Meijer, known as Tante Truus, with help from her husband Joop, rescues small groups of children and transports them out of Germany. Courageous and cunning, she bribes Nazis, endures jail and withstands Gestapo interrogations.
Her training as a social worker, her Christian faith and perhaps the sadness of not being able to have children propel her to save lives, including those of Stephan Neuman and Žofie-Helene Perger, two teens whose friendship becomes a matter of life and death during the dangerous time.
Though not religious, Stephan’s family is Jewish. He lives with his mother, father and 5-year-old brother Walter in a lavish house in Vienna adorned with paintings by Van Gogh, Klimt and Kokoschka.
Žofie is not Jewish. But because her mother publishes scathing editorials about Hitler’s evil regime, she and her family are not safe, either.
Initially, Stephan and Žofie ignore the Nazi thugs. But after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in March 1938, the Nazis intensify their sinister policies against Jews. Stephan is no longer allowed in school. His family’s apartment is looted; his father is beaten and dragged into a truck headed for a camp.
True to the historical record, Tante Truus encounters Adolph Eichmann, head of Jewish Office in Vienna, who cynically studies the Viennese Jewish leaders and their culture. (He hasn’t yet written his diabolical Final Solution to the Jewish Question, but his cruelty is evident.)
In November 1938, after Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were ransacked and destroyed during Kristallnacht, the British Parliament votes to expedite the rescue of Jewish children, an effort that became known as the Kindertransport.
English refugee aid leaders believe Tante Truus might be able to persuade Eichmann to let some children leave. In a climactic scene, she meets with the creepy, controlling Eichmann. He makes a joke of her request, yet for unknown reasons, allows 600 Jewish children to depart Vienna. His caveat: They must go on the sabbath, a day Orthodox Jews are prohibited from traveling.
Thanks to Tante Truus, Žofie, Stephan and Walter are three of the children who escape that day. Between 1938-40, more than 10,000 children find refuge in England.
Clayton’s book, clearly the product of prodigious historical research, captures the hate and intimidation directed at Vienna’s Jewish community even before World War II begins. While the anti-Semitism is vividly captured, Clayton could have included more about rich traditions of the Viennese Jewish community before the Nazis destroyed it.
“The Last Train to London” serves as a reminder that even in dangerous times, every person can make a difference, and how extremist ideologies that don’t meet resistance can ferment into full-blown lawlessness.
When asked about her boldness, Tante Truus said, “My father used to say courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather going forward in the face of it.”
Ultimately, this historical novel offers great insight into the inspiring humanity of those who opposed the Nazis; Clayton brings Tante Truus to life at a timely moment when cruelty is once again on the march.
Katherine Read reviews books at http://readsreading.blogspot.com.
The Last Train to London
Written by: Meg Waite Clayton
Published by: HarperCollins
Sept. 9: Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto, 7 p.m.
Sept. 10: Mrs. Dalloway’s Books, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, 7 p.m.
Sept. 26: A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland, 7 p.m.
Oct. 29: Bookshop West Portal, 80 W. Portal Ave., S.F., (time TBA)