It is one of World War II's least known stories: In late 1938 and through much of 1939, the Nazis permitted some 10,000 Jewish children and adolescents to escape to England via trains and then boats. Why the Nazis did so remains something of a mystery, though surely the world's shocked response to Kristallnacht, when Hitler's thugs burned hundreds of synagogues in a single night, had something to do with it. They wished briefly to place a human face on National Socialism. "Into the Arms of Strangers," an extraordinarily fine and understated documentary, written and directed by Jonathan Mark Harris, at last gives coherent voice to those who endured this remarkable experience.
It is a voice often cracked by remembered pain. Once selected for the Kindertransports, these kids had just days to pack their bags and say what some of them knew was their final farewells to their parents. The latter tried desperately to cram a lifetime's moral instruction, not to mention unsunderable love, into those hasty moments. One of the film's most heartbreaking stories is of a father who, running alongside a departing train, could not bear the separation. He yanked his daughter through an open window and ultimately into a concentration camp. She survived. He did not.
Not that life in England was easy for the Kinder. There were not enough foster homes for them, and many lived for months in unheated summer-vacation camps. A few were exploited; many were troubled. One could argue that these 10,000 were pathetically few compared with the 6 million lost in the Holocaust. But one of the Kinder, novelist Lore Segal, makes this poignant point: "None of the foster parents with whom I stayed, and there were five of them, could stand me for very long, but all of them had the grace to take in a Jewish child." That was a quality singularly lacking elsewhere (particularly in the U.S.). Still, this moving tribute to a handful of candles flickering in the darkness has the power to summon us one prays to our better selves.