Playwright and author Diane Samuels spoke of her play Kindertransport and the real- life events that inspired it.
Can you tell us a little about the Kindertransport story?
Between 1938 and the outbreak of the Second World War, almost 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, were sent by their parents from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria to safety in Britain. In my play nine-year old Eva (based on the actual experiences of a number of children and developed as a single fictional character) comes to Manchester where she is looked after by Lil. When Eva’s parents fail to escape Germany, she settles into English life and once the war is over changes her name, becomes adopted by her foster parents and chooses to eradicate her painful loss and background.
In the play, Evelyn, now in her fifties, is confronted by her own daughter, Faith, when she finds some photos and comments from that time hidden in the attic. What inspired you to base a play around those whose lives were impacted by the Kindertransport?
Three incidents led me to write “Kindertransport”. The first was a discussion with a close friend, in her late twenties and born into a comfortable, secure home, who described her struggle to deal with the guilt of survival. Her father had been on the Kindertransport and I was struck by how her parent’s feelings had been passed down so fully to her.
The second was the experience of another friend who, at his father’s funeral, overheard his mother recalling her time at Auschwitz. Until that moment he had had no idea that his mother had been in a concentration camp.
The third was the ashamed admission by a fifty-five year old woman on a television documentary about the Kindertransport, that the feeling she felt most strongly towards her dead parents was rage at their abandonment of her, even though that abandonment had saved her life.
In 1989, I was a young mother with a one-year old son and pregnant with my second child when I saw this TV documentary. I was struck at once by the ways in which parents and children struggled to deal with this desperate parting.
Artists are often drawn to the extremes of human experience in order to reflect also upon what is ordinary. I was compelled to get to the heart of the unresolvable dilemma. Ask a child if they would prefer to be sent away to safety if their family is in mortal danger, and he or she will, in most cases, say that they’d rather stay and die with their parents. Ask a parent what they would do in the same situation and most would say that they’d send away their child to be safe. To be a parent is to live with this hidden contradiction. I wanted to try to face it.
We understand that you were brought up in a tight-knit Jewish community did you feel a connection to the story?
I grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s. I was taught Jewish history and the Holocaust was given due attention. Yet there was no word about the Kindertransport.
The reasons for this connect with the inner life of the Kinder themselves. Many simply chose not to discuss or raise the matter of where they had come from and how. In their adult lives they had focused on making a living, raising families and “putting the past behind” them.
When the 1989 anniversary came around, the youngest Kinder, who had travelled across Europe and the North Sea as babies thrust into the arms of older children, were in their fifties, whilst the teenage refugees were in their sixties. Late middle age is a time when life catches up with a person.
2019 marks 80 years since the Kindertransport and 25 years since you wrote the play. Do you think this is a story that still feels timely today in a society where many are feeling displaced? Can we draw any parallels but to the current immigration crisis?
People are always being displaced, moving about the planet, leaving home. Violent displacement has long-term effects as well as short term challenges. The play gives audiences a chance to reflect on the long-term, deeply emotional and psychological effects when the news is focused on the acute challenges of survival. The question those who have homes can ask are about how, like Lil, help can be offered. Some things can’t be helped. Yet some can.
Many Kinder, now very elderly, have been instrumental in pressing the British government to allow child refugees to come into Britain.
What do you think it is about this story that still resonates so strongly with today’s audiences?
The core theme of the play is Separation – of child from mother. Every human being experiences this primal loss at birth and in different ways as they grow up. It happens to us all.
Also, 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. This journey within is what Kindertransport also offers each member of the audience if they allow themselves to go where it ventures, no matter where or when they live.
The play itself is a commentary on many things outside of the story of the Kindertransport, can you tell us a little about these themes and how the play comes to explore them?
See above – separation. Mother-daughter relationships. How a child can inherit trauma from a parent as if they had experienced it too, when actually they haven’t. How trauma impacts on people and fear is carried on into every experience, giving an inability to feel safe. How to feel safe? How to heal? I hope that telling the story can be part of this healing for people individually and as a collective.
Suzan Sylvester appeared as Faith in the original production of Kindertransport and is now back on the stage as Evelyn, Faith’s mother – do you think this has brought anything to that role, how has it been working with Suzan again?
Wonderful to see Suzan again and see how the play touches the lives of those who work on it beyond the stage, into life as well. Sarah Shanson who played the first Eva in 1993 in the production in which Suzan played Faith, came to a preview when the play was on a Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. She was 13 when she played Eva and now she’s in her mid-thirties with children of her own.
This production of Kindertransport uses both German and English actors does this add a new dynamic to the play on stage for you?
I love the European sensibility of Anne Simon’s direction, bringing some fresh and bold choices. An inspired idea to make this a British-European co-production.
How many productions of Kinderstransport have you seen? Is there anything that makes this new production stand out to you?
Too many to count. I’ve never seen Faith engage directly with Eva before, as she does in Act 1. Most interesting.
What is next for Diane Samuels?
For the past few years and ongoing, music is playing a greater and greater role. Writing juicy, substantial roles for women of all ages to speak and sing. Asking universal questions through deeply personal stories – epic-intimate drama that is multi-dimensional.
Currently working with composer Gwyneth Herbert on THE RHYTHM METHOD, a musical love story with contraception, funded by the Wellcome Trust, sneak-preview performances at Bush Theatre Fertility Fest, and Landor Theatre, May 2018.
Also adding the finishing touches to WALTZ WITH ME, a new play with music, inspired by the remarkable marriage, life and work of Mother Cornelia Connelly which is projected to receive its world premiere in New York, at the Connelly Theater, named after Cornelia, in 2019.
And preparing for concerts in St James’s Church, London of SONG OF DINA, semi-opera with Maurice Chernick, giving voice to Dina, silenced sister of Joseph of Technicolour Dreamcoat fame, in spring 2019.