The Last Train to London focuses on the Kindertransports by which thousands of innocent children were secreted out of Nazi-occupied Europe and the brave, dedicated woman who helped them escape to safety.
When the story opens, it is 1936. Thus far, the Nazis are merely loud, brutish bores in the eyes of fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy and influential Jewish family. His father owns and operates a chocolate company and Stephan is a budding playwright whose playground extends from Vienna’s streets to its intricate underground tunnels. Stephan is protective of his little brother, Walter, and. sadly, their mother suffers from terminal bone cancer.
Stephan’s best friend and companion is Žofie-Helene, a brilliant mathematician and Christian. Her mother, Kathe Perger, is a journalist dedicated to the truth — the editor of the progressive, anti-Nazi newspaper, the Vienna Independent.
Their innocence is shattered when the Nazis invade and take control of Austria.
Truus Wijsmuller, known as Tante Truss, is a member of the Dutch resistance who risks her life smuggling Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to safety in nations that are willing to accept them. The mission becomes increasingly dangerous after the Anschluss —Hitler’s annexation of Austria — and European countries close their borders to the growing number of refugees who are desperate to escape.
Tante Truus is determined to save as many children as she possibly can. And after Britain passes a measure declaring that it will admit at-risk child refugees from the German Reich, she dares to approach none other than Untersturmfuhrer Adolf Eichmann. The author of a paper entitled “The Jewish Problem,” Eichmann eventually helped devise the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” (After World War II, he was executed for his crimes.)
Tante Truus finds herself in a desperate race against time to deliver Stephan, Walter, Žofie-Helene, and several hundred other children to their uncertain future abroad.
Tante Truus proves that hope survives even in the deepest darkness.
Meg Waite Clayton is the bestselling author of six prior novels, including Beautiful Exiles, The Race for Paris, and The Four Mrs. Bradwells. She says that her latest, The Last Train to London, “was inspired by and meant to honor Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer and the children she rescued, as well as the many people who made the Kindertransports possible.” Although she has taken “smaller liberties” with her fictional story, its spirit and foundation remain compellingly true.
It is a story about a time that must never be forgotten. Ironically, it is a contemporary reminder of just how quickly matters can escalate — with draconian consequences.
Clayton’s story begins in December 1936 which she refers to as “The Time Before.” Stephan dreams of being a playwright and Žofie-Helene has already proven herself a brilliant mathematician who is receiving private tutoring. Along with their friend, Deeter, the three dream about their futures as they practice acting out Stephan’s characters. They are innocently and blissfully unaware that since 1933 Truus has been using cheap replicas of her jewelry and other tricks to smuggle children past Nazi soldiers into Amsterdam, assisted by Klara Van Lange, her dedicated but naive apprentice. She and her devoted husband, Joop, have suffered the heartbreaking loss of several unborn children. And although they would like nothing more than to raise their own child, Truus is fully cognizant of the risks she takes in order to shepherd little ones to freedom and that her absences from home, coupled with the danger she faces, would force her to abandon her efforts.
In successive chapters, Clayton’s focus alternates between Truus’s activities, and those of Stephan and Žofie-Helene. Initially, “everyone was too wrapped up in their own families and their own lives to see the politically darkened clouds piling up on the border between Germany and Austria. Everyone thought Hitler was a passing German fad, that it couldn’t happen to Austria, . . . and anyway people had businesses to run and children to raise, parties to attend and portraits to sit for, art to buy.” Clayton intersperses news stories from the era that demonstrate the increasingly-strained relationships between European nations, the Nazis’ encroachment beyond Germany, and the United States’ initial response. The technique is highly effective, as it illustrates the mounting tensions and fears the citizens of those regions felt. Through her storytelling, Clayton demonstrates how desperate matters are gradually becoming, to the point that by 1938 one distraught mother puts her infant daughter, Adele Weiss, into Truus’ arms and hurries away as the child cries out for her “Mama!” The baby has no paperwork and Truus must quickly improvise in order to evade detection and the consequences thereof. Even Truus has not yet come to appreciate the depth of love that would cause a mother to hand her child over to perfect strangers in order to give the infant a chance at life, fearing that the little one without papers has jeopardized the passage of the other children. The supervisor advises Truus, “You do my sister a disservice, Frau Wijsmuller. You would have her risk her daughter’s life along with her own.”
You have never taken a child from her mother’s arms. I cannot imagine there exists a more horrible task on this earth.
Matters worsen dramatically for Stephan and his family after the full-scale takeover of Austria by the Nazis. His family is displaced from their palatial home, their company taken from them, and they suffer other devastating losses as they struggle to simply survive. He wonders, “How could this not be a nightmare? How could he not be sleeping, about to wake up, still in his pajamas, to go to his desk and his typewriter, to capture the nightmare before he lost the details that might make a story if only this weren’t real?” Žofie-Helene, along with her younger sister, Johanna, and their grandfather, Herr Perger, the barber, face their own challenges. Žofie-Helene’s mother, like so many other journalists, learns that as Hitler convinces all of Germany that his lies are the truth and the truth is a lie, there is a price associated with truth-telling.
Power-hungry Eichmann, determined to increase his own influence within the Nazi party, wields terror and destruction with his diabolical machinations, accompanied by his trained German Shepherd, Tier.
The movingly terrifying stories of Truus, and Stephan and Žofie-Helene, do not immediately intersect. By the time they do, Clayton has fully immersed readers in their narratives, ensuring readers’ investment in their fates. Truus is not fearless. On the contrary, she is wise and savvy enough to understand the stakes and proceed with cautious determination. She observes, “My father used to say courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather going forward in the face of it.” She well knows that the contingency for which one fails to plan is the one that can bring defeat.
Stephan, like the other young people who witnessed the atrocities of the time, matures quickly as he sees what is happening to his country, his family, and the reactions of those around him. He quickly appreciates the depth of betrayal by his fellow citizens and friends as he finds himself caught up in a demonstration where those around him are chanting “One People! One Reich! One Fuhrer!” and he realizes that those “words might well echo through Stephan’s head for the rest of his life.” Clayton’s portrayal of Stephan’s coming-of-age is chillingly realistic and heartbreaking. Žofie-Helemeane must likewise come to terms with the evaporation of the future she envisioned and staggering loss.
And at the heart of the story is the triumph of Truss who, like so many others, is bewildered by what is happening around her. “Where are the decent German people? Why aren’t they standing against this? Where are the leaders of the world?” But there is no time to await answers because she is challenged by none other than Eichmann himself. And unwilling to accept defeat. With the assistance of many other brave souls, the mission is a success, but not without concomitant costs.
The Last Train to London tells but one of the many stories of heroism, bravery, and dedication that ultimately brought defeat to the Nazi regime. Clayton’s approach to her subject matter is measured and successful. She demonstrates the impact of history upon her characters with restrained realism which illustrates the depth of their extraordinary resilience and commitment to those they love and the tasks history has assigned to them. Truus is deeply conflicted, questioning why she cannot carry a child to term and feeling that she has let her husband down. She declares, “I’m a woman who can’t bear a child in a world that values nothing else from me!” even as Joop assures her that she is “a woman doing important work, in a world that badly needs you.” Eventually, in Clayton’s handling of her story, Truus finds peace in her fate. “Perhaps this is why God chose to deny us children. Because there would be this greater need, this chance to save so many. Perhaps He saved us the burden of having to choose to risk leaving our own children motherless.”
Nearly 10,000 children were ultimately saved by Kindertransports — placed on trains by parents and grandparents most never saw again who hoped their beloved children and grandchildren would be spared. Tante Truus, the woman who did not bear children of her own, is today revered by the children she saved and their descendants. The Last Train to London is powerful, compelling, and absolutely heartbreaking — at certain junctures, extremely difficult to continue reading. For that reason, it is a book that needs to be read because it is also full of hope, power, and strength. It is a beautifully crafted reminder that one person can make a difference.
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