Strangers tells a different story about the Holocaust
The heartrending documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (opening Nov. 10) chronicles a nine-month period prior to the outbreak of World War II, during which the British government operated a rescue mission for more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and Austria by providing them foster homes in England. It's an undeniably painful remembrance of things past, told in the present tense by the people whose lives were forever changed in that fleeting "calm" before the storm of Nazism.
Their personal histories run a gamut of emotional devastation. Some of the children found good "placements" under the dire circumstances, but others didn't. There's an abject sadness to the fact that many of them never reunited with their parents after the war, of course, but it's no more palpable than the feelings of bitterness and estrangement among some of those who were reunited with theirs. Indeed, all of the stories are punctuated by the regret of knowing now what they didn't know then, when they were too young to grasp the grim sociopolitical realities of the time or to fully appreciate an ultimate expression of parental love and protection.
Despite the inherent dramatic potential of a film about the kindertransport effort, director Mark Jonathan Harris — who won an Oscar for his 1997 Holocaust documentary The Long Way Home — confesses he was initially reluctant to helm the project. "I thought, 'Why another film about the Holocaust? What more is there to say about it?' I think there's a certain Holocaust exhaustion we all share, and having just done this other documentary about the Holocaust, I was initially reluctant to revisit that period unless I felt there was something really fresh and different to explore," Harris says during a recent interview.
"As I got into doing the research, I realized this was a story that hadn't been told before, and an incredibly moving one," he says. "What ultimately drew me in was the story of the loss these children faced. They were coping with the two most overwhelming traumas a child could imagine, the loss of their family and the loss of their home. I got hooked by the extraordinary complexity and richness of their experiences."
With the cooperation of the Shoah Foundation and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Harris and his research team viewed videotaped testimonials from hundreds of Holocaust survivors. He and producer Deborah Oppenheimer eventually interviewed 23 of them for Into the Arms of Strangers, 16 of whom are included in the finished version of the film.
"One of the hardest and most challenging parts of doing a documentary is casting it, choosing the people you want to tell the story, people whose stories are compelling but who can also present them in a way that makes the audience want to know about them," the director says. "There were over 10,000 children involved in the kindertransport program, and clearly there were over 10,000 different stories. We were looking for a mix of people who could represent the entire range of the experience."
In so doing, he says he hopes the film will attract an entire range of audiences as well. "I think the feeling of separation between parents and children is what makes this universally accessible as opposed to speaking only to people who are Jewish. As a parent, would I have had the courage or the foresight to send my child away? Would I have had the generosity to take in a child? Not all of us may be parents but we've all been children, so anybody should be able to understand and relate," Harris notes.
"Ultimately, the film is about the resilience of children and their ability to transcend catastrophic losses. It's why we ended the film by essentially showing each of these people evolving from childhood through old-age. You can see how their experience has shaped them, how it has haunted them all their lives, and yet you can see how they were still able to go on and lead such productive lives."