Into the Arms of Strangers: Mark Jonathan Harris’ Docu of Rescue Mission of Holocaust Children, Narrated by Judi Dench

With Into the Arms of Darkness, a splendid follow-up to his Oscar-winning documentary, The Long Way Home, writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris adds another significant panel to the growing body of films about the Holocaust.

Heartbreaking yet truly inspirational, new docu chronicles the historically unparalleled rescue mission, known as the Kindertransport, in which Britain opened its gates to over 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia during WWII.

Warner release should do well in urban centers with large Jewish populations, but an extra effort will be needed to promote this informative, often revelatory film in other milieux. Produced in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., docu reps a most suitable material for modern history courses in high schools, colleges, and other educational institutions.

If Long Way Home centered on the torturous and humiliating plight of Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust, Into the Arms of Strangers chronicles an earlier, equally painful decade, roughly from 1938 to post WWII, during which many Jewish families were forced to separate, and some were able to send their children to safety in England. The canvas of Into the Arms is much wider than Harris’s former docu, dealing with such issues as love and loss, the subjectivity of memory, and, above all, the very definition of what constitutes a family, or more specifically, the intricate distinction between biological and sociological foundations of kinship.

Realizing that the strength of their work is in the emotional impact of the stories themselves–the testimonies of children survivors, their parents, and rescuers–the filmmakers rely unabashedly on lengthy interviews, allowing the participants to face the camera directly, with pain, courage–and dignity. Ultimately, the essence of what can only be described as astonishing tales, many of which have never been heard before, conveys hope of the most human kind, emphasizing the vitality and resolve of children.

After Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitic decrees isolated the Jews of Germany and Austria. Many parents, unable to escape themselves, were forced to make the agonizing decision of sending their children away. Under specific regulations, the Nazi policy of forced emigration allowed for this painful opportunity. Each child was allowed to take one suitcase and one rucksack, the contents of which were rigidly restricted.

The departure of the first train from Vienna took place in December 1938. Some of the most touching stories are about the preparations for the split and the heartbreaking farewells at the train station. One woman recalls how her father couldn’t let go of her hand and actually pulled her out of the train’s window. The irony of this situation is that there were other separations for her, and eventually she ended up in a concentration camp, which miraculously she survived.

Thinking they were going on an adventure, some of the children were excited by the journey. Others were devastated, feeling abandoned and realizing they may never see their parents again. Basically, what the children were asked is no less than become mature adults at a very young age, as Eva Hayman recalls: “I ceased to be a child when I boarded the train in Prague.” Hayman was separated from her elders for “only 6 years out of a long life, but those 6 years affected me the rest of my life.”

Docu gets more universally significant and thematically rich in its second half, which recounts the children’s life in England, where they arrived without knowledge of one word in English, anxiously waiting at train stations to be adopted by foster parents; some landed in orphanages. As expected, there’s great variability in experiences, specifically in the issues of how the different cultures, languages, and social class impinge on the kids’ upbringing. Some embraced their foster families and new lifestyle right away, fully enjoying freedom after a long oppression. But others, like Lore Segal, felt that “none of the foster parents with whom I stayed–and there were 5 of them–could stand me for very long.”

The last–and strongest–reel relates the life of Kurt Fuchel, from his journey all they way through his reunion with his biological parents in Paris after the War. Through this extraordinary story, three perspectives are exposed: Kurt’s, his foster mother’s, and that of his real parents. Candid and straightforward, Kurt claims that initially, upon learning that his parents have survived, he was reluctant to see them. Equally painful was the experience for Kurt’s British parents who, after raising him for years, had to send him back to his biological family.

Though their memories are fresh, the survivors, who are now in the late 60s and 70s, still struggle with the legacy of the Kindertransport. Amazingly, most of them have channeled their pain into productive lives. Like the most vigorous non-fiction works, Into the Arms forces each viewer to take a moral stance: Given the choice what would you do as a parent, and how would you feel if you were the child who’s sent away.

Eloquent as Judi Dench’ narration is, it’s a bit obtrusive in the first part. But in later sequences, the voice-over is kept to a minimum, allowing the heroic survivors to occupy cenetrstage and expose their psyches and souls in their own genuine language.

A Warner Bros release of a Sabine Films production, in cooperation with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Produced by Deborah Oppenheimer. Directed, written by Mark Jonathan Harris. Camera (b&w/color), Don Lenzer; editor, Kate Amend; music, Lee Holdridge; sound (Dolby), Gary Rydstrom; archival researcher, Corrinne Collett. Reviewed at a Raleigh screening room, L.A., Aug 30, 2000. Running time: 122 min.

Narrated by Judi Dench