At various times over the last eight years I’ve written notes on and taken photos of the memorial at Liverpool Street to the 10,000 about to be orphaned Jewish children who came here from Germany and Austria in 1938.
In 2004 they put up a life sized sculpture of a subdued, serious girl aged about ten, her hair beautifully brushed, standing next to a much more than life sized suitcase of plexi-glass which contained objects given by some of the refugees and represented their broken childhoods and lost families: toys, books, letters, photographs. The girl and the suitcase were placed on a plinth which provided the only place to sit on the station forecourt. There were no benches or litter bins. The twin threat of vagrancy and terrorism set the scene for the drama which took place.
‘On Friday evening her feet were buried in fag packets and burger bags and plastic bottles. On still days cigarette ash sometimes clings to her clothing, or there might be little blobs of mayonnaise on her legs. The sign which tells you about the Kindertransport memorial is small and fixed to the station wall a few yards away.’
Instead of being a kind of retrieval of the past, the thing was actually about forgetting… many of the exhibits in the suitcase, some of which must be the only relics of those who, about to die, managed to get their children out, are hidden behind the strangers sitting there, who must, of course, face outwards. They make her pathetically sad and dignified, she makes their indifference cruel and abusive. She turns them into Martin Parr junk food monsters. The repetition of this experience every time I went into the station intensified it. I came to associate the Kindertransport experience with those paintings of Christ carrying his cross through the mocking crowd.
But the scene allowed me to take photographs of complete strangers without feeling anxious: I was entitled to take photos of a public work of art.
After a year or two of this they placed the little girl on the pedestal or podium, so she wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, and then they constructed a big green fence all round her, with a little peep hole. Finally, they removed her altogether. A notice was put up explaining that the revolutionary concept of the giant perspex suitcase had not worked as well as had been hoped, that some of the fragile personal effects it contained were in danger of being damaged by the light and that they had been removed for safety to the Imperial War Museum. I heard that the little girl is there as well, but I haven’t been to see her yet.
‘ Now, within the enclosure a new group of sculptures has appeared. A group of children, led by a proud girl, a few years older than the first, with her chin in the air as if to outface the indifferent mob – more gawky and clumsy and somehow chunky, and obviously not so lonely. next to them is a another table shaped plinth with a section of railway line in bronze laid on it and the names of German stations on little plaques all round the edge. The plaques and the tracks are uncomfortable to sit on, but because there is nowhere else, the station crowd, themselves showing the resourcefulness of the displaced, still perch there.
(what have I forgotten from the lost writing?)
Why did they lie about the reasons for changing the memorial? The new one has a much more visible plaque and it acknowledges the generosity of the people of Britain. Did they not want to admit to the indifference of the people of Britain? Sections of the British press in the late 30’s were hostile to the idea of rescuing Jewish refugees. Or was there really a problem with the plexi-glass?
The reason one of my sisters is called Penny is because she was born in Penny Lane shortly after the war. I don’t know whether it was because of their pacifism, but my parents never really talked much about the war. It was only when I went to my uncle’s Quaker funeral in the last five years that I realised, from what some of his slightly younger war-time friends said, that he and my parents and other Quakers had moved into what’s now called Docklands as solidarity to the dockers when everyone who could was moving out to avoid the Blitz. My mum and dad ran a Quaker youth club there, and now I realise, from your blog and piecing together bits from the letters my mum wrote to my aunt that I only found out about a decade ago (the letters I mean), that the reason my parents moved to Liverpool straight after the war was to work with the Jewish refugee kids in Liverpool. Then they moved on to the Wirral, where I was born, where they ran a camp for inner city kids to have holidays. When I was introduced to my mum’s letters I found a reference to Jewish kids coming to stay, and eventually the penny dropped and I deduced that these kids must have been refugees. Now I realise they must have come over the Mersey from Liverpool. And it was only in the last couple of years that I realised that the only picture of my mum abroad in our family album (she died before ordinary people did foreign travel) was of her looking rather tense in Germany taken just before the war, and that this might have been some kind of reconnaissance trip, since I know from what my dad told me that they were campaigning, in the Peace Pledge Union, for the British government to change policy and acknowledge what was happening in Germany. I’m very glad you’ve written what you’ve written. Because of what happened in my family I don’t have many facts and every so often I read something or look at a picture, and it helps me understand things, and your blog, which I appreciated in so many ways, did this. When this government was elected I found myself looking for a group to join where I didn’t have to have a sense that I was networking, so I started – intermittently – going to Quakers for the first time. I like them.