Monday, December 27, 2010


We drove down yesterday, Boxing Day, to visit Ellie's sister in her beautiful new home in San Diego. Susie has become a loyal reader of The Buddha Diaries, so she knows more about our unfolding lives than we do about hers, and it was a good moment to catch up and a pleasure to find her so comfortably installed. It was a family event, too: our daughter made the trip with us, and Susie's daughter was also on hand, which made for an interesting mother-daughter dynamic over lunch. The talk, unsurprisingly, was about family relationships...

Then in the evening, back at home in Laguna Beach, we watched Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories from the Kindertransport...

... the beautiful and moving documentary about the Jewish children who were permitted to escape Nazi Germany, mostly to England, in the days immediately preceding World War II. Relatively, there were just a small number of them--a few thousand, when compared to the estimated 1,500,000 whose lives ended brutally in the camps; and there are today a dwindling number of survivors. A child born in 1930 would now, of course, be 90 years old. A handful of them, though, were interviewed for the documentary, and their stories--along with the montage of old photographs, documents, and film clips--were heart-breaking. You think you have seen it all and then new dreadful episodes appear, new stories of inhumanity from that bleak period.

Those who made it out of Germany were the lucky ones. The bureaucracy involved was in itself a nightmare: it required not only the permission of the Nazis, but also affidavits from the host countries, advance assurances of financial support, visas, and a host of other red tape. The US Congress debated the issue as to whether the children would be allowed to enter the United States and voted, in its wisdom, against their immigration. One of the reasons disgracefully offered was that it wold be "against the law of God" to allow them to enter the country without their parents. Seriously. As though the law of God countenanced their murder. Some things never change, and apparently the heart of the US Congress is one of them.

For those who made it to the Kindertransport trains leaving Germany at the last hour, good fortune was tempered by the tragedy of separation from their parents. The scenes, recalled by survivors and shown in grainy black and white film clips, were heart-rending for both parents and children. One father, unable to let his little daughter go, dragged her out from the window of a departing train--condemneding her to the misery of years in concentration camps. She survived, only to struggle with the fearful task of having to forgive her father for his action. The promises that this was only a temporary arrangement, that the storm would soon blow over and that families would be reunited, must have sounded hollow even to those who could not yet bring themselves to believe in the horror to ensue. The goodbyes, they knew, or must have suspected in the hearts, were in many cases final.

But the reason these stories are so affecting is more broadly significant, I believe, than the history of Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Jews--though that is indeed the poignant and peculiarly loathsome context. The stories speak to us, though, of something with which every human being is familiar, whether consciously or not, and that is the wound of separation. We bring with us into this world the experience and expectation of one-ness; perhaps, who knows, we return to it once we have lived out our human life. Between birth and death, however, sooner or later--and usually during early childhood--we experience separation. For myself, memorably, it was most dramatically the time when I was sent away to school. It came for my sister at a cruelly young age, when she was taken off with scarlet fever as barely a toddler to an isolation ward. For Ellie and her sister, with the separation of their parents. It is the stuff of pain for all of us, the cause of suffering that some of us carry with us for a lifetime.

I'm happy to report that, with some regrettable exceptions, the children from Germany were treated well in England--though, some noted, with the kind of British reserve that would seem unfriendly to one from more emotionally expressive European Jewish stock! I have a personal connection with the Kindertransport, which made the film of special interest to me: one of the children came to live for a while at my parents' home in Bedfordshire. I did not know him well at the time, because we met only during school holidays. But I do know that my father was an important inspiration in his life. Whether before the war--as many families did in the hope of avoiding persecution--or after, he converted to Christianity and thanks in part to my father's influence, he became a devout, practicing Christian in his later life. He was reunited with his parents after the war, and lives to this day in Chicago.

Which brings me back to our lunch-time conversation. As we talked about our sometimes uneasy, judgmental relationship with the next generation, I could not help but notice to what extent we were each talking out of our own separation wound, our own sense of loss and our need to rediscover or maintain connection with those we love. As I was saying to my sister this morning--she called via Skype as I was starting to write this entry--I am grateful to what I have learned from the dharma about my ability to reconnect with that sense of original one-ness by examining the inner wounds that cause me suffering and, by seeing them for what they are, to begin to let them go.


Doctor Noe said...

Yes, that was a good movie about a bad subject.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Noe, for the link to that extraordinary picture, and the history attached.