Night view of Vienna, 1937
One might ask do we need another novel that deals with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. However, with Meg Waite Clayton’s newest book, THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON I believe we have a novel that explores a topic that has not been mined by writers that extensively. The story is set in the 1930s involving the Kindertransport rescue of ten thousand children from Hitler’s grasp in occupied Europe and the true story of Geetruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a childless Dutch woman known as Tante Truus. The story’s backdrop is Vienna as Austria is about to be victimized by an Anschluss (union) with Germany. At the time Jews did very well in the Austrian capitol but once it was taken over by the Nazis after an earlier coup attempt in the early 1930s the plight of the Jews begins to sharpen. Soon Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) will take place in November 1938 and the handwriting is literally on the wall for Vienna’s Jewish community.
As 1937 approaches Tante Truus has already spent several years risking her life crisscrossing the border to spirit Jewish children out of Germany. She is a fearless woman with an agile mind who is able to employ her charm with Nazi border guards in order to maneuver her charges out of a number of dangerous situations. She is dismayed as country after country refuse to accept desperate children seeking asylum from Nazi Germany. Despite the increasing danger of her missions she is driven to save as many lives as she can before it is too late.
Enter fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the Jewish heir to a great chocolate making fortune. Stephan sees himself as a budding playwright and pays no attention to the political events swirling around him. He becomes smitten with Zofie-Helene, a brilliant math prodigy whose mother, Kathe Perger edits a progressive newspaper which is overly critical of the Nazi regime. The two adolescents enjoy each other’s company, but their carefree life is upended as Hitler’s troops begin to threaten the annexation of Austria.
Clayton is a superb writer who has constructed a mesmerizing story of danger, sacrifice, bravery, and a commitment to confront evil. Her plot seems to run on two tracks. First, the wealthy Neuman family focusing on the mother stricken with cancer, her husband Herman, and their two sons Stephan, seventeen, and Walter, five. They will be removed from their palatial home at the outset, split up into a Vienna ghetto and Dachau. This track includes the Perger family with Zolfie-Helene as the center piece. The second track zeros in on Tante Truus who is working with the Netherlands Children’s Refugee Committee and its English allies led by Norman and Helen Bentwich to remove as many children from Nazi hands in Austria.
These tracks focus on a number of historical events that will drive the story; the Evian Conference called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was invoked by the United States as a coverup for their lack of a refugee policy and fears of letting too many Jews into the United States. Further the Anschluss between Austria and Germany and the disaster it presented Viennese Jews, and lastly, Kristallnacht which led to murder of Jews, seizure of their homes, business, and property, imprisonment, and banishment from Austrian society. The book is permeated with details of Austrian-Dutch political debates at the time through Kathe’s newspaper articles that are integrated into the novel and one witnesses the slow deterioration of Austria’s Jews in the process.
One of the many overriding dilemmas facing Jews at this time was who could they trust. Stephen’s uncle by marriage to his aunt Lisle, Michael who is not Jewish divorces his wife, supposedly to save her, and at the same time takes over the chocolate business in order to keep it out of Nazi hands. He promises to take care of Mutti, Stephan’s terminally ill mother, as well as his brother. But even before the German invasion, he had become extremely alienated from his wife and her decadent “art collection” who then flees Vienna for Shanghai as her husband moves closer to Nazi principles. Stephan is placed in the difficult position of not knowing if he can trust the lives of his family with him.
Clayton carefully describes Tante Tuss’ separate missions to Germany from Amsterdam to rescue children, then her focus shifts to leading children from Hamburg to freedom. Her rescue mission is raised to a different level when the British government under pressure from Lionel de Rothschild and Viscount Samuels agree at first to allow 600 Jewish children between the ages of four and seventeen for temporary resettlement in England. The measure was to be funded privately and all the government had to do was issue visas. The angst which precedes each mission is further heightened when Germany’s sadistic head of the program in Vienna, Adolph Eichmann threatened to withdraw the offer if the smallest detail was not met. Eichmann believed the fastest way to make Germany judenrein (rid of Jews) was to give them a choice of death, living in poverty, expulsion, or emigration to lesser countries. Clayton describes in detail Tante Tuss interactions with Eichmann and the pressure that was placed on her and her own family in trying to save the children.
Clayton relies on a great deal of primary and secondary research which is the backbone of her novel. Historical events and figures receive an accurate portrayal along with character development to present a truly absorbing work of fiction. The structure of the novel is based on the author’s style of no chapter numbers, just headings that provide date and location or topic. Many chapters are five pages or less, and others are as short as a paragraph. The result is an engrossing read about a topic that highlights the inhumanity of Nazi immigration practices and the mostly lacking response by the world community, particularly the United States.