Lifesaving Letters: A Child’s Flight From the Holocaust
By Milena Roth
University of Washington Press,
192 pages, $24.95.
* * *
Little Milena Roth and her parents lived an ordinary middle-class life in a pleasant part of a Jewish district in Prague. It was a large, close-knit family with grandparents and many cousins. Milena remembers sitting on a sofa beside her “gentle and lovely father,” talking seriously with him. Between 1938 and 1940, Milena’s mother Anna corresponded with several English friends. The letters, published in “Lifesaving Letters: A Child’s Flight from the Holocaust,” put one in mind of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” in which a dead young woman returns to visit her old home and observes her younger self living her ordinary life: The family has breakfast; they talk about a neighbor and discuss things that need doing in days to come. It is this ordinariness that becomes excruciating for the reader, who is in the know of exactly what it is that is coming. What we know, and what Anna Roth, in her chatty, affectionate letters does not know, is the imminence of Holocaust, and that Anna will not survive it.
Sixty years later, her daughter, a psychiatric social worker living in England, has reconstructed the family relationships. Some of the information is perhaps of interest only to family insiders, but the general reader will come to know Anna from her own lively letters and letters from old friends. One writes that Anna was “as good as bread” — capable, energetic, active, open to friendships.
The facts of the increasing hostility, and increasingly hostile acts, toward the Jewish population of Prague seep into the letters. When denial is no longer possible, Anna, characteristically, goes into action. Despite her heroic, patient perseverance, she fails to get her politically active grandfather out of the country. He is taken to the concentration camp at Oranienburg, where he is killed. Soon after, Anna begins negotiating with her willing English friends to try and save her family. Her friend Doris and her husband send Anna and her husband Emil a domestic service visa at a time when England suffered from a diminishing servant class.
Anna wisely and rapidly got 6-year-old Milena onto one of the Kindertransports, which, from 1938 until the beginning of the war in the fall of 1939, brought some 10,0000 children — including the writer of this review — to safety in England. But Anna and her husband suffered the fate of so many Jews attempting emigration: One or another of the essential documents would expire before one or several other essential documents could be obtained from unwilling foreign and malicious Nazi officialdom. The Roths were trapped in Prague.
Like other Kindertransport children, Milena had to wait till the end of the war to research her parents’ fate. She learned that they had been collected into Prague’s Jewish ghetto, where the gallant Anna taught children in one of the forbidden Jewish schools. (One of the school’s survivors, who had been the exact age of Anna’s exiled child, remembered Anna’s tenderness.) From Prague, a number of the family members were subsequently deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a surviving cousin witnessed the deaths of Milena’s parents. One is shocked anew when this survivor of so much loss pities the children who never even knew the facts of their parents’ sufferings and deaths.
We hasten to join little Milena on the other side of the Channel. Those of us who were there can thrill to her evocation — the sound and smell — of wartime England. Our lives are hybrids that graft our particular stories onto our shared history. Anna’s good English friends fight a turf war for the little refugee, each one of them determined to raise the child or at least to dictate what was to be done with her. The battle is won by a friend named Doris, a stand-in for a Grimm witch in the role of foster mother with a streak of antisemitism. Doris is a moral conundrum: She loves Anna and goes to the considerable expense of bringing her child to England. She undertakes Milena’s care year after year, yet she wishes the child ill.
Life with Doris is grafted onto Milena’s Kindertransport experience. The dislocation is general. The children from assimilated families often didn’t know how to be Jewish; all of us yearned to be English — another thing we didn’t know how to do. The orphaned Milena felt “left all alone in the world,” felt “at the edge of the world” — an antisemitic world: the child as alien.
As an adult, Milena tried, with the advantage of her training in psychiatric social work, to understand Doris, to understand herself, to make the past make sense, to make her peace with it. She consciously and conscientiously worked at the job of healing, and she lists several prescriptions: Long-term, loving relationships (they had to be long), years of therapeutic work and, most importantly for her, the organized reunions 50 years after the children transports took place. They produced, after all, a community — the community of children all alone at the edge of the world.
Like many of the orphaned “Kinder” — and like the protagonist of “Our Town” — Milena eventually returned to her past to look for her self. She took her grown English-born daughter on a visit to Prague. The author is a sophisticated self-observer, and one is moved to come upon what seems the unintended truth: “I had never been back,” she writes after living more than a half-century in her adoptive England, “to my own home.”
Lore Segal’s autobiographical novel, “Other People’s Houses,” tells of her experiences as a refugee from Hitler’s Vienna.