Based on true events, The Last Train to London tells the story of a Dutchwoman who, working with British and Austrian Jews, faces down Adolf Eichmann to rescue thousands of children from Nazi-occupied Vienna. In 1936, the Nazis are little more than brutish bores to fifteen-year old Stephan, the son of a wealthy and influential Jewish family, and budding playwright whose playground extends from Vienna’s streets to its intricate underground tunnels. Stephan’s best friend, brilliant Žofie-Helene, is a Christian whose mother edits a progressive, anti-Nazi newspaper. But the two adolescents’ carefree innocence is shattered when the Nazis’ take control. Dutchwoman Truus Wijsmuller risks her life, smuggling Jewish children out of Nazi Germany — a mission that becomes even more dangerous after the Anschluss, as borders close to refugees desperate to escape the Reich. After Britain passes a measure to take in child refugees, “Tante Truus” dares to approach Adolf Eichmann in a race against time to bring children like Stephan, his brother Walter, and Žofie-Helene on a perilous journey to an uncertain future. This book will be published in over a dozen countries.
The Last Train to London: A Novel
- The book begins with words from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “One person of integrity can make a difference.” What is integrity? In what ways is it challenging to possess? Where are there powerful examples of integrity in action throughout the novel?
- Consider Geertruida Wijsmuller, Tante Truus to the children. What are her most impressive qualities? What makes her willing to take such risks to help the children? What skills make her so successful?
- In what ways are the Neuman family and the Perger family similar or different? How does this affect the relationship between Stephan and Zofie-Helene?
- In what ways is it significant that the young Stephan Neuman is a playwright? What are his goals and responsibilities as such? What other skills allow him to successfully survive his persecution?
- How does Zofie-Helene, as a mathematics prodigy, process and articulate her experience in the world? In what ways might such abstract thinking be useful, especially in a time of fear and danger?
- What does Käthe Perger work to accomplish as editor of the Vienna Independent newspaper? What is the role of the press in times of political and social unrest? Why is journalism seen as such a threat to the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes?
- In what ways is paradox — The Liar’s Paradox, The Theater Paradox, The Friendship Paradox, etc. — relevant to the subject matter of the novel? What does paradox suggest about the nature of human experience?
- Why might the stories of Sherlock Holmes be so important to Zofie-Helene? Why are they banned by the Nazi régime?
- Why does Stephan’s Aunt Lisl value painting, in particular abstract painting? What does it mean that, “photos were somehow less true than…paintings, even though they were more real”? Why were “cubist and futurist and expressionist works” offensive — or even a threat — to Hitler?
- In what complex ways were Tante Truus and her husband Joop influenced by their experience of three miscarriages? How might they have behaved differently if they had had children of their own?
- What is so powerful and significant about Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and other music mentioned throughout the novel? What might it mean that, for Zofie-Helene, “music fill[s] the empty spaces between the numbers and symbols inside her”?
- What is the difference between propaganda and journalism? How was Hitler able to convince so many that “his lies are the truth and the truth is a lie”? How does modern communication technology including the Internet and social media make this more or less likely?
- Truss learned from her father that “courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather going forward in the face of it.” What might be other ways to define courage? What are effective ways to handle fear?
- Consider the personal details of Adolf Eichmann’s life before power — his time with Mischa Sebba, his being denied entrance into the Hotel Metropole, etc. How might these have influenced his ability to visit such terror on fellow humans? What’s the relationship between personal experience and political leadership?
- . What might go into the profoundly difficult and complex decision for parents to send a child away that he or she might be safe?
- What particular strengths does Ruchele Neuman exhibit? What went into her decision to send her sons, Stephan and Walter, to safety?
- What is the role and value of literature to Stephan, his Aunt Lisl, and others? Why are the words of Stefan Zweig so comforting to Stephan, even when living in the tunnels beneath the streets?
- Truss laments to her husband Joop that, “I’m a woman who can’t bear children in a world that values nothing else from me.” How does such a narrow, restrictive, even oppressive value system exist despite the many and important accomplishments of women? Which girls and women in the novel find ways to transcend such limits?
- Zofie-Helene learns from her mother that “people never expect…a girl in charge” but that “it can work in her favor.” What might this mean?
- How is it that “decent German people” came to permit and witness and even participate in the violent persecution of their fellow citizens “like holiday makers at a fair ground”?
- What is powerful and significant about the infinity necklace that Stephan returns to Zofie-Helene years after they are safe in England?
- In what profound ways was Tante Truus the “Mother of 1001 children”? What did she understand about children, especially in such traumatic times? What is her legacy?
Courtesy of Meg Waite Clayton
The Last Train to London is a beautifully written book about the Kindertransport and the terrible events that led up to it. It is the story of one amazing Dutch woman who risked her life to bring mostly Jewish children to Holland so they could reach safety in England. The book gives a clear picture of what life was like under the Reich. It shows that rich and poor and the sick and dying were all punished for the sin of being Jewish and how no one was punished for torturing, stealing from and murdering the victims. It also tells the story of how parents and children sacrificed for each other.
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