Fic­tion

The Last Train to Lon­don: A Novel

January 1, 2013

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.

Discussion Questions

    Cour­tesy of Meg Waite Clayton

  1. 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? 


  2. 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? 


  3. 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? 


  4. 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? 


  5. 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? 


  6. 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? 


  7. 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? 


  8. Why might the sto­ries of Sher­lock Holmes be so impor­tant to Zofie-Helene? Why are they banned by the Nazi régime? 


  9. 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? 


  10. 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? 


  11. 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”? 


  12. 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? 


  13. 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? 


  14. 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? 


  15. . What might go into the pro­found­ly dif­fi­cult and com­plex deci­sion for par­ents to send a child away that he or she might be safe? 


  16. What par­tic­u­lar strengths does Ruchele Neu­man exhib­it? What went into her deci­sion to send her sons, Stephan and Wal­ter, to safety? 


  17. 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? 


  18. 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? 


  19. 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? 


  20. 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”? 


  21. What is pow­er­ful and sig­nif­i­cant about the infin­i­ty neck­lace that Stephan returns to Zofie-Helene years after they are safe in England? 


  22. 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? 


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.