We Had to Be Brave: Escap­ing the Nazis on the Kindertransport

  • Review
By – January 13, 2020

In the sto­ry of the Holo­caust, the fate of Jew­ish chil­dren was a hor­ror of unimag­in­able pro­por­tions — one and a half mil­lion per­ished. The Kinder­trans­port project suc­ceed­ed in sav­ing the lives of ten thou­sand chil­dren, bring­ing them to safe­ty in Eng­land from their homes in Ger­many, Aus­tria, and oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries before the Final Solu­tion became inescapable. The res­cue of so few from the ter­ror engulf­ing Europe’s Jews reflects both the help­less­ness of their com­mu­ni­ties, as nations and indi­vid­u­als turned away in indif­fer­ence, as well as the com­mit­ment of deter­mined indi­vid­u­als to respond to the children’s plight. Deb­o­rah Hopkinson’s We Had to Be Brave pro­vides mid­dle-grade read­ers with a seri­ous approach to the com­plex­i­ties of this experience.

One of the most notable of the book’s qual­i­ties is its com­plete­ness. His­tor­i­cal events that trans­formed life for Ger­man Jews, the devel­op­ment and real­iza­tion of a plan for escape, the inad­e­quate response of world lead­ers, and the emo­tion­al dis­tress and adap­ta­tion of the chil­dren involved all unfold in an acces­si­ble for­mat. Hop­kin­son inte­grates her own voice into the first­hand accounts of sur­vivors, pro­vid­ing facts, inter­pre­ta­tion, and con­text. She also includes com­men­tary and prag­mat­ic advice for read­ers encoun­ter­ing anti­semitism and oth­er forms of hatred, avoid­ing a didac­tic or sim­plis­tic approach to these issues. By focus­ing main­ly on three indi­vid­u­als, Hop­kin­son main­tains the narrative’s momen­tum as read­ers fol­low the impact of world events on their pre­vi­ous­ly ordi­nary and com­fort­able lives. Oth­er par­tic­i­pants in the Kinder­trans­port also present their per­spec­tives, broad­en­ing the book’s scope.

The author achieves the dif­fi­cult bal­ance required when teach­ing about the Holo­caust to this age group. We Had to Be Brave is nei­ther an unre­lent­ing list of atroc­i­ties nor a false­ly com­fort­ing sto­ry of human strength, although it includes both atro­cious and ennobling rev­e­la­tions about human nature. The sur­vivors are elo­quent in paint­ing their lives before the racist Nurem­berg Laws of the 1930sand the cri­sis of Kristall­nacht. Ger­man and Aus­tri­an Jews who had been accus­tomed to liv­ing in a soci­ety osten­si­bly gov­erned by ratio­nal prin­ci­ples observed the rapid­ly increas­ing assault on their rights with dis­be­lief. In the book’s intro­duc­tion, Hop­kin­son invites read­ers to imag­ine them­selves in this world and, through­out the book, she builds a struc­ture of infor­ma­tion and analy­sis which allows them to mean­ing­ful­ly do so. Her tone assumes that young read­ers can appre­ci­ate nuance in explain­ing dif­fi­cult and mul­ti­causal process­es. In her overview of Hitler’s rise to pow­er, she does not reduce his beliefs to psy­chopathol­o­gy, instead focus­ing on how he exploit­ed weak­ness­es in polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions and appealed to deeply root­ed and endem­ic antisemitism.

No book about the Holo­caust can min­i­mize the col­lapse of decen­cy which allowed Ger­mans to become active col­lab­o­ra­tors in the Nazi’s pro­gram of geno­cide. The sur­vivors who tell their sto­ries repeat­ed­ly empha­size their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Ger­man cul­ture. Ref­er­ences to its beau­ty are poignant reminders of how unpre­pared the Jews were to under­stand their new iden­ti­ty as pari­ahs — they were con­vinced that their gen­tile neigh­bors would ulti­mate­ly accept them as Ger­mans once again. In one anec­dote, a woman relates her first day of school and the nation­al cus­tom of par­ents fill­ing large card­board cones with can­dy and presents for their chil­dren. Hop­kin­son remarks par­en­thet­i­cal­ly that this prac­tice con­tin­ues today, giv­ing read­ers a sense of the iron­ic con­ti­nu­ity of some cus­toms even as oth­ers were shat­tered. Details such as these help to con­vey the dis­ori­en­ta­tion which affect­ed chil­dren psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly as well as phys­i­cal­ly, although accounts of phys­i­cal bru­tal­i­ty also form part of the sur­vivors’ mem­o­ries. Hop­kin­son nev­er min­i­mizes or ratio­nal­izes; read­ers learn that 90 per­cent of the chil­dren res­cued on the Kinder­trans­port would nev­er see their fam­i­lies again. Her dis­tin­guished book tells a sto­ry of suf­fer­ing and resilience with sen­si­tiv­i­ty and respect for the truth.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes text box­es with links to web­sites as well as an appen­dix about the sur­vivors and res­cuers, lists of his­tor­i­cal sources, a glos­sary, and a timeline.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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