Clayton’s (Beautiful Exiles, 2018, etc.) novel about the Kindertransport program joins the recent spate of Holocaust books (from All the Light We Cannot See to The Tattooist of Auschwitz) that allow readers to identity with heroes and survivors instead of victims.
The real-life heroine here is Truus Wijsmuller, the Dutch Christian woman instrumental in smuggling approximately 10,000 children out of the Reich and into England through the Kindertransport. The villain is the infamous Adolph Eichmann. Early in his career Eichmann authored the influential paper “The Jewish Problem,” about how to rid the Reich of Jews. After Germany took over Austria he landed a powerful position in Vienna. In 1938, Truus met with Eichmann, who offered what he assumed was an impossible deal: If she could arrange papers for exactly 600 healthy children to travel in one week’s time—on the Sabbath, when Jewish law forbids travel—he would allow safe passage. With help from British activists, Truus successfully made the arrangements and found refuge for all 600 children in England. Clayton intersects these historical figures and events with fictional characters trapped in Vienna. Aspiring playwright Stephan, 15 years old when the novel begins in 1936, comes from a wealthy Jewish family, manufacturers of highly prized chocolate candies. The Nazis strip ownership of the chocolate factory from Stephan’s father and hand it to Stephan’s Aryan Uncle Michael. A guilty collaborator torn between greed and love, Michael is the novel’s most realistically portrayed character, neither good nor entirely evil. Sensitive, brilliant, and precocious, Stephan is naturally drawn to equally sensitive, brilliant, and precocious Žofie-Helene, a math genius whose anti-Nazi father died under questionable circumstances and whose journalist mother writes the outspokenly anti-Nazi articles about actual events, like Britain’s limiting Jewish immigration and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, that punctuate the plot. After Kristallnacht Stephan ends up hiding in Vienna’s sewers (a weird nod to Orson Welles in The Third Man), and Žofie-Helene’s mother is arrested. Will Stephan and Žofie-Helene end up among the children Truus saves?
Workmanlike and less riveting than the subject matter.