Suffering of the little kinder

1st December 1995 at 00:00
A Child Alone. By Martha Blend, Library of Holocaust Testimonies series Vallentine Mitchell #163;13.50 - 0853 03297 1

Martha Immerdauer was a little girl with a long name. An only child, she lived a quiet, ordinary life in Vienna with her father and mother, full of things like visiting relatives, going to the park, boat trips up the Danube, domestic squabbles.

But just before her eighth birthday, things became out of the ordinary. The Immerdauers were Jews and the Anschluss - the Nazi annexation of Austria - heralded an end to their world as they had known it. In A Child Alone, Martha Blend (nee Immerdauer) tells the story of what being Jewish did to her family; or rather, what the Nazis (and the fear of them) did to her because of her Jewishness.

Martha's story is not one of ghettoes, concentration camps, brutality, starvation and despair. She was one of the "lucky" ones. Her parents, shaken to their core by the orchestrated pogroms in Germany and Austria during the autumn night in 1938 known as Kristallnacht ("the night of the broken glass"), were determined to save their child. They succeeded. At the age of nine, Martha was put on a train that was part of the Kindertransport, the international rescue mission that brought about 10,000 children, most of them Jews, out of Germany and Austria in June 1939 and to the safety of British foster parents and children's homes.

At the appointed hour, Martha's mother took her to the train station. Her father, jailed by the Nazis for the second time in several months, had taken his leave of his daughter the night before from his cell. They were under strict instructions to avoid "emotional farewells". Martha and her mother followed the rules. Not a tear was shed as they said goodbye to each other for what was to be the last time.

Martha's subsequent life was indeed lucky compared to those who stayed behind. She survived and they were killed in the most barbaric circumstances imaginable. But Martha's luck was not without qualification. She imagined what those circumstances were, what privations her parents suffered, what fate befell her cousins, aunts and uncles, how and where they were murdered. While she moved, with her strange but loving foster parents, from one house to another in Blitz-ravaged London, then from billet to boarding house to rented flat in southern England, she carried this weight of unknowing with her. After a short time there was no further word from her mother. When, in 1940, a letter from the Red Cross arrived with the message that her father was dead, her Polish Jewish foster mother's insistence that "it's not true!" allowed her to deny it to herself.

Another burden on Martha's young shoulders was her own sense of alienation, her differentness and a tacit understanding that she must never share those feelings with others. That she was a child refugee was something she felt was her dark secret, both because of a vague sense of guilt and because of her understanding that her British friends, schoolmates and teachers simply did not want to know.

As a mature adult, mother of two and teacher, Martha Blend has been back to Vienna to reclaim some of her early history that the war nearly obliterated. She has travelled to Buchenwald and Auschwitz, where it is likely her parents were murdered, in an attempt to fit some pieces together. What her story lacks in literary finesse, it makes up in compelling detail, not least by giving an insight into how the Kindertransport children transcended the horrors of separation, guilt and uncertainty to lead full, if not altogether happy, lives.

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