Moving memoir explores the trauma of the Kindertransport

  • Date

    Wed 5 Aug 20

Professor Jonathan Lichtenstein with his arms folded wearing a dark sweater and dark-rimmed glasses

A profound new book exploring the relationship between a father and son has shed new light on the experiences of children of the Kindertransport and its impact on their own children.

The Berlin Shadow, by playwright Professor Jonathan Lichtenstein is a moving account of a journey, taken by him and his elderly father Hans as they travelled back to Berlin, which his father fled in 1939.

It reveals how Hans’ experience deeply affected Professor Lichtenstein’s own childhood and behaviour, and shows how the journey helped both process the trauma that was ever-present in their lives.

Professor Lichtenstein’s father left Berlin when he was 12, arriving in Britain via Harwich in north Essex. Writing about it towards the end of his life, he said: “I was taken to a station in Berlin and left my mother at the barrier in order to travel to London by train and ferry to go to live with an English family, not knowing for how long.”

Hans’ mother survived the war in Berlin with the help of sympathetic lawyers and his half-sister was protected in Holland where she worked for the resistance. His remaining family did not survive the Holocaust.

The Lichtenstein family shop in Berlin after it was attacked on Kristallnacht)
The Lichtenstein family shop in Berlin after it was attacked on Kristallnacht

Professor Lichtenstein, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, explained: “I had this strange relationship with my father’s past, which hugely influenced him and therefore influenced me. I knew that it had gripped him and held him and formed him. But he could not articulate this.”

With his father in his 80s, Professor Lichtenstein sought to understand Hans’ journey on the Kindertransport so they headed off, by car, to retrace that journey.

“It was a very profound experience,” explained Professor Lichtenstein. “What I found so extraordinary about guilt, mourning and grief, is that if you have the capacity to somewhat engage with those things, then you begin to release from them.”

Explaining how difficult the journey out to Berlin was, in comparison to their return, Professor Lichtenstein added: “He had released something. He had suffered from terrible nightmares all his life but after the journey my father was able to sleep.”

In Berlin the pair visited Hans’ childhood home, the family shop that was attacked on Kristallnacht, and the place where his father had committed suicide.

Professor Lichtenstein explained what the journey taught him about post-traumatic stress and second-generation experiences: “As I was writing the book I found I was displaying classic behaviours of someone who had grown up with a father who had PTSD. It contextualised certain things I did in my life, suddenly they made sense.”

Professor Lichtenstein learned too just how important acts of remembrance and symbolic events like Holocaust Memorial Day are, and why we will need them to help the children of more-recent traumas: “What appear to just be things you go and see, or take part in, actually have unbelievable emotional resonance and healing power.

“Children of parents from any war-torn country like Syria, Lybia or Iran are going to pick up on their parents’ trauma, they are going to articulate that trauma and they are going to need symbolic help to begin to heal.”

Funded by a Leverhulme grant, and described by writer Santa Montefiore as “deeply moving, utterly compelling, touchingly funny and so beautifully written that at times it takes your breath away”, The Berlin Shadow is published in the UK by Simon & Schuster.