Monday, October 23, 2006

The Tiger in the Attic by Edith Milton

I finished this book more than a week ago, but put off writing about it because I wanted to watch a documentary that someone recommended as a good complement to the book, called Into the Arms of Strangers: Voices of the Kindertransport. The book is a memoir of one young girl’s experience in the Kindertransport; obviously the movie is about the whole program.

In case you have forgotten, the Kindertransport was a short-lived rescue operation mounted by the British in the late 1930’s which rescued about 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland before those places were cut off by the declaration of war. To my dismay, I learned from the film that a similar program proposed in the U.S. never made it out of congressional committee.

Edith Milton sounds like one of the lucky children, though I guess that since all the Kindertransport children survived the Nazis (unlike most of those left behind) then by that measure, all of the Kindertransport children were lucky. But unlike some of the situations described in the film, Milton’s host family was affluent and loving. She and her older sister were treated as family members, unlike some of the other children in the program who were separated from their siblings, and who were bounced from host family to host family, or worse, were forced to work as unpaid servants.

I expected this book to be much bleaker than it was. Instead, it is largely a memoir of Milton’s happy, typically English girlhood, complete with wellies, eccentric relatives, dogs, boarding school, and even the proverbial tiger skin rug (eventually banished to the attic because the dogs peed on it). The book is filled with gentle humor, and includes chapters with titles like Jesus and Me, and Dried Eggs and Puberty.

Milton’s mother managed to escape to the U.S. at the start of the war, due in part to her having been born in France, and thus not being subject to the same quotas that limited German Jewish emigration. Thus Milton was able to keep in touch with her mother throughout the war (though was unable to join her), unlike most of the other Kindertransport children whose families were trapped in Europe and were out of communication. And of course, Milton's mother survived the war, in contrast to the parents of most of the other children.

The most wrenching part of the story is Milton’s reunion with a mother she barely remembers, with whom she has difficulty communicating (having forgotten how to speak German), and while missing her host family terribly. It is also ironic that being reunited with her mother caused a steep decline in Milton’s standard of living; leaving her affluent upper-middle class English host family to join her mother who was barely scraping by in New York. Milton tells the story with much grace and pathos. (And the book is definitely more interesting than the film, which gets kind of repetitive and dull after a while.)

I can't find a review of this book, but here is an article about the Kindertransport, and here is a Web site about the film.
(Book 45, 2006)


Anonymous said...

Fascinating, I had forgotten all about the kindertransport until I read your review. Cathy is studying this period for GCSE history at school so I emailed her the link to your review (even though we live in the same house, this is sometimes the best shorthand way of communication. She can then ignore my "helpful suggestions" without me knowing.)

Having read some of those interviews with Bill Kauffman last week, I can only conclude that it is probably people who thought like he does about the war who kept that kindertransport bill in committee.

It was such a tragic time for so many people, especially children, I can hardly bear to think about it, b ecause then I get thinking about all the places where this kind of abuse still goes on, and get more depressed. But don't get me wrong, I was pleased to read your review. I am sure I've read this book, it does not sound new -- the title sounds familiar. When I was young I read loads of books like this, becuase the war was so much in my parents' generation's minds, it was just everywhere around you even though I was born 10 years after it ended. So one kind of absorbed it into one's psyche while growing up.

Becky Holmes said...

Maxine, I too read lots of these sorts of books growing up, starting with Anne Frank's diary, and moving through various memoirs and histories. I think, as you say, they are part of the psyche of people who grew up in the post war years. I also share your dismay at the current state of the world; where is the Kindertransport for Darfur children, for example?

Anonymous said...

If the present administration has it's way, they'll be Kindertransporting South and Central American children right out of this country.

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