Into the Arms of Strangers

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Although this documentary is about the mass rescue of children (the Kindertransport brought 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain in 1938-9), Into the Arms of Strangers offers no easy happily-ever-afters. History, so often seen in black and white, is full of stories like this one, full of immeasurable gradations of gray.

With the Kindertransport, the strength and resolve of individuals temporarily won out over the cowardice and brutality of governments, good intentions were married to the will to survive and children lived to become adults. But writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris doesn’t settle for a facile inspirational model. He takes an important lesson from these survivors and portrays the Kindertransport as a harrowing tale of tender innocence lost and bitter experience gained.

Many of the interviewees describe their childhoods as idyllic; they are the beloved children of indulgent parents who find their small, happy worlds shattered with sudden, cruel efficiency. Those same parents, who once stood as the pillars of their existence, are suddenly afraid, uncertain. It’s a rite of passage to see your parents as human, but that realization was forced on these kids before they could comprehend it. Unable to recognize the sacrifice her parents were making by sending her unaccompanied to a safe foreign country (England was not yet at war with Germany), one girl angrily accused her grief-stricken parents of trying to get rid of her.

Into the Arms of Strangers is full of these piercingly painful moments, when the nearly incomprehensible idea of mass genocide is understood through the most basic human interaction between parents and children. To his credit, Harris
doesn’t end the film at the rescue itself. With an exhaustive attention to detail, he chronicles the years these young refugees spent in Great Britain, where the reception for them wasn’t always warm.

One man, whose parents miraculously survived the war and who also built a solid, loving relationship with his adoptive English family, describes himself as incredibly fortunate. “What more could one ask for?” he says, never thinking to ask for his childhood back.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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