“Karen's Way: a kindertransport life” by Vanessa Rosenthal

A light into corners of the Holocaust which even the kindness of strangers could not reach

On 15th December 1961, in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for his part in the organising of the Holocaust of the Jewish peoples of Europe. Exactly twenty three years earlier, at Dovercourt, a holiday camp in Essex, the future English poet, Karen Gershon, was arriving in Britain as part of the second kindertransport of refugee Jewish children from Nazi Germany.

Memories of a waltz

These deeply moving rescues of children from the post Kristallnacht horrors of Nazi Germany – 10,000 in all by 1st September 1939 – concealed, amidst relief at release from so much persecution and fear, the horrendous personal trauma of the destruction of families, the loss of parents and homes and the immersion of children, as strangers, in an alien culture. Yet many, despite these burdens, were to become distinguished members of their country of refuge and to bear civilised witness to a humanity undimmed.

Among this remarkable company, the poet Karen Gershon was outstanding. Her devotion to her new language, to her original people and culture and to the humanity which the twentieth century had so abused became, especially in the decades after Eichmann’s conviction, a light to shine into the personal and historic recesses which even the kindness of strangers could not illumine.

Vanessa Rosenthal and David Riley

Karen’s Way, by Vanessa Rosenthal, is the real story of the courage and raw humanity of these children and of the people – the women and mothers, pioneers and poets – which they could, and did, become. Using Karen’s poems and memories, Vanessa Rosenthal, has reconstructed, as a dramatised internal debate, the individual traumas of the kindertransport years – from trainee Palestinian pioneer in Scotland to chorus girl in Leeds, from war-bride bereft of family to orphaned foreign student – this is a story of simple but heart-breaking fortitude and of commitment to a poetry of unflinching truth.

The play, which has the endorsement of Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger, a friend of the poet and of Karen’s daughter and literary executor, the artist Stella Tripp, is set in a 1990 return to her native town of Bielefeld. It speaks through the turmoil of Karen’s unending relationship with her childhood self, and the drama’s moods, from childhood idyll to the pains and responsibility of adult witness, echoed in live music from piano and violin which brings Smetana and Berg, Dvorak and Britten, the 1940s stage and others to the show.

Karen is played by the author, Vanessa Rosenthal, her younger self by Francesca Larkin and the musicians are the distinguished accompanist Marion Raper and the violinist David Riley formerly of the SCO, SBE and English Opera North. The play is directed by Chris Wilkinson.

Karen’s Way opened, with the support of the Arts Council for England, at York Theatre Royal, with two further performances at Seven Arts in Leeds, before a two week run at the Edinburgh Fringe at theSpace@Venue45 in August 2012. A winter tour is planned from the north of England to the Westcountry and to London.

Vanessa Rosenthal and Lindesay Mace