An excerpt from
The Tiger in the Attic
Memories of the Kindertransport and
The first thing I remember about being in England is Aunt Helen trying to put me on her lap. We are on a train taking us from London to Swansea, and since I speak no English it is difficult to resolve my urgent need to get off the lap of this woman I have never seen before. Not, at least, without becoming impolite about it. I have been warned of dire consequences if I fail to be polite when I get to England.
Luckily, my sister Ruth is along. Ruth speaks English. “I have to go the bathroom,” I tell her in German. She translates this for the woman with the lap, who threatens to get up and take me there. “Not her. You have to take me,” I say to Ruth.
My poor sister—she is thirteen, an awkward age at best, and the Basic English she has learned at school has never been tested on a native speaker. I have admired and adored her from afar for years—my handsome, scornful, heroic sister, six years older than I am and good at sports—but at that point she must be loathing me. “If you don’t make that woman put me down,” I tell her when we are finally alone in the corridor heading towards the toilet, which in fact I do not need, “I will start screaming.”
But by the time we get back to the compartment, nothing needs to be explained after all: the woman’s lap has been magically withdrawn from combat and is no longer a menace. It is filled with egg salad sandwiches, and I can settle down in my own and distant corner to eat one without fear of further interference.
I do not remember the journey before that, though I know it was a journey of children: children of every age and size and condition. I vaguely recall weeping adults, my mother presumably among them, although I do not remember her. They stood, blocked by wooden barriers, as we were taken along the platform and put into railway compartments, which I seem to remember had hard, slatted seats. There was a boy, a country boy I suppose, with a huge basket of strawberries that he handed around to us all. The guard came by now and then and made jokes, and the officer in uniform and with a swastika armband who collected our papers at the border looked upon me with what I took to be parental concern as he handed back my passport, which under my name—augmented by the Jewish “Sara” mandated by the Third Reich—had been stamped STATELESS. I remember feeling a shy affection for him, a sense of safety in traveling in this carriage under his care.
I know that to cross to England we boarded the boat at Rotterdam. I know this because I had thought we would go through Amsterdam, which I had read about in the Bibi books of Karen Michaelis; Rotterdam, unsung in literature, was a great disappointment, which I resented enough to file firmly in memory. But the crossing itself is a blank. Probably we were all asleep. The next day comes to mind as the revelation of a huge London station with massive steel arches overhead. Liverpool Street Station. There were, I think, people at tables who shuffled through papers and who spoke an incomprehensible language that I knew must be English. I was wearing a brown hat with a rolled-up brim, and there were labels pinned to my collar and dangling from the various buttons of my new brown coat.
And then a tall, thin, aquiline woman, encased in a tweed suit that looked as if it would cause severe abrasions to any skin with which it came in contact, emerged from the crowd to lay claim to this refugee package from Germany, and she led us away.
That point of my life is where my real memory begins. My earlier recollections are not much more than mental snapshots of discrete moments, deprived of emotional content and affect. Or if there is any emotion, it tends towards shame, which I have somehow breathed in during my last year there, from the air of Karlsruhe. I understand, for instance, when my best friend Ursula no longer comes to my house, that shame must be the element that most properly belongs to me. When I go to visit her, her mother will not open the gate, and when on my way home three children call out names at me which I completely fail to comprehend, I nevertheless know them to be shameful.
One day, coming home from school, I see a quartet of Hitler Jugend knocking on the door; they are rattling coins in round tins marked with swastikas in which they are collecting money for some worthy Nazi cause. I have been told that we never give money to the Hitler Jugend’s worthy causes and that we regard swastikas as hostile emblems. I shrink against the privet hedge, trying to be invisible, and am preparing myself to run away when, to my embarrassment, I find that terror has just made me pee in my pants. Luckily, however, the Jugendbund has given up knocking and is running down the path, going right past me on their way out. They are chatting and still rattling their tins and seem totally unaware of my shame: my twin shames, actually—of being Jewish and being incontinent. But even when they are gone, I am so overwhelmed by humiliation that for several minutes I can’t move.
Shame is there in abundance. Other emotions, other moods, seem to have evaporated from the scenes I call up for myself.
My father’s death, for instance, is encapsulated in a single image of a featureless figure wrapped head to toe in bandages, looking, I have lately come to think, more like the Michelin man or the Pillsbury Doughboy than a human being—though unlike the Michelin man and the Doughboy this creature does not have a face. I suppose I am extrapolating from the bandages around my father’s head at the time he died—of uremic poisoning from a carbuncle at the base of his neck. In my waking life there were never any particular feelings associated with this apparition—no fear or affection or yearning—though throughout my childhood it consistently invaded my dreams and led them into nightmare.
Up to that moment when Aunt Helen collected us it is as though I had flattened everything out for easy storage, and to make things simpler I seem to have removed the sound track as well. But in that second-class compartment, halfway between London and Swansea, my memory springs into three dimensions—becomes, I suppose, normal. It decorates itself with words and sounds and feelings; it attaches itself to things like regret and pleasure. None of this is entirely reliable, of course—over the years the landscape of memory shifts and its details rearrange themselves; or it fails to shift and one knows that what is being remembered is not a memory anymore at all—that it has petrified into myth.
But, as I say, all that is normal, more or less. And in some way impossible to define my life begins when I am seven going on eight—when I have just set foot in England. It is 1939—the end of April or perhaps the beginning of May. By the time the train has arrived in Swansea and the taxi has driven us to Aunt Helen’s house, it is early evening.
The house is huge, much grander than anything we have ever lived in in Karlsruhe. A young woman wearing a black dress and a little white apron opens the door for us and takes our bags; she is wearing a starched white cotton tiara thing on her head like the women who served Mandeltorte and Schillerlocken in the Konditorei on Kaiserstrasse. Aunt Helen has taken my reluctant hand and is leading me upstairs, followed by two of our suitcases under the care of the young woman in black. Ruth trails behind; the rucksack containing our papers and disposable treasure (two Swiss watches and some gold and platinum jewelry in case there should be an emergency need for ready cash) is clutched to her heart. Aunt Helen did try at the door to separate Ruth from the rucksack, a move that established an even firmer bond between them. Ruth and rucksack are now inseparable.
But when we get to the room where we are to sleep, she loosens her clutch a little; the two beds are turned down and there are two bowls of steaming, creamy mushroom soup on the bedside table. There is a fire in the fireplace too, and the curtains breathing at the slightly opened window frame a twilight view of a walled spring garden beyond which there is a distant glimmer of sea.
There were four Harveys. Aunt Helen you have already met, but at her introduction she was wearing a Harris Tweed suit—topped by a sprightly fedora that I did not mention, with a rakish little feather in it announcing its readiness for battle. But that was a different Aunt Helen from the one who floated in through the firelight an hour later to kiss us goodnight—our soup finished, our cup of Horlick’s drunk, our pajamas already on. This white-gowned woman, the new Aunt Helen, had about her the aroma of something wonderful: roses, perhaps, and lavender.
I had never eaten mushroom soup in bed before or drunk Horlick’s; I had never walked down two miles of corridor before to go to the bathroom. I had certainly never been kissed before by someone wearing an evening gown. Kissed, more or less, by two people in evening clothes, because right behind Aunt Helen came Uncle Bourke, and he was wearing what I know now beyond a reasonable doubt to have been a dinner jacket. Not that it was exactly me he kissed. It was the air three inches above my right ear and three inches to the right of the spot of my scalp that still held the memory of Aunt Helen’s goodnight on it.
It was a ritual, an unaltering expression of affection balanced exquisitely with reticence, which was conducted every night for the seven years we were in England.
By then we had already been introduced to the other two Harveys, Valerie and Diana, whose room—not surprisingly, considering the distance covered—was on the way to the bathroom. Aunt Helen, who was then still in her tweed persona, had stopped by during our induction into the arcane British mysteries of having the bath and the toilet in separate enclaves.
Both the girls had been in bed reading when she had knocked on their door. “Here they are, girls,” she announced, and they had both looked up from their books and told us “Hullo” with a show of some enthusiasm. Their hair, I noted with envy, was light brown and long—Valerie wore hers in two fat braids, and Diana had a single elegant braid so long that it disappeared under the blanket. It was what I had longed for since birth or maybe before. Briefly, just after my grandfather, Opa, died and when my father was sick, while the grown-ups, in fact, were thinking of other things, I did achieve two short little plaited stubs that stuck out proudly like low-slung horns just above my ears, but normally my fashion-conscious mother would take me off to be bobbed or shingled or curled, and the Heidi look I yearned for would escape me once more.
Valerie was nine, Diana eleven at the time, and I saw them both immediately as My Ideal. True, at first, it was only a matter of hair, but coiffure goes a long way, even when you are seven. It tells you almost everything you need to know; and I recognized at once that most of my life I would strive to be exactly like them, and that I would fail.
The two smiling, interchangeable, pajama-clad little girls with those long brown braids I so much coveted, turned out, of course, not to be quite as much alike as my first, admiring assessment of them told me they must be. I suppose, through the sense of my own difference, I saw them as a matched set of sorts; it took familiarity to recognize their distance from each other.
Diana, even at eleven, had something of her mother’s chiseled profile, softened by childhood and by an extraordinary gentleness of disposition into cameo perfection. She had the face that, traced in marble, hovers above the tombstones of those who died young—and she had the quiet, softly melancholy soul to go with it. Valerie was made of harder and brighter stuff. At the age of nine she was already looking out at the world through the little, round spectacles with tortoise-shell rims that stayed with her for the rest of her life and that seemed to sharpen any landscape she saw and transform it into something rich with potential amusement. She was quick and clever at everything that mattered to me, from word games to playing cricket. Both girls liked to draw and paint, but while Diana worked on surprisingly accomplished portraits of horses, Valerie created zoos of invented monsters and a Noah’s ark filled with gryphons and unicorns, afloat on a foaming turquoise sea.
Diana was shy and somehow still; Valerie sparkled. It was not always with the sparkle of happiness, either—particularly not when I was around. With dismal regularity over the years she would cast a shining load of scorn upon me with the casual delivery of those who are without doubt. “You’re hopeless,” she would tell me, referring to my style of running or dressing or failing to wash behind the ears—to anything that caught her fancy in fact. I was not offended: I respected her greater knowledge and her directness, and I rather enjoyed the attention paid to me, even if it was negative. Besides, I had one advantage: I’d always been the youngest in my family and I was still the youngest in this new and larger one. I knew where I belonged and was content to stay there. It was Valerie, after all, who’d been ousted.
At that time, when Ruth and I first made our appearance, the four Harveys were sharing the house with various servants and two Welsh terriers. But as spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, a wave of guests began to wash in at the door: relatives, friends, people from India and Africa and Australia, and most of them with children and nannies in tow. As fall turned to winter and the war began, one by one the servants disappeared, while the guests remained.
We had spent that summer, the summer before the war, under the shadow of Mount Snowden at a farm that took in paying guests: Clennenna. Although North Wales is not known for its good weather, I remember those weeks as a time of unremitting sunshine. In my memory, the hillside fields where sheep grazed among dapples of leaf shadow and stone are unalloyed by sorrow, and the two Welsh terriers—mother and daughter, Lassie and Vixen—frolic at my side.
My memory, however, does not entirely agree with other people’s account of the time, particularly Valerie’s. Later, over the years, I saw Diana, who was gentle and always rather shy, only very occasionally; but I kept in better touch with Valerie, who had grown into a lovely woman, full of good cheer and brimming with fun. And she assured me that I was a champion whiner, that for months after my arrival in Swansea I sniffled mournfully after Ruth—who seems, thankfully, to have forgotten about it—whenever she left my sight. I know that when Uncle Bourke, a specialist in nicknames and neologisms, coined the verb “to corncrake,” he was inspired by me. You will find “corncrake” in the dictionary as a noun signifying a game bird closely related to the grouse, particularly as to its vocal characteristics. This may strike the unbiased etymologist as evidence that I at least sounded miserable and that therefore in all probability I was miserable.
But that is not how I remember it—in the chiaroscuro of my recollection it is the chiaro that prevails. Wearing Valerie’s outgrown shorts held up by an elastic belt with an S-shaped fastener—a fashion statement unheard of in Germany or anywhere else I can think of—I sat astride my first horse. A photograph exists suggesting simultaneous pride and petrifaction. The horse is a carthorse, a huge Clydesdale mare, and she is smiling. So are the two little blonde girls sitting behind me, Harvey cousins who are on a visit from Kenya and who are spending a week with us. I seem to recall that later, when we have all got down from the horse, the little girls lower three kittens down a well to see what will happen and that what happens is that the kittens drown. Valerie and Diana weep for the kittens, and after lunch I hear Aunt Helen furiously berating the parents of the little girls. The parents seem bemused and quite nonchalant about this fuss being made over three dead kittens, but Aunt Helen is close to tears.
There are other children at Clennenna. They stay with us for a few days and then move on. Most of them have their parents with them, though one or two, like Ruth and me, are alone, and many, like Ruth and me, have grown up in some other place than England. Native to distant continents, they suppose themselves British but are in fact homeless. In some ways the United Kingdom, which they have visited only briefly and sporadically, is as strange to them as it is to me.
The owner of the farm is a weathered old man who speaks mostly Welsh—Mr. Jones, let us say—who for some reason has taken a fancy to me. Perhaps because I am small and dark, as he is and as his children and grandchildren are, he supposes me among these tall blond paying guests to be the least likely to turn into an imperialist. He puts his calloused hands around mine: “Ura notta notta gurral,” he says, affectionately and incomprehensibly. “Ura notta notta gurral.”
But a problem is weighing on Mr. Jones’s is mind. There is no inside toilet on the farm, and even the paying guests have to make do with the chamber pot under the bed or use the outhouse. The outhouse for the wing where the guests sleep is quite beautiful, with vines trailing over the roof and through cracks to make this humblest of sheds into something of a bower. Many of the adult guests are quite happy to wander out there even late at night, even in the hours just before dawn, sauntering through the moonlight and humming to themselves. Usually, smitten by beauty or by the intensity of their own needs, they leave the outhouse door ajar when they depart.
This dismays Mr. Jones. The chickens are mysteriously attracted to the place, and they have taken to lurking nearby and stealing in when they see an opportunity. Then they roost in the outhouse corners and lay their eggs in secret and unreachable places, never to be redeemed.
“Were you out there?” Mr. Jones inquires of us each morning as Mrs. Jones sets out our lavish breakfast. “Were you out there?” It is the cry of the centurion in Thomas B. Costain’s The Robe seeking some other witness to the Crucifixion, and like the centurion’s his question has metaphysical overtones. In fact, whenever Mr. Jones speaks English his words are so essentially mysterious that they often suggest a cosmic dimension—as when he takes my hand in the leather of his and tells me, “Ura notta notta gurral.” He may be saying, to tease me, “You’re a naughty, naughty girl,” or he may be saying, to comfort me, “You’re not a naughty girl.” Magically, it does not matter, because he has in some nonverbal way assured me that I am exonerated from all guilt, that he holds me blameless for the world and for the open door of the outhouse and for many other things that I cannot yet even imagine.
By now I take it for granted that the two tall strangers who three months ago, when I could hardly understand them, suggested we call them Uncle Bourke and Aunt Helen are indeed Uncle Bourke and Aunt Helen.
That fall I begin to forget my German.
This is in part because my German is being replaced by English, which I now speak without having to think about it. But there may have been an almost willed though unconscious element in my assiduous forgetting of the first language I spoke and wrote and read. On September 9, 1939, England declares war on Germany. When I hear about this I am very alarmed. I stand by the window for hours, searching the skies for airplanes and waiting for bombs to fall. Nothing happens. No one else seems at all worried about bombs—or about the war, for that matter. All of the grown-ups here have been through the First World War, and they see war as something you go out to not as something that comes to you. If they knew why I was standing at the window they would think me silly and quite amusing.
But I know better. I have heard my mother and our housekeeper Stasie talk in the kitchen in Karlsruhe about falling bombs and about soldiers falling from the sky. I keep a lookout. And I know that it is the fact that I worry so much—the fact that unlike all the others I am afraid—that makes me an enemy alien. This is what worries me most of all—I am an enemy alien, and I am proving that I am an enemy alien by being such a coward about bombs and other things falling from the sky. I would like desperately to disguise myself as a little English girl, but I know that I would convince no one, since the very act of trying to disguise myself proves I am not English.
Nevertheless, I suspect it is as a first quite unconscious step in my attempt to be less foreign that I am setting about forgetting all my German.
Little by little, prodded by war, things changed. Our mother’s sister, Aunt Liesel, had come to England with our cousin Clare several months before Ruth and I did. Aunt Helen had taken us once to visit them when we first arrived in spring. We had a picnic by the sea and my grandmother, Oma, was also there, a small square package of disapproval punctuated by pearls. In my memory, the day is equivocal, as colorless, odorless, and neutral as my days in Karlsruhe. Aunt Liesel and cousin Clare looked like Aunt Liesel and cousin Clare, but they were in a strangely diminished mode, deprived of their ambience of shining clothes and polished corridors, of translucent china cups and the soft aura of lilies of the valley that had belonged to them in their house in Limburg.
Later that year, after the war had begun, I saw Aunt Liesel and Clare once again; this time they came to Swansea. They came to say good-bye to us, having been accepted by America. Even Uncle Julius, even cousin Kurt who had been, until now, at school in Switzerland, were going to go to America. Aunt Liesel and cousin Clare still looked like Aunt Liesel and cousin Clare, but aside from the superficial visual similarity, they were utterly estranged from themselves. In every memory I had of them, in every memory I had of Limburg, order prevailed; there was a softly repressed luxury that pervaded everything there, from the even rows of the waves in my aunt’s coiffure to the satin ribbons that adorned my cousin’s hand-crocheted frocks, from the yearning morning song of the caged canary to the muted up and down of scales on the piano—Clare’s afternoon practice, stifled in velvet drapery.
In Limburg, the grandfather clock in the hall offered its mellow baritone announcement every hour, and the household obeyed that rhythm. No meal came late. No child went unbathed to bed. Everything was under control.
When I was six and very ill with scarlet fever, my Aunt Liesel, who was a fine watercolorist, had written and illustrated a book for me: Der Blaue Ballon. It was about das kleine Edithlein, Little Edikins, who is given a blue balloon filled with helium. The balloon is so beautiful that the cherubs in heaven crave it and set it free when das kleine Edithlein is looking the other way. The balloon floats upwards, out of reach and out of sight; it is the exact blue of the heavens and has become invisible, indistinguishable from them. The cherubs have possession of it. Briefly Edithlein bewails her loss, but the cherubs send her a very jolly multicolored soccer ball to console her—and everyone ends up happy.
Cherubs, alas, are not the only danger to one’s earthly belongings. My mother shipped Der Blaue Ballon to America, to the house of a friend to hold until she could claim it herself. The friend’s cellar was damp, and in the course of several years of storage the Ballon was totally eaten away by mildew, as were a valuable leather-bound set of Goethe and the entire archive of our family’s photographs.
But I am sure, from what I can remember of it, that the little book and its pretty, delicate illustrations contained my aunt’s quintessential philosophy: beware of loving anything too much or the angels will envy you and claim it as their own.
This philosophy had, on occasion, led my aunt to clip the wings of her canary and other creatures she loved, to keep them from flying away—though that, of course, is a very uneasy solution to the problem. And I have always wondered if a sort of abnegation—a resignation of herself to the tediously possible—underlay Aunt Liesel’s apparent serenity. It may have been the prospect of going to America—of going to New York, unruly and rife with choices, possibilities, dreams, nightmares—that shattered her calm. Under the circumstances there was nothing she could resign herself to except chaos. In any case, saying good-bye to us in Swansea, the people who looked like Aunt Liesel and Clare seemed distraught. Bereft of everything that was theirs in Limburg, they had turned into Aunt Liesel and Clare’s disorderly opposites, exiles about to start on a new migration and at the edge of panic.
And I suppose that it did not help that I was no longer das kleine Edithlein myself, but some monster hybrid halfway between an enemy alien and an English schoolgirl and that I would no longer speak German to anyone.
This is perhaps the place to confess that it took me more than forty years to understand that our transposition to England, mine and Ruth’s, was a fragment of a larger and extraordinary history. The Kindertransport—which allowed some ten thousand Jewish children to get out of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and find shelter in England before the war put an end to the program—has been the subject of a fair amount of recent literature and of several films. It could, in fact, be counted as a sort of miracle, and I am still amazed at my own bland passivity and ignorance about my escape, my total numbness. Children, I suppose, tend to accept as normal whatever world they happen to find themselves in, whether they are terrified of it or confused by it or delighted by it, and for decades the nature of my survival simply failed to strike me as noteworthy in any way.
But that Ruth and I were even on the Kindertransport was itself surprising; that we ended up with the Harveys was a complete fluke. At the time, given the emergency, it was quite difficult to find people in England willing to take in this sudden flood of refugees wanting to come there. The first plan, for me, had been to ship me to Liverpool to be adopted by a childless Orthodox Jewish couple. As for Ruth, she wasn’t planning on England at all: she’d enrolled in a program run by a Zionist organization, the Hashara, and she’d been packed for months to go to Sweden with a friend. In Sweden they were supposed to learn about farming and then they were to go on to Palestine—to become kibbutzniks, I suppose. The departure for Sweden kept being postponed, and so my mother, expecting the worst, put Ruth’s name in for the Kindertransport along with mine.
The Kindertransport had placed a couple of older girls at Saint Margaret’s, which was Di and Val’s school, and since the school no longer had room for more refugees, it sent an announcement to all the parents listing the teenage girls who were looking for homes. Ruth took—and still takes—an excellent picture, and on the evidence of the photograph the Harveys volunteered to have her live with them. At that point, Mother sent them some more snapshots, several including me, and when they realized that Ruth had a sister, the Harveys insisted that they would to take me in as well.
And that is the story about why I am not an Orthodox Jewish Liverpudlian.
As for all the children who had signed up with the Hashara, they never left for Sweden after all. Almost all of them, including Ruth’s friend, died in Auschwitz.
Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-15 of The Tiger in the Attic: Memories of the Kindertransport and Growing Up English by Edith Milton, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)
The Tiger in the Attic: Memories of the Kindertransport and Growing Up English
©2005, 256 pages, 14 halftones
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-52946-0
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