Despite its painful subject matter and eventual dramatic power, Melissa Hacker’s documentary about Holocaust survivors unfolds softly, like an age-worn book cover.
But My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports does not tell the story of concentration-camp victims. Rather, the film honors a different group of Holocaust survivors: the masses of Jewish children who were sent off to England from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. They were rescued through a movement called Kindertransport, which was spearheaded by British Jews and Quakers.
Initially, 1000 children were allowed to enter England; by the end, that number approached 10,000. Relinquished by desperate parents, a great number of whom would not survive the Holocaust themselves, many of these children had little or no idea what was happening to them.
Ruth Morley, Hacker’s mother (and the focus of the film) was one of these children. Morley’s parents ran a pharmacy in Vienna; she was just entering teenhood when her parents entrusted her to a Kindertransport. In one scene, Morley recalls having underestimated the full import of the separation — thinking she was merely embarking upon a brief and exciting adventure. But arresting archival footage tells the true story: One mother’s image is especially haunting, as she stares in the direction of the retreating children, her hand waving impotently, her eyes mapped with dread.
Once secured in England, Morley worried obsessively about her parents’ safety. But she was one of the luckier children: After six years spent in various foster homes — including one that she refers to quite fondly — she was reunited with her family when the war ended. Others fared much worse. One survivor reveals, in barely audible tones, the miserable emotional landscape of her foster home. This same woman can recite in entirety the chant that Nazi children taunted her with in her hometown, before her removal to England; hesitating only while trying to translate a particularly ugly epithet, she finally decides on “motherf•••er.”
Hacker’s mother died of breast cancer before she could see her daughter’s completed tribute. In a recent interview with Xpress, the filmmaker revealed more about the making of My Knees Were Jumping — her debut work:
Mountain Xpress: When you approached the Kindertransport veterans about the film you were making, were any reluctant to relive the memories?
Melissa Hacker: Certainly, there were a few who were reluctant. But generally, I had the great advantage that they knew my mother had been on a Kindertransport. They knew that I had sympathy and empathy for their stories, so in most cases, they really opened up — told me stories that they hadn’t told members of their own family before, which was really amazing and really generous. I did interview about 40 people just on audio tape before narrowing it down to the people [shown in the film]. And [as you’ll] notice in the film, there tend to be more women than men. Part of that is because the story centered on my mother, and it started to become much more of a mother/daughter story. But it was also because I found that it was harder for men of that generation — and of those experiences — to open up. Even if they wanted to, it was more difficult for them.
MX: [In 1989, a large-scale reunion of Kindertransport veterans took place in England]. Why was a reunion so long in the making?
MH: There had been little reunions over the years, for the kids who were in hostels or schools together. But really, what’s happened over the years is that these kids felt they were the lucky ones — that nothing had really happened to them, that their parents (who were either killed or had survived concentration camps) were the true heroes, the real survivors who had really gone through something. But these kids had fled, they were OK — so they felt that there was nothing for them to talk about. And even concentration-camp survivors didn’t even really start speaking out publicly, writing memoirs or having reunions, until the ’60s or so. So the Kindertransport children didn’t want to intrude on that. They didn’t want to say, ‘Well, our story is important, too.’ I mean, they didn’t even feel that it was. They felt that they should just get on with their lives. And also, these people came to America or stayed in England or went to Israel with nothing, and had to create new lives for themselves. And if they had children [after they settled], they were then raising children without parents of their own, no parents or grandparents to help them, no community. They were very caught up in their lives, and it wasn’t until they started reaching retirement age, or their kids started getting older, that there started to be more freedom — because by then, concentration-camp victims had been writing publicly for quite a while. So it wasn’t until they started to feel that [they had] more time … to reflect that the Kindertransport survivors [came forward with their stories]. And then there was this powerhouse of a woman, Bertha Leverton in London, who said, ‘It’s the 50th year, it’s 1989; let’s have a reunion of everyone.‘ She thought maybe a few hundred people, max, would show up. … It turned out to be over a thousand people. And then the [next year], a [similar reunion] was started in New York. I gave them my mother to speak at that reunion, and that’s the reunion [shown] in the film.
MX: You mention in the film that your mother was quite overprotective of you and your sister, and generally very anxious when you were younger — no doubt a reflection of what she had been through as a child. When you got her to finally tell her story, did she seem relieved? Did you notice any change in her personality?
MH: Not quite that dramatic, but what was really great was that she’d always thought she had told us everything, and she really hadn’t. … I would like this film to open up communication between generations, not only between Kindertransport and Holocaust survivors [and their offspring]. … I have a friend whose husband grew up in Beijing, and his parents had a real hard time in the cultural revolution. He said that seeing the film really brought home to him his situation and made him determined to talk to his father, who would never talk to him [about his experiences during the revolution]. It’s common for children growing up … to hear bits and pieces, but [not] a linear story. You can’t ever say, ‘This happened to my parents, and then this happened, and then this happened.’ So it was only when I sat down with a camera that my mother would sit with me and tell me things in a very linear way, and I could really ask her questions. She knew I was making the film, and she was very proud that I was interested in her life and in history, and in the Jewish story.
MX: You’ve noted that you and other children of Kindertransport parents — like the children of concentration-camp survivors — often felt somehow different or apart, growing up. Even if they didn’t know the whole story of what had happened to their parents, they could sense the tragedy beneath the surface of everyday life. Has this feeling been widely expressed among the children of Holocaust survivors?
MH: Yes. There have been meetings of the second generation of concentration-camp survivors for years. … Among the second generation, there is a crucial difference in what happened to our parents and in what happened to the survivors of concentration camps, in that our parents were rescued by the kindness of strangers. They went through much of the same persecution [during the earlier days of Hitler’s regime], but they were spared the worst: People were good to them. It was good to be in a group and be able to say together, “These are some of the negative ways our parents have been affected, and these are some of the positive things we see [from the situation].”
MX: Do you ever get any reactions to the film that surprise you?
MH: Sometimes, there’s a lot of noise in the audience, and at totally bizarre moments. And once, this man came up to me afterwards and said, “I was watching the archival footage of the children when they were at the Dover Court Holiday Camp [where many were sent when they arrived in England], and I realized that I [was watching] my best friend playing with his spoon, and I was really happy seeing my best friend. And then I realized … I must be sitting next to him. And I looked [at the film] and there I was!” … I love that stuff. Another time, I was at a reception for documentary filmmakers, and this woman said to me, “My mother was on a Kindertransport, and [this film] changed my life. Our relationship has completely changed.” … I’d had a bad day, and that made it all better.