It’s a rare thing: Liverpool Street Station is actually shimmering in London’s sunshine. Commuters trample and are trampled in return. This is one of the UK’s busiest railway stations. It’s clean, bright and corporate ─ just as it should be as the gateway to London’s financial district. But it’s still unmistakably Victorian: with lofty, glass-panelled arches, curling ironwork and imposing brick walls running up and down the concourse. In the 1980s it was gutted out to house a modern state-of-the-art railway station. The effect ─ a blend of 20th century shopping mall uniformity and Victorian grandeur ─ is pretty typical of the central London experience.
Our urban landscapes are gutted, demolished, built in, built on and built over. Liverpool Street Station seals and smooths over a troubled history. Once a swampy meadow outside the city walls, the station lies on the site of the infamous Bethlehem Hospital (otherwise known as the Bedlam insane asylum), and what is believed to be a 17th century mass grave (a recent excavation revealed the bodies of plague victims, beaten prisoners and unclaimed corpses among others). Later, as a railway station, Liverpool Street saw the highest death toll from a single air raid on Britain during World War I, served as the arrival point for thousands of refugee children on the Kindertransport in the lead up to World War II and, more recently, was the site of a bomb explosion on a departing underground train during the 2005 London bombings.
While the pre-station history of the site is invisible inside today’s building, its 20th century wartime history is commemorated in several memorials. Those depicting the children of the Kindertransport are hard to miss. On my first visit to Liverpool Street, I was dithering on the concourse, going through the inevitable tube-map-oyster-card-national-rail-underground-overground confusion, when I felt a presence occupying my personal space. I swung around and saw a life-size brass girl standing and staring despondently, and a little brass boy sitting hunched at her feet with an old suitcase beside him. The sculpture Für Das Kind is captioned as ‘a tribute to all those who helped rescue 10,000 Jewish and other children escaping Nazi persecution through the Kindertransports…’ On street level in the designated ‘Hope Square’ is a much larger sculpture by a different artist, this one portraying a group of brass children, titled Kindertransport – The Arrival. I later found out that brass statues by the same artist, Frank Meisler (a Kindertransport refugee himself) mark the route of the Kindertransport and can be found in Poland, Germany, The Netherlands and the UK – each memorial depicting different stages of the refugees’ journey. The sculpture at Friedrichstraße Railway Station, Berlin – Train to Death, Train to Life ─ also commemorates the 1.6 million children who were murdered in the Holocaust.
In 1938, under pressure from a non-denominational consortium of Jewish and Quaker organisations, the British Government waived immigration restrictions to permit the admission of unaccompanied children into the UK on what would become known as the Kindertransport. Refugee agencies funded the children’s resettlement ensuring that there would be no burden on the British public. Every child was allocated 50 pounds for their eventual return home – both activists and the Parliament hoped that the children’s stay would be temporary. The evacuation mission brought over 10,000 mainly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig to the UK. The children were placed in foster homes with British families, or in school and hostels. They arrived by ferry from The Netherlands, docked at the port of Harwick and boarded trains to Liverpool Street Station where they met their new host parents and guardians. These children made their home in England: many of them would become the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust.
Public commemorations and depictions of the Kindertransport have boomed over the last 20 years and culminated in 75th Anniversary events in December last year. Other than the sculptures and plaques at Liverpool Street and beyond, several plays, films, books, exhibitions and re-enactments indicate a growth in interest and engagement from the British public. This rather sudden fascination with a group previously absent from the national wartime imagination is no doubt largely owing to the increased visibility of the Kinder themselves who, in the late 1980s, began to connect and network internationally eventually forming The Kindertransport Association. It is also part of a surge in Holocaust commemoration in Britain more generally. I also have no doubt that the British government sees the merit in commemorating one of its better immigration moments, though the fact remains: the Kindertransport was the work of private individuals and the organisations they formed.
The moment when personal experiences meet the public domain is hugely significant. For Kindertransport refugees who have struggled with the trauma of loss and displacement their whole lives, the value of connecting within the group and promoting understanding among the general public is obvious. But it has other implications: in reaching the public audience, the conversion of personal experience into collective memory can obscure the individuality of that experience, or at least make it more difficult to convey. This is partly a challenge of representation: memorials, documentaries and plays ─ even that seemingly most personal of genres, the autobiography ─ direct themselves outwards to meet the public audience. The complexity of the personal is transformed into a widely comprehensible, historically verifiable act with correct reference to the established (and now public) collective memory. How then to convey the agony, alienation and the utter chaos of the individual experience of displacement?
Interiority is the domain of fiction and, having turned to fiction, I found grown up Kindertransport protagonists who are not so much coming to terms with their displacement as living it every single day. In Anita Brookner’s Latecomers, best friends Thomas Fibich and Thomas Hartmann are seven and ten when they arrive in England, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (the main character and title of the book) was evacuated from Prague when he was four years old. They are entirely different novels, but both explore the interior lives of middle-aged men who are not only displaced by their former refugee status, but also displaced from their own memories. Fibich and Austerlitz are almost completely unable to recall their early childhood. While this changes over the course of both novels, neither Brookner nor Sebald offer their characters, or the reader, resolution. Displacement, they suggest, offers no such thing.
Place, and how it relates to memory, is central to both narratives (more obviously so in Austerlitz). Liverpool Street Station is a key site ─ though Austerlitz’ pre-1980s station is in stark, dark contrast to the station I describe above:
…this station, with its main concourse fifteen to twenty feet below street level, was one of the darkest and most sinister places in London, a kind of entrance to the underworld, as it has often been described. The ballast between the tracks, the cracked sleepers, the brick walls with their stone bases, the cornices and panes of the tall windows, the wooden kiosks for the ticket inspectors, and the towering cast-iron columns with their palmate capitals were all covered in a greasy, black layer formed, over the course of a century, by coke dust and soot and, steam, sulphur and diesel oil. (pp. 180-1)
And yet, it is during the 1980s reconstruction of the station that Austerlitz, who at middle-age has no knowledge of his refugee origins, has the first of a series of visionary experiences which pull him back through his past:
I felt, said Austerlitz, that the waiting-room where I stood as if dazzled contained all the hours of my past life, all the supressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained, as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the endgame would be played, and it covered the entire plane of time. (pp. 192-3)
His vision propels him on: he sees himself as a small child meeting his new foster parents and holding an old rucksack on his lap. He suddenly realises that he must have been in this waiting-room when he arrived in England fifty years before. Austerlitz’ vision is only possible because the rebuilding of the station unearthed the old building’s structures: allowing him to enter a physically familiar space. Austerlitz cautions that memory, and thus individual identity, is inextricably linked to place. Is this a relationship that memorials, even site specific memorials, somehow obscure – or even sanction? It seems to me that as our landscapes are gutted, demolished, and built in, on and over – we might gut memories too.