Desert Isle Keeper
The Last Train to London
If you read only one book this fall, make it The Last Train to London. I spent almost the entire time I spent reading it with raised blood pressure, gripping my Kindle tightly in anxious hands as I apprehensively turned each page, worried about the characters I had come to love. I sobbed noisily at the end with relief and sorrow, completely moved by everything that had happened throughout the novel and the bravery and determination of the heroes and heroines of the story. I read quite a lot but no novel this year has gripped me with the fervor I experienced perusing this one.
Stephan Neuman dreams of becoming a famous playwright and loves to immerse himself in the knowledge of the local entertainment scene. He keeps tabs on everything happening at the Burgetheater by paying regular visits to the gossipy barber in the salon located in the basement of the playhouse. It is here that he meets the lovely and fascinating Žofie-Helene Perger, grand-daughter to the barber, a brilliant math prodigy whose analytical mind serves as the perfect foil for his artistic spirit. Although very different, the two become fast friends, adventuring through the city together and introducing each other to new and heretofore unnoticed marvels of their environs.
Žofie is entranced by the world Stephan shows her. Her father was killed while reporting in Berlin on the Rohm Purge and her mother is the editor of a progressive Austrian anti-Nazi newspaper. Her family doesn’t have much money but Stephan’s family owns one of the most successful chocolate shops in Vienna. From rooms filled with fine crystal and art, to the intricate underground tunnels which run under the city, he introduces her to a magical province she never dreamt of.
Their carefree days come to a halt in March of 1938 with the Anschluss, the incorporation of Austria into Germany. Stephan, who is Jewish, is familiar with what has been happening in Germany to people of his ethnicity and is immediately concerned for the safety of his family. On the night of the Austrian chancellor’s resignation, he watches in horror as people from his community are beaten and his own home ransacked, his family forced to hide while their possessions are stolen or destroyed. Žofie’s family is not much safer; her mother’s outspoken criticism of Hitler has already drawn the attention of the local Nazi party and journalist Kathe Preger has come to the attention of those in Germany who are making lists of Austria’s ‘undesirables’.
There is good amidst the evil, though. Compassionate, courageous Truus Wijsmuller works tirelessly with other members of the Dutch resistance smuggling Jewish children, first out of Germany and then, after Anschluss, out of Austria. The rescues are made increasingly difficult as European countries progressively fall to Hitler and countries like America begin refusing to take refugees. Fortunately, Truus finds a fierce ally in Helen Bentwich, an intelligent, tenacious British woman who, along with her husband, presents the Bentwich-Cohen plan to the government of Great Britain, creating a kindertransport system which will (hopefully) bring kids like Stephan, his younger brother Walter, and Žofie-Helene to safety.
The greatest threat to their endeavors is one the ladies did not plan for. Adolf Eichmann is in charge of the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration in Vienna. A member of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD; Security Service), Eichmann has long been pushing for harsher treatment in relation to Jewish citizenry within Aryan nations. Later to be known for his work on the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, he devises a cruel plan to make the kindertransport impossible. But he doesn’t know the will of Truus and underestimates her ability to work miracles. She is determined to save the children and beat Eichmann at the cruel game he is playing with these precious young lives.
The Last Train to London is a story about the cost of both complicity and courage. The complicity we see in Austria, as people vote to incorporate into Germany and turn to violence and theft against their Jewish neighbors; the complicity of America as it turns away desperate Jewish refugees, even after the horrific events of kristallnacht ; and the complicity of European governments as they watch the terrible, violence-fueled rise of Hitler but refuse to stir themselves to action. That collusion costs millions of lives, making a long, bitter war inevitable but it is matched in small part by the courage of women like Truus, who rescues children at great risk to herself; Kathe Perger, who writes and publishes the truth about events in Germany and Austria in her newspaper even as the Nazis threaten her with arrest, destroy her publication’s office and threaten her family; and Helen Bentwich who goes to battle with the British government to find a place for children in critical need. Their valiant, dangerous work saves thousands but costs many of those involved in such activity their lives. The narrative weaves these two themes unrelentingly throughout the tale, highlighting the fact that the Nazis’ actions did not happen in a vacuum, but occurred thanks to the silent cooperation of the majority, with only a few daring souls heroically taking a stand.
The author also does a fantastic job of contrasting horror and joy. I found myself horrified anew by the brutality and cruelty of the Nazis, the way betrayal of friendships occurred as political situations changed, and how the author ties the past to the present. Hearing Eichmann refer to Kathe as a member of the Lugenpresse (the lying press) was chilling given current statements American political figures have made about the media. His speech stating that, “The true spirit of Germany resides in the Volk, in the peasants and the landscape” given society’s recent turn toward nationalism is equally chilling. But watching the friendship and gradual romance between Stephan and Žofie was absolutely delightful; seeing little Walter mature and become a brave young boy who handled a devastating situation with aplomb and courage was incredibly heartening, and reading of the bravery of the women who fought so fiercely to give these kids a future was amazing. The text is liberally sprinkled with simple acts of kindness which have an incredible impact on those in need, reminding us that it can take very little to be of great help.
Ms. Waite is a many times honored author who brings consummate skill to the writing of this complex narrative. I was completely engrossed in the tale almost from the start, the prose encompassing me and making me feel in many ways as though I was experiencing the adventure of life in those terrible times along with the characters. While the initial vignettes at the very start of the book are a bit choppy and stilted, the author quickly settles into a smooth, easily readable composition style which allows her tale to shine.
The Last Train to London is a beautifully written, timely and insightful story which I would encourage everyone to read. It’s not the most cheery book you will pick up this year but it will be one of the most impactful.
Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo
Visit our Amazon Storefront