I haven’t cried this much in a long time. I avoided things that upset me for fear of it opening a flood gate of tears that I can’t shut. But I read Anna at War and Check Mates on the same day and whilst Check Mates made me all tearful, Anna at War had me weeping. Snotty, ugly crying like I’d just watched Sally Fields screaming in the churchyard in Steel Magnolias sobbing.
It is a beautiful beautiful book, heartbreaking yes but essential, vital and an absolute game changer for building empathy and historical understanding. If I was still teaching, I would be ordering this book into the school library and bringing into the classroom for secondary source material, but instead I get to introduce my girls to it when the time comes to learn about Nazi Germany and the Home Front in WWII, and the astonishing act of defiance and courage that Kindertransport was.
Twelve year old Anna knows things are wrong in Germany, but her parents have stubbornly dug their heels in that they do not need to leave, for what life would meet them elsewhere.
Unfortunately the events of Kristallnacht reveal the naivety of this stance and her family is stuck in Germany until a space on one of the Kindertransport schemes comes up for Anna taking her across the continent to England and another world politically, socially, economically and emotionally.
Anna must leave her parents behind and adapt to a new life in England, and the fear that comes with the outbreak of war even if it brings her to breaking point… especially when she hears a stranger muttering in German in the barn loft.
“I want you to hear it. There aren’t too many of us left, and it would be a shame if our stories died with us.”
Where does one begin?
As a historian it’s a beauty and a gift. This clearly has been painstakingly researched (with a bibliography at the back too) and offers a wonderful way to get insight into the mindset of the time both in Germany and in England through the transportation of our protagonist.
It’s impossible not to make comparisons with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit even though Judith Kerr and her Anna left long before the Nuremberg Laws and was with her parents- both Annas have to make the adjustments as refugees in a land that is at times welcoming and at others not.
“When are you two going to wake up? You’re like ostriches, the pair of you with your heads buried in the sand. You’re intelligent people for goodness’ sake. I don’t understand it.”
I was glad to see the opportunities for discussion because many children when I was teaching couldn’t understand why Jewish people didn’t just leave as soon as Hitler got into power or at the very least when the Nuremberg laws were made?
It’s not disrespectful to consider the range of human responses to the worsening crisis. History shows is that people had been unwilling to leave when freer movement was possible and unable to when restrictions sharpened, and often hindered by the lack of cooperation by foreign nations.
Hindsight is always 20/20 but it is a truth that many felt the fear but did nothing whether because they may have felt the desperate hope that it would just blow over, the determination that they will not back down to bullies, or the pride that one will survive because of class and having paid dues to society (as we see Anna’s father is both a wealthy businessman and a decorated war hero). This is then coupled with the human fear of change and losing what you’ve worked your life for to start from scratch in a new country.
Peters holds a lens up against this and it is heartbreaking, yes I was crying but it wasn’t manipulative writing designed to make the reader cry, it’s historical fact embedded within fiction. I cried partly because of as a historian and having taught this period I’m aware of the magnitude, outcome and consequences of this event, as a mum my heart breaks over and over again and as a human being I weep at the hatred that humans are capable of.
The soldiers started pushing all the parents away from the platform. One mother was crying hysterically, trying to get on the train. A soldier yelled at her but she took no notice. He slapped her in the face and she fell to the ground.
The Kindertransport and settling in England sections were tough to read as an adult, but infinitely heartbreaking as a parent for whom the separation is unthinkable, but the consequences of not putting that child on the train unthinkable too. In a different way to how I identified with Judith Kerr’s mother in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and how I wanted to hug her throughout especially on the train and say it will be ok- In Anna at War I wanted to cuddle and soothe and mother all the children on that train who are most likely counting down to becoming orphans. I couldn’t bear to put myself in their mothers’ shoes.
The sections describing the range of reactions to Anna in England by the community has been carefully researched too, and whilst Anna is received with love by the Deans, Peters makes it clear that not everyone was so kind and how cruel some children were to those who were suffering.
Boots thudded on the ground. My stomach knotted. There was a sharp knock at the door. I felt sick. Every sight of a soldier, every knock on the door still had that effect on me
The way Anna reacts in certain circumstances especially with the deployment of troops to the Kent countryside suggests she was suffering emotionally, possibly with PTSD regarding the behaviours of soldiers as she is fearful around English soldiers and becomes panicked at the rumours of a Nazi invasion of Southern England replaying events in her head. This is such an important point to consider as older Anna herself like many Jewish refugees have echoed, says she didn’t feel she had the right to dwell, only the impetus to live well for those who died, but this brave decision doesn’t undo the emotional weight of such a concept carries, especially on young shoulders.
But the wonderful ‘Man In the Barn’ Children’s Adventure classic as a side plot is so much fun in that queasy danger way and lifts the novel into an absolute treasure and really elevated Anna from ‘poor refugee’ to strong, courageous and capable young lady, it was fantastic to finish her childhood tale on a high note where she is more than just a refugee struggling and is a genius choice by Peters.
Overall, I cried buckets and I needed extra tissues and a sweet drink for the last few chapters in between shuddery gasps but it was beautiful. Now of course not everyone is going to sob their heart out like me at this but considering the topic matter and the fact it has relevance today too crying over Anna’s story is a good thing frankly.
Anna at War by Helen Peters is published by Nosy Crow.