After a while I became afraid I’d lose ‘my group’ as we walked round Piccadilly station in Manchester yesterday. Despite the fact I know the station well, I could begin to understand the anxiety the children of the Kindertransport must have felt on arriving in Britain.
It began with me feeling anxious I wouldn’t be allowed on ‘the journey’ because I’d booked too late and every place was already spoken for. And all I wanted was to watch a drama; not to save my life.
I became aware of the production of Suitcase only a couple of weeks ago, as it was about to premiere at Glasgow Central. A crowd-funded drama about the Kindertransport, it was free and it was coming to a railway station near me. Or you. I felt despondent when I realised my only opportunity of seeing it was on my way to Scotland, as I passed through Piccadilly. And then I couldn’t get a ticket!
A very kind person suggested I call at the ‘box office’ (a suitcase, actually) for returns, and I did, and then I was shunted aside and had to wait and that’s when my anxiety levels rose. Just like a refugee. But then the suitcase lady handed me my own numbered label and gave me permission to join the blue group.
Only an idiot like me would go to a promenade theatre performance wheeling a suitcase round with them. But that’s what I did. It seemed almost appropriate, although the superior – and nasty – English lady having tea frowned at it for being red. (And before you are up in arms over my rudeness; this woman was an actor, showing us how some British people didn’t want the refugees.)
We started under the escalators, where we witnessed the children’s tearful goodbyes, as well as their arrival here, being serenaded with cheery songs. At times the noise and bustle of normal station activities almost drowned out what the actors were saying, but that too fitted in with what it must have been like back then.
As we shuffled between various corners of the station for more intimate sketches with one or two people, refugees, host families, fundraisers and volunteers, it felt as if the real passengers at Piccadilly didn’t really notice us. Rather like it might have been for the original children.
There was the Czech boy who begged us to find work for his clever mother. The railway porter who collected money for the refugees. We met a sister and brother, arguing like siblings do, before they were separated forever. The boy was desperate for the toilet, but they were in a new and strange place.
My suitcase lady who objected to the workshy foreigners coming here and ruining things for the English. The couple who ‘knew’ they were getting a young boy, but ended up with a much older girl. Who didn’t even speak English!
The volunteer organiser, trying to keep track of everyone, and wondering what to do with the leftover children no one wanted. And at the end, the children writing home, and reading letters from their parents, exhorting them to behave. When the letters stopped coming.
Here one lady had to be led away on a friendly arm. It could easily be too much for anyone. I felt like crying, and my country wasn’t even in the war.
Most of the children assimilated eventually. But Kurt, the one who needed the toilet, never got over the loss of his sister, of having to be grateful all the time, and being passed round lots of families. Heartbreaking.
There was music, and there was dancing. They even offered round baskets of doughnuts at the end. And I picked up my suitcase and went to find a train, still wearing my label. I’m so grateful I was allowed to join in.