New play records trauma of family break-up
by Charles Gardner
LONDON, September 20, 2019 – Amidst the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Britain, the mood is becoming increasingly reminiscent of some aspects of Nazi encroachment on pre-war German society.
This is particularly apparent for Ruth Barnett, 84, a north London Jew who has turned the dramatic story of her family’s escape from the Holocaust into a gripping play in two acts entitled Justice on Trial.
Although they survived, the heart-breaking damage to family life was incalculable. Her parents had to bear the pain of losing their children – not once, but twice – before some sort of normality was eventually restored.
As a four-year-old girl accompanied by her seven-year-old brother, Ruth was wrenched away from her parents and put on a train for England as part of the Kindertransport operation.
They were initially passed around various foster families before settling on a farm in Hampshire while their own parents somehow survived; their father found refuge in a Chinese ghetto while their mother – a Gentile – was trapped in Berlin where she undoubtedly suffered under the Nazis for refusing orders to divorce her Jewish husband.
When they were eventually reunited, they naturally wanted to find their children. But by the time they were finally located, it had been ten long years since they had last seen them. They were now teenagers, relatively settled and secure, making it impossible to rebuild family life and further disrupt their lives. The heart-broken parents had lost them a second time!
Act One, set in pre-war Berlin, follows the rising threat of Nazism and how it affected a mixed marriage with a group of friends from both sides of the Jewish/Gentile divide.
Even one of their friends joined the Nazis and turned hostile, determined to arrest his former companion who had been sacked as a judge because he was Jewish.
With their lives in danger, they hear of a plan to rescue children by sending them to England. Thus it was that Ruth and her brother Martin were separated from their parents to ensure their safety.
The terrifying tension of the time is captured well, and with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz soon approaching, this play is not only a reminder of the dreadful consequences of the kind of anti-Semitism once again being witnessed in Britain – even within the Labour Party – but also a warning of where current brainwashing tactics could lead.
The Nazis broke up families; Britain’s secular system is doing the same as permissive boundaries are constantly pushed. Those who continue to follow Judeo-Christian values are being increasingly marginalised as unloving bigots, and in some cases are already losing their jobs.
To quote one of the play’s characters: “If the law is bent to satisfy those who make the loudest noise and intimidate opponents, then there can be no justice for anyone.”
To which Robert (Ruth’s father) responds: “If the law is bent we must straighten it out; we must never accept what is clearly unacceptable.”
Act Two takes us through the post-war years and the huge challenge of having to repair the colossal damage to justice. Robert became involved with this, but was seriously hampered by ex-Nazis still being in positions of authority even in the judicial system. But he did help change things by ensuring publicity for the little-known new constitution.
Meanwhile Ruth portrays herself as the epitome of a grumpy teenager fiercely opposed to the idea of returning to Germany, but you can hardly blame her. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. But even for many of the traumatised survivors, family life was dealt a severe blow.
“This is the real story of my family already partly told in a largely fictionalised German novel and TV film, Landgericht. Ursula Krechel’s novel, based on archive documents about my father, won the 2012 Frankfurt Book Prize. She also used my autobiography written for schools, Person of No Nationality (published in 2010), as material for the Kindertransport aspect of her book.”
Writing of those troubled times proved something of a therapeutic release for Ruth, who says the difference with today’s rising anti-Semitism is that we are at least still a democracy.
“Nazism got rid of democracy very quickly by setting the Reichstag on fire and calling for a state of emergency,” she recalled, adding: “We’ve come a long way from the cave, but we’ve still a long way to go to reach civilization.”
I look forward to seeing the play. As yet, I have only read the script. According to Ruth, it has already been “brilliantly produced” in Liverpool by her son Barry. But she is keen for others to take it on, especially closer to London.