A fascinating story of a forgotten part of the holocaust legacy.
When filmmaker Melissa Hacker was growing up, she always sensed that her mother Ruth Morley was special. It wasn't because of her artistic talent or the fact that she worked in the film industry as a costume designer for several decades (she handled said duties on everything from 1960's The Hustler to 1990's Prince of Tides). Indeed, the most startling thing about Ruth Morley's life is that it almost ended just as it was beginning. She was born in Austria and lived there with her Jewish parents until she was 13. Hitler was rising to power in Germany and the threat of war was in the air over Europe. When her father was arrested for nothing more than his religious orientation, the family feared that the rumored deportation, or even death, would be the next entity to darken their door. Ruth was placed on a train to the only country that would accept Jewish refugees, Great Britain, and she, along with thousands of other youngsters from the Continent, became part of the legendary Kindertransport, a sort of ethnic Underground Railroad that saved hundreds of Jewish and other branded youths from the horror of the Third Reich's concentration camps. And as Melissa discovered this fact about her mother and discussed it, she learned that there were other "survivor" stories out there just waiting to be told. Thus the concept of My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports was born, a chance to interview many who fled on the last train out of terror.
Sometimes, the documentary format works in mysterious ways. We often forget that the most personal story can also be the most dramatic or emotional and we expect that big events—like a World War—need universal incidents of infinite power to define their importance. But in My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports, we can see almost every facet of World War II, from Nazism to the Final Solution, in the very human stories of the last living Kindertransport, the Eastern European children sent away by their parents to avoid Hitler's juggernaut. There is the evil of the Reich's "relocation" and ghetto agenda, the lack of cooperation from the rest of the West (perhaps the most devastating statement in this film is the one regarding America's desire to accept refugees and how the legislation permitting said died in Congressional committee. Nice.), and the undeniable stench of anti-Semitism (even among some of the British) flowing between the very personal and private recollections. We understand that, for many, the Kindertransport program was a last ditch effort, a chance to keep young ones out of the certain death of the Nazi machine. But we also learn that while exile meant good times for some, others suffered a far more troubling reality. Just because they were free, didn't mean they were safe…or wanted.
In retrospect, the Kindertransport was a decent enough idea in theory. Had it been more widespread and less limited (meaning parents could easily travel with their children), more families could have stayed intact and a few less Holocaust horror stories would exist. But in practice, this one-way ticket into the unknown ended up branding these children as clearly as a prison camp tattoo. What wasn't accounted for was the guilt, the unending sense of loss that survivors would feel once they learned of the fate of those left behind. Several of the stories in My Knees Were Jumping focus on the feelings of blame many of the Kindertransport feel. One in particular, Erika Estis, lives with a cloud of confusion and depression over the idea that she was sent away and lived while the rest of her family was taken in and gassed. Her children call her a Holocaust survivor, but the label doesn't quite fit. She suffered more prior to leaving her homeland than she ever did afterward (her painful memories of childhood harangues still have a haunting, bitter power). She was never in any real danger of becoming part of Hitler's answer to the Jewish problem, and yet the fear of what happened to so many of her fellow Jews washes over her in a paralyzing fear. Ruth Morley also has a similar reaction. Her family situation was radically different, and yet she too acknowledges a sense of shame for not being there with them as they went through the terrible trials and tribulations.
If My Knees Were Jumping fails at all, it is in the lack of an expansive canvas. We basically focus on three or four people and their families (Ruth included), and we never get the broader picture of what really happened to the majority of the refugee children. Also, the grown offspring of the Kindertransport get a little too much screen time to air out their displaced angst and overly simplistic idealism. Yes, they "sensed" their parents were different. Some even claimed to experience an exile nightmare in their own dreams. But honestly, some of what they say seems like intellectualized gobbledygook, a way of imposing themselves upon their parents and suffering right alongside. It does a disservice to the Kindertransport and the memory of those who died in the Holocaust in general to hear these non-heroes' harrumphs. Luckily, it only happens on a couple of rare occasions (you can almost see the look of embarrassment cross the face of the speaker when they realize what they just said) and, for the most part, My Knees Were Jumping is engrossing, engaging, and highly emotional. This tale of a forgotten facet of the War in Europe and the plight of the Jews is a welcome addition to the great history of that conflict. It's too bad that, sometimes, the stories are so harrowing that eavesdropping in on them becomes almost unbearable.
Digitally, if the DVD release by Docurama and IFC of My Knees Were Jumping lacks one thing, it is a director's commentary. Melissa Hacker has a few words to say through out the course of the film, but the movie was made so long ago that to hear her speak about it through a fresh perspective of time and increased exposure would be interesting. Sadly, the disc offers no such extra, just a brief biography and some product trailers for other titles. This is business as unusual for the documentary DVD maker, since they usually load up their presentations with some manner of filmmaker involvement. Still, they do give us a very nice, quality image (looking clean and sharp in 1.33:1) and a distortion-free soundtrack.
However the presentation here of My Knees Were Jumping feels like the tip of the iceberg. Buried inside any overwhelming event—in this case a war—there are dozens of smaller stories that do and equally evocative job of telling the tale. It took bravery, heart and a fair amount of naïve optimism to take the trains from the East and travel across unfriendly terrain and into the arms of strangers. Yet the Kindertransport did this very thing and most lived to tell about it. My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports is a wonderful, wounded documentary and a fitting testament to the spirit of man to sacrifice and survive.
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