JWS and Walter Kammerling, a Kindertransport Survivor, at Ayot 2011
A couple of weeks back, I appeared at a festival at Ayot. (That sounds a bit like I’m a wizard. But I kind of like it.) I read from my new novel, The English German Girl, which is about the Kindertrasport. I’ve done quite a lot of readings recently while promoting the book. But this one was different. Appearing on the stage alongside me was Walter Kammerling, a Kindertransport survivor whom I interviewed six years ago, when I was just starting to write the novel. Walter was whisked out of Vienna at the age of fifteen, which is the same age as my protagonist, Rosa, leaves Berlin.
Needless to say, it was an honour to share a platform with such a courageous and inspiring man. At one point, the host, Fiona MacIntosh, asked me to read a few paragraphs from the novel. Then she turned to Walter. “Did that extract ring true?” she asked. “Has Jake accurately captured the mood of the period?” There was a long pause. This was, as they say, the 64,000 dollar question. (What does that phrase actually mean? 64,000 dollar question? Should I google it? Can’t be bothered.) Anyway, my heart was in my mouth. Walter took a breath. “Yes,” he said, decisively. “Jake captured the atmosphere very well.” Relief doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt at that moment.
At the same time, what I felt was deeper than relief. Walter had brought home to me more vividly than ever before the greater meaning of my novel, which is to keep the memory of the Kindertransport alive in the minds of future generations. Or, on an even more fundamental level, to allow people to empathise with the persecuted and oppressed. Walter had travelled halfway across the country to appear at Ayot, determined – even at the age of 91 – to spread his message of pluralism and tolerance. My book, in some very small (and perhaps incomparable) way, is contributing to this effort.
After the event, there was a signing. A few people asked Walter to sign the novel as well. Before long this became the form; I would sign it, then he would sign below. I was humbled. This seemed to be exactly the right way to end such a very unique event.