The Last Train to London: A Novel
Geertruida “Truus” Wijsmuller-Meijer certainly deserves to be the heroine of a novel. The wife of a Dutch banker, she repeatedly risked her life between 1938 and 1940 to help rescue thousands of Jewish children from countries controlled or threatened by Nazi Germany.
The best parts of the new novel The Last Train to London are the scenes where Truus alternately charms and stares down Nazi officials to carry “her children” safely past the maze of border checks.
Right away in the first chapter, she notes that a Nazi guard who boards her train is “a young man, but not so young he might not be married, might not have children of his own.” Thus, when he asks to see the visas for the three children accompanying her, she says, with faux chattiness, “Children can be such a handful, can’t they? . . . You have children, Officer?” And when he admits that he and his wife are expecting their first baby, she continues, still oh-so-innocently, while ostentatiously fingering a ruby ring on her finger, “You have something special for your wife, to mark the occasion, I’m sure.”
Perhaps inevitably, the characters that prize-winning author Meg Waite Clayton has invented are nowhere near as fascinating as the actual Truus.
The story begins in the relatively peaceful winter of 1936–37, when Jewish families like those of teenager Stephan Neuman were still thriving in independent Austria. Stephan, a would-be playwright and scion of a wealthy chocolate-making family, is—as one character puts it—“besotted with” Zofie-Helene Perger, a Sherlock Holmes-quoting math prodigy whose mother, Kathe, edits an anti-Nazi newspaper in Vienna.
As the shadow of Nazism thickens, Truus volunteers with a group trying to rescue Jewish children from Germany. The Netherlands government, though, is increasingly reluctant to anger Hitler by granting entry permits.
The Anschluss of March 1938, when Germany took control of Austria, blasts this world to pieces.
Stephan’s family--including his invalid mother and his too-adorable little brother, Walter, who pretends that his stuffed Peter Rabbit is saying whatever Walter doesn’t want to say—are forced to live in the servants’ quarters of their grand ”palais” and then in the crowded Jewish ghetto. However, Stephan needs to hide further, in order to avoid conscription to a slave labor camp.
Meanwhile, Michael, the Christian husband of Stephen’s aunt Lisl, divorces her and takes over the chocolate business, and Zofie-Helene’s mother is arrested by the SS.
If Truus is to organize an Austrian kindertransport for these youngsters, she will need permission from Adolf Eichmann—in person.
The Last Train to London is wonderfully rich in details of the Austrian and Dutch political debates of the time, via the news articles by Kathe that are interspersed throughout the pages. As well, the novel shows how difficult the basic logistics were for the rescue organizers.
Even the most fraught rescues, however, start to drag down this book’s page-turning plot when there are two many similar encounters with Nazi guards, too much fretting by Truus’s husband, and too many repetitive discussions that move the action barely an inch.
Stephen’s Uncle Michael offers hints of interesting complexity. He claims that he’s taking over the family business in order to save it and keep it out of the Nazi government’s hands. Yet even before the German invasion, he had become increasingly alienated from Lisl and her “decadent” art collection, and more drawn to Nazi-approved propaganda art. Can he be trusted?
Many of the other characters, unfortunately, fail to develop beyond clichés: the spunky, smart schoolgirl; the sensitive boy who yearns to be a writer; the best friend who turns out to be a closet Nazi; the self-sacrificing dying parent.
But who needs vivid fictitious people, when there’s a real-life, strong, canny, loving heroine like Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer?