I turned my great escape into art

As a child, Frank Meisler fled the Nazis on a kindertransport train. His sculptures of the journey came from gut feeling, he tells Debby Elley

By Debby Elley, June 10, 2009
Sculptor Frank Meisler

Sculptor Frank Meisler

The third and final phase of sculptor Frank Meisler’s project to commemorate the most significant journey of his life has just been completed with the unveiling of a bronze monument in the Polish city of Gdansk.

The life-size piece, titled Kindertransport — The Departure, is located at the city’s railway station and depicts a group of five hopeful Jewish children preparing to leave.

This was the exact place from which, in 1939, the 10-year-old Gdansk-born Meisler departed with 14 other Jewish children. In total, four Kindertransport journeys were made from city — Meisler’s was the last and saved his life. The day he left, German soldiers had already infiltrated what was then the Free City of Danzig. Days later, his parents were deported and Meisler never saw them again — they were taken to Auschwitz and died there.

The young Meisler continued his journey to Berlin, from where he travelled to London and was met at Liverpool Street Station by two maternal aunts, who subsequently raised him. “The last thing my father said to me was, make something of yourself. I promised my father at our last meeting in Danzig that I would go to university,” he recalls.

He kept his promise and obtained a degree in architecture, followed by a period working under Sir Frederick Gibbons on substantial projects including Heathrow, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and the mosque at Regent’s Park.

Trained during the post-war period at what he dubs a “very dry and arid time” for architecture, he relocated to Israel in the early 1960s and started sculpture as a hobby before changing professions for good.

Today, he enjoys a global reputation as a sculptor, with his work presented as state gifts to world leaders — five US presidents and former British PM Margaret Thatcher among them.

His three-part Kindertransport project came about after he was commissioned to make a Kindertransport-themed piece for Liverpool Street Station. The resulting monument was unveiled by Prince Charles in 2006 and depicts a group of pensive Jewish children standing with luggage on railway tracks.

The Kindertransport sculpture in Gdansk, one of three across Europe

The Kindertransport sculpture in Gdansk, one of three across Europe

“What I wanted to do was reconstruct in a railway station, where people are rushing to and fro all the time and have no time for anything except their agenda — a picture of what it was like for a group of children to come out from wherever they came and just confront a moment of transition,” he says. “We arrived on the train as children. When we stepped out we were adults, because we had then been handed the responsibility for our own lives.”

After the London statue was unveiled, he started discussing plans for a second commemorative piece at his departure point in Berlin. On November 30 last year, 70 years to the day when the first Kindertransport to Britain began, commuters at Friedrichstrasse Station witnessed the unveiling of his piece Trains to Life and Trains to Death. It depicts a boy and girl with luggage, moving with purpose towards the train that would save them. They stand with their backs to a group of five other children whose fate was very different.

“You cannot really recreate a sculpture showing the departure of the children, rather than the arrival as we did in London, without acknowledging that 1.6 million children didn’t make it,” says the artist.

The Gdansk monument was one of many projects he has worked on with long-time associate Arie Ovadia.

Meisler admits the works gave him sleepless nights. “These sculptures had more resonance with me than other things I’ve done. The other ones you do with your heart and you do with your head. These ones I did with my, as they say in Yiddish, kishkes — with my guts.”

Last updated: 8:07pm, June 10 2009