Karen's Way: A Kindertransport Life

By Lee Levitt, August 22, 2012
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Karen Gershon, the German-born writer and poet, was sent to England as a 15-year-old with her elder sister Lise on the second of the kindertransports in December 1938, after kristallnacht and the wider attacks on the Jews. Their maternal grandfather, the president of Bielefeld Synagogue, had been imprisoned by the Nazis in 1933 and died after being beaten up, while their parents, an architect and a housewife, were deported to Riga in 1941 - they never saw them again.

Karen's journey from the city in North Rhine-Westphalia, where as Kaethe Löwenthal she was brought up in a prosperous family that was impoverished by the Nazis, to a snowy holiday camp in Essex, then on to the Balfour family's home in East Lothian, followed by Edinburgh (where she became a soldier's wife), Leeds, Bristol, Israel (with her second husband) and back to the West Country, is movingly recounted in a powerful production, written by Vanessa Rosenthal.

Set in 1990 in a park in Bielefeld, the play is a sensitively crafted, historically detailed two-hander, with Rosenthal playing the older, wiser Karen - who was accompanied to her childhood home by an unseen television crew - and Lindesay Mace as the younger, initially bubbly but increasingly frightened, Karen. Rosenthal, who came across Gershon's poems in the 1980s, acts both as narrator and participant, comforting her younger self, dancing with her, searching an old broadsheet newspaper for jobs, and arguing with her about her wartime choice of a husband.

The action has the intimacy of a chamber piece, with Marion Raper on the piano and David Riley on the violin heightening the emotional impact of Karen's sense of excitement and later of displacement with a mixture of lively and dolorous pieces by Smetana, Berg, Dvorak and Britten, along with favourite 1940s songs, such as Doing the Lambeth Walk.

Rosenthal, a Bafta-shortlisted writer from Leeds, who put together almost half of the BBC Radio 4 drama series "Writing the Century", brilliantly conveys in German Jewish-accented English Karen's mixture of alienation, determination and desolation as she searches for a sense of identity amid the fragments of the past. While Mace is excellent as her shielded, idealistic, naive younger self forced to live through the trauma of being saved by being seemingly rejected.

theSpace @Venue45, until Aug 25

Last updated: 8:28pm, August 22 2012