Sited between a KFC, a Coca Cola stand and a sign pointing to MacDonalds, Frank Meisler’s powerful bronze tribute to Kindertransport, The Departure, erected at Gdansk Glowny station in 2009, resonates with the power of innocence. It is one of several public memorials in which Meisler depicts children with varying expressions, surrounded by luggage. The children stand or sit on their suitcases with a mixture of hope and anxiety. Symbolically there is a violin. The youngest child carries a teddy bear. The tallest girl wears a frilly blouse.
Three years earlier, The Arrival was erected at Hope Square in London’s Liverpool Street station. Trains to Life – Trains to Death came to Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station in 2008, and Crossing to Life to the Hook of Holland in 2011. Here, the young faces share a touch of defiance, while the Berlin sculptures are sadder, more reflective. In May 2015, Meisler erected the fifth and final Kindertransport group, The Final Parting in Hamburg. Its name conveys the ultimate bitter truth.
These monuments to children waiting at an alien station could not have come from the hand of a more appropriate artist. Because this was Frank Meisler’s journey. The artist, who has died aged 92, was born in Danzig and reached England in August, 1939, on one of the last Kindertransports, travelling with 14 other Jewish children via Berlin to Holland and then to Liverpool Street. All his monuments are the staging posts to his own salvaged childhood and point to the personal experiences he would use in his later life as an artist.
Meisler learned that his parents were arrested three days after his departure, sent to the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered at Auschwitz. Today, his public sculptures have been erected in a plethora of international capital cities, and his work remains on permanent view in galleries in Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv, New York, Moscow and Kiev.
But as a lonely 14-year-old arriving in a strange country, Meisler was fortunate to have a grandmother in London who brought him up. He was educated in Harrow, and after national service with the Royal Air Force, he studied architecture at the University of Manchester. One of his first jobs was helping in the construction of Heathrow Airport.
Meisler’s gift for expression, movement, detail and a sense of revelation finally led him to Israel in 1960, where he lived and worked in the Old City of Jaffa. He has spoken of “the opening and closing of the doors of life.” Apart from his Kindertransport sculptures, his public works include a memorial to David Ben Gurion in Israel and Eternal Kiev in Kiev.
He designed the interior of the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue in Moscow, and sculptures for Russia’s National War Memorial. Some of his tributes to Jewish victims of the Holocaust tend to be more Modernist, evoking the despair of tortured humanity, such as his memorial of the death march in Dachau of Jewish prisoners. Other works from his Israel studio are whimsical in detail. Commissions came from several Israeli Prime Ministers and other heads of state to create limited editions or individual sculptures, some designed as presentation gifts.
His autobiography, On the Vistula Facing East, was published in 1996 by Andre Deutsch, and has been reprinted.
Meiser received the Franz Kafka gold medal in 1999 from the Czech Academy of Art. He was made an honorary academician by both the Russian and the Ukrainian Academies of Arts in 2002, and he was awarded the Federal Republic of Germany’s Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 2012, in recognition of his services to German-Jewish and German-Israeli relations.
The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), which co-commissioned the Liverpool Street monument with World Jewish Relief, expressed deep sadness at his passing. His friend and fellow Kind, Sir Erich Reich, chairman of the AJR-Kindertransport special interest group, praised his great wit and wonderful sense of humour.
“Frank leaves us a rich legacy of memorials, sited across European cities from where the Kinder travelled to England. Frank was always keen that the local communities be thanked, especially so in England to which he was eternally grateful.
“In this special year, when we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the creation of the Kindertransport, his absence will be keenly felt but he can rest knowing that his great works remain appreciated every day.” He is survived by his daughters Michal and Marit and five grandchildren.
Frank Meisler: born December 30, 1925. Died March 24, 2018