"Austerlitz" - one man's odyssey through the traumas of 20th century history

When I was in London this summer, I found myself with some time to spare, waiting for a train at Liverpool Street Station. I made a point of going out to the small open space on the south side of the station, known as Hope Square. Here you will find a plaque and a monument to remember the children of the Kindertransports.

In the months just before World War II broke out, nearly ten thousand Jewish children were brought out of Germany and Austria to England. For most of them Liverpool Street was their first stop when they arrived in the train from the port of Harwich. After the Nazis marched into Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, several hundred Czech Jewish children also left for England, with the help of the British diplomat Nicholas Winton. Their family members who were prevented by the Nazis from leaving home nearly all perished in the death camps.

The moving story of the Kindertransports has inspired a number of films and books. One of the most powerful is the award-winning novel "Austerlitz", by the German writer W.G. Sebald, who, until his death in 2001, had lived for more than thirty years in England. The book is Jacques Austerlitz's journey into his own forgotten childhood. In late middle age he is seeking his identity in the fragments of his own and Europe's shattered history. The journey eventually takes him back to Prague, which he left with one of the Kindertransports in 1939.

Here is a short extract, where Jacques Austerlitz has just arrived back in the city, more than six decades after leaving as a four-year-old child:

And so, said Austerlitz, no sooner had I arrived in Prague than I found myself back among the scenes of my early childhood, every trace of which had been expunged from my memory, as long as I could recollect. As I walked through the labyrinth of alleyways, thoroughfares, and courtyards between the Vlasska and Nerudova, and still more so when I felt the uneven paving of the Sporkova underfoot as step by step I climbed uphill, it was as if I had already been this way before and memories were revealing themselves to me not by means of any mental effort but through my senses, so long numbed and now coming back to life....

In the course of the 20th century, the trauma of being violently uprooted has been shared by many, but because of their age, the experiences of the children of the Kindertransports stand out. Ruth Rulcova, like the fictitious Austerlitz in Sebald's novel, was sent from Prague to England as a little girl in 1939. In an interview for Radio Prague, she remembered back:

Nicholas Winton's kindertransport
"I don't remember much about the journey. It was a train journey and then on the boat. I do remember standing on the platform with a big label on a piece of string round my neck with my name. And then somebody claimed me, this strange couple, elderly people, with a grown-up daughter. And then I remember being taken by car to Portsmouth, and their daughter, who was 26 at the time, she had a cut-out book with the little princesses and she was teaching me the names of the princesses and the clothes because I didn't know any English."

The children found themselves having to adapt to a world that was completely unfamiliar. Some were welcomed warmly by their foster parents, some were exploited, and others were encouraged never to talk about their past. The central figure of Sebald's novel is brought up by the well-meaning, but cold and dour family of a Methodist minister in the rolling and damp hills of the Welsh border country. No-one in the household ever refers to his past, and it is only at boarding school, many years later, that he finds out that his name is not Dafydd Elias, after his adopted parents, but Jacques Austerlitz.

At first, what disconcerted me most was that I could connect no ideas at all with the word Austerlitz. If my new name had been Morgan or Jones, I could have related it to reality. I even knew the name Jacques from a French nursery rhyme. But I had never heard of an Austerlitz before, and from the first I was convinced that no one else bore that name, no one in Wales, or in the Isles, or anywhere else in the world.

Battle at Slavkov  (Austerlitz)
Like so much in this many layered novel, the name Austerlitz evokes many associations: on the one hand, as a surname it is identifiably Central European and Jewish; secondly Austerlitz has historical associations, as the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century, when in 1805 Napoleon defeated the combined forces the Austrians and the Russians. The battle took place just outside the little town of Slavkov in what is now the Czech Republic, reminding us again of Jacques Austerlitz's Czech roots, and also of the violence just below the surface of Central European history. And finally we are reminded of the novel's recurring preoccupation with the symbolism of stations, in this case the Austerlitz Station - the gare d'Austerlitz - in Paris. Stations are not just one of the symbols of the huge confidence of 19th century engineers, but they are also places of transcience, apprehension, and in the case of the Kindertransports quite literally escape. They haunt the story and Austerlitz's own search for his past. Here he is in Paris, near the end of the novel, when he is trying to find out more about his father's fate:

... part of the railway network had been paralyzed by a strike last Wednesday, and in the unusual silence which, as a consequence had descended on the gare d'Austerlitz, an idea came to him of his father's leaving Paris from this station, close as it was to his flat in the rue Barrault, soon after the Germans entered the city. I imagined, said Austerlitz, that I saw him leaning out of the window of his compartment as the train left, and I saw the white clouds of smoke rising from the locomotive as it began to move ponderously away. After that I wandered round the deserted station, half dazed, through the labyrinthine underpasses, over footbridges, up flights of steps on one side and down on the other."

Jacques Austerlitz's agonizing sense of isolation only seems to grow as time goes by. It is a feeling that we often encounter in the memories of real survivors of the Kindertransports. Here is Alice Klimova:

Nicholas Winton
"I was very fortunate because I came to a very pleasant young family. They took very good care of me. They had a four-month-old baby. I had absolutely no idea what had happened to the rest of my family. What happened didn't sink in. Only slowly, after I had my first child, did I realize what it means not to have parents - that means grandparents for my children, somebody to lean on. Absolutely nobody from my family survived."

Like Alice Klimova, Sebald's Austerlitz is left without relatives. He has no-one familiar to unlock the key to his lost early childhood. This only begins to change when he meets Vera Rysanova in Prague. He finds out the last address where his mother, an actress, had been living before the war. When he arrives there he meets Vera, still living in the apartment next door after sixty-five years. It turns out that she was a close friend of his mother before she was sent to her death in the camps, and had been the young boy's nurse. Vera recounts her memories to Austerlitz, and his own memories come flooding back - even his forgotten Czech returns. As he puts it, he feels "like a deaf man, whose hearing has been miraculously restored".

When memories come back to you, you sometimes feel as if you were looking at the past through a glass mountain, and now, as I tell you this, if I close my eyes I see the two of us as it were disembodied, or, more precisely, reduced to the unnaturally enlarged pupils of our eyes, looking down from the observation platform of the Petrin Hill at the green slopes below, with the funicular railway making its way upwards like a fat caterpillar, while, further out, on the other side of the city, ther railway train you always waited so eagerly to see is making its way past the row of houses at the foot of the Vysehrad and slowly crossing the bridge over the river, trailing a white cloud of vapour."

The scenes where Austerlitz gradually puts together the fragments of his childhood are among the most powerful in the novel, and if you know Prague, you will also relish some of the detailed and evocative descriptive passages. At times the sheer weight of detail can be suffocating, as each description re-inforces the sense of loss - of entire worlds that have disappeared for ever. In the end, Austerlitz's memory returns, but the world of his childhood, destroyed by violence, can never be brought back. Close to the end of the novel Sebald symbolizes this lost world as "a chasm, into which no ray of light could penetrate."

WG Sebald's Austerlitz may sound a pretty depressing read, but it is also often hugely uplifting, helped by Anthea Bell's excellent translation from the original German. As Sebald's fellow novelist Anita Brookner writes of his novels, "one emerges, shaken, seduced and deeply impressed."

Austerlitz was published in paperback in 2001 by Modern Library Paperbacks, New York.