MEG WAITE CLAYTON talks in Amsterdam

MEG WAITE CLAYTON at a John Adams Institute event

Last Train to London reaches Amsterdam  

In the 9 months preceding the outbreak of the Second World War, approximately 10 000 children, mostly Jewish, were sent via train from Europe to safety in Britain. Known as the Kindertransport (children’s transport), this incredible feat would not have happened without the help of fearless people like Dutch resistance fighter, Geertruida (Truus) Wijsmuller-Meijer. Strangely, her story is little known, even within the Netherlands. Truus’s role in this life-saving initiative is brought alive in Meg Waite Clayton’s new novel, ‘Last Train to London’. Already a best seller in the United States and Canada, Clayton was in Amsterdam last night at the John Adam’s Institute to celebrate the book’s release in Dutch – ‘Last Train to Freedom’.

Last Train to London is Meg Clayton’s seventh novel, but she admits that she has never felt such a strong attachment as she felt for Truus during the writing of the novel. ‘She’s everything I want to be when I grow up. I think she’s extraordinary!’ Clayton tells us. However there are many things which the American author agrees will never be known about this Dutch woman, in spite of meticulous research spanning more than a decade. The American writer had never heard of the Kindertransport until her normally upbeat son came home from school one day noticeably subdued. He had been involved in interviewing one of the Kindertransport survivors and was understandably moved by what he had learnt.

‘It didn’t start as a book but as an obsession’ – Meg Clayton

A History major at college, specialising in the Second World War, Clayton admits that she felt ashamed of her own ignorance on the matter and thus began ten years of research into the subject. ‘It didn’t start as a book but as an obsession’ she explains.  Done purely out of interest, she told us that for years she never considered the idea of using the research for a novel because, as a Catholic woman she didn’t feel qualified to tell what she saw as a Jewish story. She even went so far as to ask her publisher, who happens to be Jewish, if she knew a good Jewish fiction writer with whom she could share her research because she could see the potential for a great novel. She tells us that ‘it was only when I found Truus, that I began to imagine this could be my story.’ 

Nevertheless, having decided to pursue Truus’s story, it soon became clear that little had been written about her in either Dutch or English. Clayton tells us about her struggles with google translate as she copied and pasted documents in Dutch into the search engine. In particular, she discovered an out of print book, No time for tears, a short biography of Truus, written in Dutch. Only a couple of copies were available in the US, so the writer requested that some of the pages be copied and sent to her from the other side of the country and worked from there.

‘Facts really matter to me’ – Meg Clayton

Meg Clayton takes some trouble to explain to us the complexity of writing historical fiction. There are quite different requirements for purely historical research and the kind of research one does as a writer of fiction, she tells us. ‘One also has to accept that every time one does historical research, there are somethings one can find out and some things one cannot.’ For example, why Truus  was childless, is something about which Clayton can only speculate. Even though she is a writer of fiction, Meg Clayton points out that ‘facts really matter to me’. She gives us an example of the struggle she had to ascertain when, exactly, the first Kindertransport train left for London. Truus’s records said it was a Saturday but reports in the New York Times and the Times of London, said it was the following Monday. Finally she found corroboration for Truus’s date and went with that one. Examples such as these highlight the complex relationship between memory and history.

We heard too from Director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Ronald Leopold, who is familiar with ‘Truce the steam-roller’ as she was known, because of her work with Otto Frank. Ever practical, Truus, helped make Otto’s dream a reality by raising funds to save the house where the Frank family had lived, hidden, during the Nazi occupation. As a member of the Amsterdam city council from 1945 to 1966, Truus’s support was crucial to the success of this project. Described as ‘a real life hero, on the scale of Schindler’ who negotiated personally with Adolf Eichmann on behalf of the Jewish children of Vienna, her courage and unstinting devotion to her fellow human beings is certainly something that should be shared and celebrated. Meg Clayton says that ‘literature is the lie through which we feel the truth’. It is difficult not to feel the power of Truus Wijsmuller and the Kindertransport story in this novel.   Souwie Buis   23rd January 2020