In 1939, in the shadow of Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia, six-year-old Milena Roth was sent away from her home and her loving parents and taken to safety by what came to be know as the Kindertransport, which rescued ten thousand Jewish children from the Holocaust and placed them with guardians in England. When she boarded the train in Prague, expecting to be reunited soon with her parents, Milena was aware of the danger and terror that surrounded her: "I knew I would die if I didn't go."
At the end of her long journey she found a xenophobic, racist society, "an anti-Semitic country in an anti-Semitic world." Milena settled into the household of her mother's English friend from the Girl Guides, who had agreed to take Milena in and who planned to bring her parents to England as well. She spent six uncertain years waiting for her parents and enduring her foster mother's complex ambivalence. Milena learned only after the war that her parents were deported from Czechoslovakia in July 1943 and died at Auschwitz.
Whatever the faults of Milena's guardian, she had been genuinely fond of Milena's mother and preserved her old friend's letters. These she gave to Milena, and they form the heart of this book. The first letter dates from 1930; the last, written less than a year before Milena's parents were captured and murdered, is heavy with "an air of despairing farewell," an understanding that escape was no longer possible.
As an adult, Milena Roth spent many years piecing together the fate of her family and making sense of her life. In this book, drawing on her mother's poignant letters and on her own memories and experiences, she recounts the challenges of integrating, in adulthood, the wounds and bereavements of childhood and of "regaining the confidence of my place in the universe that had been lost."
Milena Roth is a retired psychiatric social worker living in England.
"Lifesaving Letters is a moving, insightful work that brings out dimensions of the Holocaust that have been largely overlooked. In addition to conveying the difficulties faced by those few children who were rescued, it reveals the scope of the Nazi assault on the being of the Jew: for those children who were rescued often gained their lives at the cost of their identity, growing up with little sense of what a Jew is and therefore of who they are. Roth is painfully aware of this from her personal experience and does a masterful job of subtly conveying that ambiguity." - David Patterson, University of Memphis