Story of Suitcase

In the summer of 2008, Ros and Jane Merkin and Max Reinhardt, prompted by the 70th anniversary events to mark the first arrival of the Kindertransport in Britain, decided to commemorate the exact day, 2nd December. The Kindertransport began in November 1938, when the Government finally agreed to allow temporary admission for up to 10,000 unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who were at risk from the Nazis. Over the following nine months 9,500 children came to the UK and were taken in by foster families, hostels and camps, before the Kindertransport ended with the outbreak of war. The majority of the children saved never saw their families again.

One of those children was Jo Hacker, Ros and Jane’s mother, who arrived from Vienna with her two younger sisters, Paula and Melanie, in December 1938. They left behind their baby brother Max who at only 10 months of age was too young to come on the Kindertransport, and their parents Koloman and Franziska. They all died in the Holocaust.

After much discussion, it was agreed that the anniversary should be a site-specific promenade performance at Liverpool Street Station in London, the station through which the majority of Kind (the refugee children) passed after arriving at the port of Harwich. The station bravely embraced the idea of this fusion of theatre and music and less than four months after its conception, SUITCASE was born.

It was performed at Liverpool Street Station on 2nd December 2008 by drama undergraduates from Liverpool John Moore’s University and funded by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and David Baddiel, as well as donations from, amongst others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Marks and Spencer and ASLEF, and a number of private individuals. The limited audience places meant that it was hugely oversubscribed, and those who managed to secure a ticket had a unique and memorable experience:

“It was an experience we will never forget and was that much more remarkable for the originality in the production…It really deserves to be seen by many more people.”

Harry Bibring, Kind from Vienna and audience member

“Few theatrical presentations have moved me to such an extent or drawn me in. I feel privileged and fortunate for having seen it.”

Ruth Jones, audience member

“Thank you. You truly honoured those children, their parents and all who worked so hard to save and protect them. Suitcase was a tremendously emotional experience… a lot of resonance with the immigrant experience.”

Kath Wilgress, audience member

It has completely changed how I feel about Liverpool Street Station, too. Every time I go through it now I look for the children with their suitcases…It really feels as if the ghosts and emotions of the Kinder actually inhabit the station now, but in a comforting rather than an unsettling way.”

Julie Carr, Volunteer Organiser for Suitcase

“I was very moved by it, knowing almost nothing about the topic in advance, and then being surprised to learn that several people in my group had been children brought to London in 1938 and 1939. It was a wonderful performance…Thanks again for one of my favourite London theatre experiences this autumn/winter.”

Professor Joanne Tomkins, University of Brisbane, audience member

“Suitcase” helps to record for posterity the reality of what the Kindertransportee had to face, and reminds us to be sensitive to the needs of displaced and persecuted people more generally. “Suitcase” therefore leaves a powerful legacy that can be used in years to come to educate people about the dangers of racism and discrimination.”

Judith Hassan, Special Advisor, Therapeutic Services for Survivors of War Trauma

“It was a marvellous event – direct, touching, entertaining, dramatic and effective. I feel really good to have been even distantly associated with such a brilliant project.”

Chris Proctor, ASLEF

Click on the thumbnails to see performance photos from 2008:

Production photos © Gary Mitchell