Having a Jewish husband and a son with Down syndrome ensured Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin’s piece on the Kindertransport movement is particularly personal. It will be premiered in West Cork, writes
Kristallnacht: the term evokes images of horror and destruction. The pogrom that wreaked havoc on Jewish communities in Nazi Germany sent shock waves around the world following a grim night in November 1938.
The harbinger of the Holocaust set in motion a small exodus of children to safer areas. As Europe teetered
on the brink of war, 10,000 Jewish children were rescued by the Refugee Children’s Movement and sent to the relative safety of Britain.
A 15-year-old girl Lotte Kramer was one of the last to leave her home city of Mainz on one of the Kindertransport trains arriving in Britain with just a small suitcase and her nametag.
Like many of those children, she never saw her parents again, as they were among millions slaughtered in the Holocaust.
Northern Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin has chosen to mark the 80th anniversary of these historic events by setting poems by Lotte Kramer in her new song cycle Kindersang which will be premiered at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry next month.
Gribbin left her native Belfast in the 1990s to study in London, New York and Denmark. Now well established, she is hailed as one of the most original voices on the international composition scene.
Growing up in Belfast during the turbulent decades of the 1970s and ’80s, Gribbin had her own experiences of dodging bullets as she walked home from her convent school on the Falls Road.
She also has personal connections to the Kindertransport story. Her husband, distinguished theatre
director Lou Stein, is a New Yorker, a descendent of Hungarian Jewish emigrés. In 2016 he directed Diane
Samuels’ play Kindertransport for the Chickenshed Theatre Company in North London, a company noted for tackling social issues.
It was a new departure for Stein, founder of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, and Gribbin was at the opening.
“It was extraordinary,” says Gribbin. “At the post-show discussion survivors turned up with the identity cards from the trains they had travelled on. I wondered what kind of art came of that experience and I began to do some research and I realised that there were lots of stories.”
Over the next 18 months from her base in Bloomsbury, she delved into the archives of the British Library and the Holocaust Education Trust. Among the many stories and poems that she unearthed, it was the work of Lotte Kramer that spurred Gribbin into creating her own artistic response to the events.
Lotte, she explains, found herself living in the amazing home of the eccentric Irishwoman Margaret Fyleman, who was married to a retired Indian colonel.
“Margaret had studied singing in Berlin before 1914 and had fond memories of Jewish hospitality there. One of her daughters was an actress who frequently brought home cosmopolitan refugees and artists who entertained with renditions of Shakespeare, Dickens and Schubert. Lotte was divided between a fascination for this new bohemian world and a great homesickness and longing for her parents.”
Gribbin selected 11 poems to set in a song cycle crafting a narrative of Lotte’s journey from her home in Mainz to her life in England.
“I loved her work because although there is wonderful depth to her writing, there is nothing judgmental or condemnatory about the poems and they are very much about looking to the
The early settings are based on poignant childhood reminiscence. Walking after her mother in her fur coat. A frozen lake in England takes her back to a memory of holding her father’s hand on the frozen Rhine. The sense of fear around the events of Kristallnacht is present.
“The poem that I end with is the poet musing on what will become of the little suitcase in the attic stuffed with a mother’s love and heartache.”
By far the greatest motivator, she says, was her 12-year-old son Ethan, who has Down syndrome. “I often think what might have happened to Ethan had he lived in occupied Germany. Had he been lucky enough to survive, how would he have processed the separation if he was one of the Kindertransport children?”
It is not the first time that Gribbin has drawn inspiration from the events in world wars. To mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, she wrote a piece in memory of her great uncle Freddie Mitchell who survived the Battle of the Somme before succumbing to a premature death in a Belfast hospital.
The Devil’s Dwelling referred to a particular place of carnage for the 36th Ulster Division and was premiered at West Cork Festival in 2016 by the Israeli violinist Nurit Stark.
German soprano Caroline Melzer was in the audience that night and the seed was sown for a collaboration between singer, violinist and composer who all share a particular sense for the theatrical in musical performance.
Both Stark and Melzer will be back in Bantry to perform Gribbin’s Kindersang. The piece commissioned by West Cork Chamber Music Festival is programmed for future performances in London and Berlin.
Gribbin has also met Lotte Kramer, aged 95, at her home in Cambridgeshire.
“It was generous of her to grant permission to set the poems. On this 80th anniversary of the events of Kristallnacht, it feels like an important piece. There are so many resonances with events in Syria. Kindersang seeks to remind us that the courage of individuals can overcome the reluctance of authorities to address the suffering of refugees.”