The characters who owned the portrait at the center of The Fortunate Ones are fictional, but the artist is very much real. Chaim Soutine was born in 1893, the tenth of eleven children in a small, impoverished Jewish village near Minsk. He managed to make his way to Vilna to study art, and then to Paris, in 1913, where he fell in with a group of émigré artists, most notably Amedeo Modigliani. He was said to be shy and volatile, prone to destroying his own work if he decided it didn’t live up to his expectations, and he struggled to eke out a living. In late 1922, the American industrialist Dr. Albert C. Barnes arrived in Europe on an art-buying spree. He saw a painting of Soutine’s in a Montparnasse gallery—a portrait of a young pastry chef—and fell in love. He snapped up dozens of works by Soutine, giving the artist much-needed funds and igniting his career.
In the 1920s, Soutine painted numerous portraits of people who often went unnoticed—waiters, cooks, and hotel employees—including several bellhops, on which the painting in my novel is based. Years later, during the German occupation, Soutine fled to the French countryside, moving from village to village, trying to stay one step ahead of Nazi officials. He died in 1943, at the age of 49.
Here’s a wonderful essay about Soutine by the journalist Stanley Meisler, who also wrote the book Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall, and the Outsiders of Montparnasse.
The trove of Soutine canvases that Albert Barnes purchased in Paris can now be seen at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Paris, visit the Musee de l’Orangerie, which houses the largest collection of Soutines in Europe.
The train that took my character Rose from Vienna to England as a child, and the rescue effort that behind it, is based very much in fact. On November 9 and 10th, 1938, an unprecedented wave of violence, instigated by Nazi officials, was unleashed against Jews across Germany. In the aftermath of what became known as Kristallnacht, a coalition of refugee aid agencies and preeminent British Jews implored the government to loosen its immigration regulations. By the end of November, 1938, Britain had agreed to take in an unspecified number of unaccompanied Jewish children, provided that the Jewish community would foot the bill. Britain was hoping that its gesture would nudge countries such as the U.S. to open its doors. In 1939, Senator Robert Wagner sponsored a bill to give refuge to 20,000 Jewish children, but after months of debate and opposition by groups who claimed efforts would take support away from the American-born, the bill died in committee. Britain’s effort stood alone.
Over the next year and a half, approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland were sent without their parents to live in Great Britain. They entered the country under temporary travel visas, living with foster families, with the understanding that they would return home once the threat of war was over. The vast majority never saw their parents again.
For more information, check out The Kindertransport Association, which has a wealth of information on the rescue movement.
The Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know more about the Kindertransport. There’s an accompanying book too, with an introduction by Richard Attenborough, whose family took in two Jewish refugees when he was a boy and raised the girls as part of the family.
Britain’s Imperial War Museum hosts a terrific online exhibit of objects that children brought with them on the Kindertransport.