Jun 2011 Journal

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British Quakers and the rescue of Jewish refugees

Contrary to contemporary public perception, the doors of the world were usually firmly closed to refugees desperate to escape the fascist regimes of Franco and Hitler in the 1930s. The British government, worried by unemployment, anti-Semitism and xenophobia among the British population, refused visa applications from anyone who could not meet one of the following criteria: prove they were financially self-supporting; produce a valid offer of work, usually as a domestic servant; or provide evidence they had been offered a £50 guarantee by a British benefactor to ensure they would not be a drain on the British economy.

The exact number of refugees who reached Britain by these means is unknown, but it is estimated that up to 80,000 refugees, including up to 20,000 domestic servants, of whom three-quarters identified as Jewish, were living in Britain in 1939.

The one exception to the government’s policy was the Kindertransport, which was arranged after the horror of Kristallnacht in November 1938 as a special case to allow 10,000 unaccompanied children into Britain. The success of the Kindertransport has rightly been commemorated. What has not been fully acknowledged is the role of the British Quaker community in organising, financing and administering both the Kindertransport and a range of services designed to rescue and support refugees.

The events of Kristallnacht made it very clear that Jews were in immediate danger if they remained in the Reich. As it was not safe for British Jews to travel to Germany to assess the situation, the Friends’ Service Council, which had been working closely with Jewish refugee organisations, immediately sent a team of six volunteers to Berlin. Based on the Quaker report, a delegation of Jewish leaders pleaded with Neville Chamberlain to allow unaccompanied children into Britain. He refused. Undeterred, on 21 November, a joint Quaker and Jewish delegation which included Bertha Bracey, Ben Greene, Norman and Helen Bentwich, Wyndham Deedes and Lord Samuel, successfully lobbied Home Secretary Samuel Hoare, who was from a Quaker family, to allow unaccompanied children to enter Britain provided the Home Office’s only responsibility would be ‘to give the necessary visas and to facilitate their entry into this country’.

The Kindertransport brought nearly 10,000 children to safety in the next eight months, with Friends from the Quaker centres in Berlin and Vienna working with local Jewish organisations to draw up lists of children, fill out reams of paperwork, supervise departures and chaperone journeys.

Forbidden to take funds out of the Reich, many adult refugees were almost destitute on arrival in Britain. In order to enable them to earn a living, the Society of Friends established a number of retraining camps in which refugees were provided with board, lodging and training in agriculture to assist them to find work. Scores of free or subsidised hostels across the country provided small communities of refugees a base from which to build new lives.

The unaccompanied children of the Kindertransport were placed mostly with families for foster care, in small hostels or in boarding schools. Many schools offered full or partial scholarships to refugee children, with additional bursaries towards clothes and books. Quaker boarding schools were particularly active in supporting children and up to 1,000 refugee children attended Quaker schools before the end of the war.

The fundraising, administrative and caring responsibilities undertaken by Quaker volunteers during this period were overwhelming. There were only around 20,000 members of the Society of Friends in Britain in the late 1930s and evidence suggests that nearly every Quaker household contributed towards refugee relief in some way; whether serving on a local refugee committee, fostering a child, contributing to a local hostel, or donating funds.

Peter Kurer, a retired dentist in Manchester and formerly a child refugee from Vienna, credits Quakers with saving his life and the lives of nine members of his family, including his 91-year-old great-grandmother. He has spent many years researching the role of Quakers in rescuing refugees and has estimated the total number of Jews saved by Quakers as 27,000. This figure has yet to be substantiated - and, owing to the lack of documentary evidence, it may not be possible to determine an exact number - but it stands as a compelling testament to the work of the Friends. It is thanks to Peter Kurer’s dedicated work that Yad Vashem last year added the Society of Friends to its archive.

British and American Quakers were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work with refugees and relief in 1947. It was accepted on behalf of the Friends’ Service Committee by Margaret Backhouse, whose acceptance speech sought to sum up the attitudes of the Quakers: ‘There is not peace in the minds of men and there will not be until we have replaced misunderstanding by sympathy - fear by trust - jealousy and hatred by love. This is a very difficult job when thought of on the world-wide scale, but it is not so difficult when we think in terms of individual responsibility. This is the task before us, not only of the Society of Friends but of all mankind. Love is very infectious and if Quakers have started the infection they will rejoice.’

A new research project at the University of Sussex is examining the involvement of Quakers in refugee rescue and relief. The three-year project was generously funded by Dr Alfred Bader, in testament to the contribution of Professor Edward Timms to the Centre for German-Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex.

Any memories, documents or observations would be very welcome. Please contact Rose Holmes, postgraduate researcher, at r.holmes@sussex.ac.uk or telephone me on 01273 877178 or write to me C/O Centre for German-Jewish Studies, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9QN.

Rose Holmes

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