May 2008 Journal
Uniqueness of the Kindertransport (review)
The attitude of a country to its refugees has always been ambivalent, and in this wide-ranging book Professor Tony Kushner explores this ambivalence by examining contemporary views expressed both in the media and by individuals. He also considers how historians have treated the influx of different groups of refugees in different periods. A theme encountered throughout the book is the perceived - but not necessarily actual - conflicting right of refugees to seek safety and that of the host community’s wish to preserve its identity. It is also suggested that the self-congratulatory reporting of Britain’s attitude to refugees does not always match reality. While the main emphasis is on Jewish immigration to the UK, the author also compares the influx of other groups of refugees, ranging from the Huguenots to those of the present day.
As is to be expected from an academic study, the book includes a comprehensive database of sources and references used, but for the general reader one of its most interesting, and at times poignant, aspects are the quotes from individual refugees and from those coming into contact with them. There are many references to reports from Mass-Observation, the organisation set up before the war to gauge the attitude and morale of the general population. The observations concerning refugees vary from the suspicious and even hostile to pride in the perceived welcome given by Britain to the poor unfortunates. In quoting from the diaries of individual Mass-Observers, it is interesting to see that even sympathetic native-born people have misgivings about the new arrivals. There are particularly interesting references and quotes relating to the many refugees employed as domestic servants.
An entire chapter is rightly devoted to what made the 1938-39 Jewish refugee issue unique: the Kindertransport. As in most of the book, the author concentrates on discussing material written about the subject rather than about the history of the Kindertransport itself, although this is well summarised. The entry into this country of nearly 10,000 children, without their parents, received much publicity at the time and most of it was favourable, even from some of the newspapers generally opposed to immigrants. Kushner notes that about 10 per cent of the Kinder subsequently wrote about their experiences, either for publication or merely for their families, and this exceptionally high percentage provides an invaluable record. He contrasts this with the almost forgotten story of the 250,000 Belgian refugees in the First World War where very few of them recorded their experiences. Examples are given of selective memory, where the welcome extended to the children and their gratitude are given considerably more emphasis than the negative aspects and the lack of reference to the parents left behind.
In his conclusions, Professor Kushner draws comparisons between the reported favourable treatment of past refugee movements, such as the Kindertransport, with the present attitude to ‘asylum seekers’. The use of refugees as scapegoats for perceived problems remains as evident at the present time as it was over 100 years ago.