It is 25 years since the first reunion of former Kindertransportees was held in 1988, to mark the 50th anniversary of the initiative that brought nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories to safety in Britain between December 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939. It is a pleasure to report that the 75th anniversary of the rescue of the children is to be celebrated in June, with a series of events including the Kindertransport reunion itself, a reception to be hosted by Prince Charles and a symposium to be held at the German Historical Institute London.
The Kindertransports have also continued to attract the attention of scholars, as two recent important books on the subject attest. The first is a volume of essays entitled The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39: New Perspectives, published by Rodopi (Amsterdam) in 2012 as volume 13 of the Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies and edited by Andrea Hammel and Bea Lewkowicz (259 pp., €56). It consists of an introduction and 17 articles by scholars and others with special expertise in the field. Foremost among these are articles by those who came as children themselves: Hermann Hirschberger, a past chairman of AJR-KT, Ruth Barnett and Leslie Baruch Brent. Both editors also contributed articles, and I wrote the opening overview of the subject.
The other articles range widely over many aspects of the Kindertransports, some of them little known, like Jennifer Craig-Norton’s piece on the Polish children who came in three transports on the packet steamer Warszawa from Gdingen (Gdynia), Frances Williams’s on the further emigration of Kindertransport children initially resident in Scotland, and two articles on Kindertransport children in Australia and New Zealand. Professor Edward Timms, founder of the Centre for German-Jewish Studies, University of Sussex, contributes a comparative study of Kindertransportees and British children evacuated during wartime, while Nicholas Winton, famous as the saviour of children from Czechoslovakia, is the subject of an article by Jana Burešová. Several articles are devoted to the depiction of Kindertransport children in works of literature, including two on Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses, which has become something of a classic in its genre, and an impressive analysis of W. G. Sebald’s (unacknowledged) use in his fictional prose work Austerlitz of the memoirs of a real Kindertransportee, Susi Bechhöfer.
Caroline Sharples’s article on the Kindertransports in British historical memory is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, intended as a corrective to the self-congratulatory narrative with which the British now celebrate the Kindertransports and as a reminder of the darker aspects of the children’s experiences, often ignored in public discourse. The article by Cordula Lissner and Ursula Reuter presents a project intended to memorialise the children of the Jawne School in Cologne, about 130 of whom were brought to Britain before September 1939, while those who remained behind were deported in 1942, as was their inspirational headmaster, Dr Erich Klibansky. Bea Lewkowicz reports on the interviews with former Kindertransportees in the AJR’s Refugee Voices filmed interviews collection. Last but far from least, Hermann Hirschberger presents the findings of the survey Making New Lives in Britain, compiled from over 1,000 responses to a questionnaire sent to former Kindertransportees by Bertha Leverton, Ronald Channing and Hirschberger, and forming a valuable new source of detailed information.
Never Look Back: The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain, 1938-1945 by Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz (286 pp., $39.95), published in 2012 by Purdue University Press (West Lafayette, Indiana), is an updated version of an MA thesis written some 30 years earlier. The book is in many ways an impressive piece of thorough historical research and a painstaking reconstruction of the process by which the Kindertransport initiative came into being, of the organisational arrangements made for the children arriving in Britain, the machinery set up to cater for their needs (with varying degrees of success) and its functioning in wartime Britain. The book consists of ten chapters, divided into two parts, the first taking the story up to September 1939 and the second covering the wartime years, with a final chapter, ‘Epilogue and Memory’, devoted to the post-war decades.
Baumel-Schwartz begins by outlining the pre-history of the Kindertransports, ably illuminating for her readers the complexities of the process by which organisations were set up by Anglo-Jewry to assist the Jewish refugees seeking to escape from Nazi Germany to Britain. One of the qualities of the book is the author’s willingness to engage with the bureaucratic development of bodies like these, which tends to create friction within the organisations internally and between them externally. She is also concerned to analyse the motives and qualities that caused individual British people, Jews and non-Jews, to become helpers, taking on the often unpopular task of creating the organisational framework that enabled the refugees to enter Britain and, once admitted, provided them with the basic necessities of life.
It is gratifying to see recognition accorded to figures like Dorothy Hardisty, the remarkable but largely forgotten woman who in 1939 took over the key position of Executive Director of the Refugee Children’s Movement, the most important of the organisations set up to cater for the needs of the Kindertransport children. While acknowledging the exceptional contribution made by the Quakers to the reception of the children, Baumel-Schwartz devotes much of this section of her book to the Jewish helpers and the organisations they founded. She investigates the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council and the role played in it by the charismatic but divisive Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, demonstrating a confident command of the specifically Jewish issues at stake.
The emphasis on such issues is also to the fore in her chapter on Youth Aliyah, which takes in such centres as Gwrych Castle in North Wales and Whittingehame House in Scotland, where Jewish children underwent agricultural training so that they could emigrate to Palestine and contribute to the productive capacity of the nascent Jewish state. Of the three chapters that deal with the wartime years, one covers the evacuation of children from British cities and one the internment of ‘enemy aliens’, while one is given over to the question of the appointment of an official guardian for those children whose parents had perished in Nazi-occupied Europe. Baumel-Schwartz is highly critical of the appointment of a non-Jew, Lord Gorell, to this position; she regards this as a key defeat in ‘the battle for the souls of the Jewish refugee children in Great Britain’, caused by what she sees as pervasive British xenophobia and the failure of Anglo-Jewry to commit itself fully to the spiritual care of the children.
Missing here is any detailed account of the children’s daily life in wartime Britain, during the Blitz, participating in the war effort or as members of HM forces. I have shown in my history of the Jewish refugees from Nazism in Britain that the war was a major factor in integrating the refugees generally into British society; that, however, sits uneasily with Baumel-Schwartz’s view, as she would probably regard the very notion of a successful integration of Jewish refugees into British society as a contradiction in terms. Her evident distaste for Britain and the manner in which it received the refugee children may have contributed to her failure to research conditions in Britain as fully as one might like. To take just one example, she states repeatedly that British children were evacuated in September 1939 from urban centres to ‘the Midlands’, when the cities of the Midlands were, in fact, one of the principal areas from which children were removed. As anyone familiar with the history of wartime Britain knows, the Midlands were heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe: on 14 November 1940, Coventry suffered the best-known air raid on any British city outside London.
Baumel-Schwartz does not always seem familiar with the development of the community of the Jewish refugees from the German-speaking lands in Britain once they had settled here, perhaps because in this area she relies heavily on former Kindertransportees now resident in Israel and less on the far greater number who remained in Britain. How many of the latter would agree with the judgment that their ‘experience as recipients of His Majesty’s beneficence was “strange” and “sordid”, even if it did enable their survival’? Or that ‘large numbers of children developed pleasant but superficial relationships with their British contemporaries, which never [!] deepened into friendship’, a claim flatly contradicted by numerous interviews and memoirs?
Any scholar seeking to understand the Jewish refugees in Britain needs to have studied the AJR, their representative organisation since 1941, and its monthly journal, by far the best source of information about them. Baumel-Schwartz seems unaware of the journal’s existence, while her only substantive comment on the AJR is the curious statement that the Reunion of Kindertransports (RoK) ‘was eventually coopted by the Association of Jewish Refugees’ – as if those Kindertransportees had not in the main been AJR members long before the RoK was established. Two stars out of three for this book.