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Nov 2008 Journal

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The Kindertransports 70 years on

Later this month, on 23 November 2008, the seventieth anniversary of the Kindertransports that brought to Britain nearly 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia will be marked by a Kindertransport Reunion. The original organisation representing the former Kindertransport children, the Reunion of Kindertransport, established largely through the remarkable energy of Bertha Leverton, is now a special interest group of the AJR, known as KT-AJR; it has been chaired by the late David Jedwab, Hermann Hirschberger and now by Erich Reich.

It was the so-called ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom, launched by the Nazis on 9-10 November 1938 against the Jews, that led to the Kindertransport initiative. In this country, public revulsion at the brutal state-inspired violence unleashed against Germany’s Jewish community put great pressure on a reluctant British government to respond with humanitarian measures to the desperate plight of Germany’s Jews. On 15 November a high-powered delegation from the Council for German Jewry, consisting of Viscount Samuel, Viscount Bearsted, the Chief Rabbi, Neville Laski, Lionel de Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann, called on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and proposed, among other measures, the admission into Britain of children under the age of 17; the figure of 10,000 seems to have come from a separate offer by the Jewish community in Palestine to take in that number of Jewish children from Germany – an offer unacceptable to the government, which wished to restrict the entry of Jews into Palestine.

Chamberlain had not responded encouragingly to the Jewish delegation, but the Cabinet, meeting on the following day, 16 November, decided that the government must take immediate steps ‘to deal with the Jewish problem’. With organised political pressure on the government mounting, a full-scale debate on refugee policy took place in Parliament on 21 November, during which the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, announced that the Home Office would give entry visas to all child refugees whose maintenance could be guaranteed. The Home Office subsequently dropped the requirement for visas and passports, substituting a single document bearing the child’s details, while in 1939 the government also had to take over the financial burden of the children’s maintenance from the Jewish organisations, which had initially offered a guarantee that the children would not become a charge on the Exchequer.

The Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later known as the Refugee Children’s Movement, under the joint chairmanship of Sir Wyndham Deedes and Lord Samuel, was responsible for organising the emigration and, through local committees across Britain, for the allocation of the children to hostels while they waited to be placed with foster-parents, were joined by their parents, or were old enough to support themselves. On 8 December, former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made a broadcast on behalf of the Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees, which raised the very considerable sum of £500,000 from the public, though not all of it was for Kindertransportees; the Refugee Children’s Movement, desperately short of funds, did not receive its allocation of £200,000 until April 1939.

In Germany, the lists of children to travel on Kindertransports were drawn up, under great pressure, by the Jewish communal organisations. It was no mean achievement that the first transport of 200 children arrived at Harwich from Berlin as early as 2 December 1938. The first transport from Vienna, where conditions for Jews were much worse, left on 11 December, largely through the courage and initiative of a non-Jewish Dutchwoman, Gertrude Wijsmuller-Meijer, who had flown to Vienna and on 5 December had confronted a startled Adolf Eichmann; he decided that a transport of 600 children should be allowed to leave, though in the event they left in several parties. The trains left from stations in major cities, like Berlin, Vienna and later Prague, sometimes stopping to collect children from smaller towns, and travelled via Hook of Holland to Harwich, where the children either continued on their way to Liverpool Street Station or were accommodated at camps, like the nearby Butlin’s holiday camp at Dovercourt on the Essex coast or Pakefield in Suffolk. A small number came by ship from Hamburg to Southampton.

It is hard to convey in words the distress of parents forced to send their children away as the only means of saving their lives, or that of children separated from their parents. All too often, a brief farewell at a railway station was the last memory that the children would have of parents who stayed behind. The Nazi authorities, with characteristic callousness, decreed that the leave-taking must not be ostentatious, claiming that visible public gatherings of Jews and displays of emotion would arouse the righteous wrath of the Aryan population; for that reason, transports often left by night, sometimes from outlying stations. While some children saw the journey as an adventure into new territory, the majority were frightened and deeply distressed. Common to almost all their accounts of the journey are their overwhelming sense of relief on crossing the border to Holland and their gratitude for the warm welcome they enjoyed there, in contrast to the treatment they had endured in Germany.

After the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Jewish children in Czechoslovakia also came under threat, prompting the young stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who had travelled to Prague, to take measures to save them; by defying the Nazis as a private individual, he did so at considerable risk. Starting in early 1939, ‘Britain’s Schindler’ organised eight trains that brought 669 children to safety in Britain. Once the Germans had occupied the remainder of the Czech lands in March 1939, Winton could no longer travel to Prague, but he continued his rescue work from London and the trains continued to leave. The ninth transport, with 250 children aboard, was due to depart on 3 September 1939, but was prevented from leaving by the outbreak of war that day.

The impact that this forced emigration had on the Kindertransportees differed enormously from child to child, varying according to the almost infinite permutations of individual experience, character and temperament, and sheer chance. The Kindertransports are now celebrated as a success, and to some extent this is justified: 10,000 children – probably not far short of 10 per cent of all Jewish children living in Germany and Austria in 1939 – were saved from the gas chambers, and many of them went on to live happy, productive and successful lives. But one must not underestimate the unhappiness that also affected many of the Kinder in Britain. The strange and often frightening world to which they escaped as young children was, unavoidably, very different from that in which they had been growing up, and many of them never entirely overcame the shock and disorientation of the rupture.

As children, they were also heavily dependent on the adults immediately around them, in foster families, schools or hostels. Young children in foster families sometimes encountered warmth and love; it is hard not to be moved by the pages of grateful tributes to such benefactors published in the brochure that accompanied the 60th anniversary celebration of the Kindertransports. But equally, other children suffered emotional neglect, even abuse, from unsuitable foster-parents. The pain endured by children who were placed in ill-suited or uncaring homes, thus accentuating the trauma of the loss of their parents, comes across vividly in the books that record their memories, as does the difficulty they had in adapting to the largely indifferent and uncomprehending society around them. The older children accommodated in hostels sometimes fared well; hostels like the cluster that grew up in the Willesden Green area of North-West London could create a happy environment where a supportive communal spirit developed.

The admission of so many Jewish children has come to be celebrated as a triumph of British liberalism and humanity. But that view is not wholly in accordance with what historians have discovered about British government policy and decisions relating to the Kindertransports, for example the government’s refusal to spend public money on the children, which it maintained tenaciously until forced into a reluctant U-turn in 1939. It is often argued that the Kindertransports were set up as a guilty reaction by Britain to its shameful abandonment of Czechoslovakia at Munich – though quite how the Czechs were to be compensated by the rescue of Jewish children from Berlin or Vienna is unclear.

However that may be, official British attitudes to the plight of the Jewish refugees from the Reich were marked by a degree of unfeeling indifference, bureaucratic obstructionism and a general dislike of ‘alien’ immigrants, especially Jews, even in the years 1938-39 when Britain was admitting those refugees in considerable numbers. The Kindertransportees themselves, understandably, tend in the majority to emphasise their gratitude to Britain and to praise the generosity of their adopted homeland in rescuing them from Nazism and providing the conditions under which they could build new lives. But that does not mean that the British establishment, too, is entitled to bask in a self-congratulatory celebration of its humanity towards helpless asylum-seekers 70 years ago.
 

 

Anthony Grenville

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