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Sep 2011 Journal

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A history of the Kindertransports

The appearance of a history of the Kindertransports is an event of considerable interest to the many AJR members who were themselves Kindertransportees and to the wider community of Jewish refugees in general. Surprisingly, no proper academic history of the Kindertransports in English exists. The last comprehensive book on the subject, Barry Turner’s … And the Policeman Smiled: 10,000 Children Escape from Nazi Europe, was published by Bloomsbury in 1990. As its sometimes breathlessly urgent style and its sentimental title indicate, it was written by a journalist, not a historian. Though it remains a serviceable study, it is now showing its age. Nor does the more recent study in German by Rebekka Göpfert fill the gap.

Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport by Vera K. Fast, published in London and New York by I. B. Tauris in 2011, promises to be a welcome addition to the field. Fast, a retired archivist and historian from Canada, conducted much of her research at the University of Southampton, thanks to a visiting fellowship for study at the Hartley Library. Her discovery of the papers of Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, deposited at the library, led to one of the most striking features of her book, the inclusion of the transports of children brought over after the war as a final chapter in the Kindertransport story. For though Rabbi Dr Schonfeld had already distinguished himself by his efforts on behalf of the pre-war Kindertransports, his post-war exploits, in the absence of the government backing that had underpinned the earlier rescue scheme, were arguably his finest hour.

Historical purists may contend that the later transports composed of children who survived the camps or in hiding were not properly part of the Kindertransport initiative that sprang into being after the Home Secretary’s decision in November 1938 to allow 10,000 endangered children from Germany into Britain without the usual formalities of visas and passports. But the inclusion of the post-1945 transports makes possible a broadening of focus and a comparative dimension that Turner’s study lacks. The post-war transports may only have numbered hundreds, but they should not be wholly overshadowed by their now famous pre-war predecessors.

However, by adding the later transports, Fast is forced to reduce the amount of space devoted to the Kindertransports of 1938/39, which must form the main focus of any study of this subject. Whereas Turner devoted all 281 pages of his book, packed with detail from the files of the Refugee Children’s Movement, the main body responsible for supporting the children in Britain, to those who came in 1938/39, Fast devotes only 168 of her 198 pages to them. The result is, inevitably, a sketchier picture; Fast’s tendency to concentrate on such admittedly interesting minorities as Orthodox Jewish children and the Christian children designated as Jews under the Nuremberg Laws (‘non-Aryan Christians’) further reduces the amount of space devoted to the children of assimilated German- and Austrian-Jewish families, who were the large majority.

Given the amount of published research on the Jewish refugees from Hitler in Britain that has been carried out since Turner’s study appeared in 1990, it is disappointing that Fast gives the post-war period only some 20 pages, in her chapter ‘In Later Years’. This is plainly insufficient for a study of the settlement of the Kindertransportees over a period of some 65 post-war years, and it leaves much of their later lives in Britain and their interaction with the wider community of the refugees from Hitler in Britain uncovered. Indeed, Fast hardly seems aware of the existence of the large, active and vibrant community of refugees from Germany and Austria that developed in the post-war decades in areas like north-west London.

As if to prove that point, the AJR does not appear in the book’s index, rating a mention only in the list of abbreviations (!) and in a couple of footnotes. While Bertha Leverton features prominently, the Kindertransport organisation that she founded, now affiliated to the AJR as AJR-KT, does not. The now adult Kindertransportees appear, in Fast’s account, as atomised individuals left to cope largely on their own in a foreign land – ‘separated from their heritage and history’, as the blurb on the book’s inside cover puts it. This is hard to square with the avowed intention of the AJR, a body that numbered thousands of former refugees as its members, to preserve the precious cultural heritage of German Jewry.

Fast says nothing about any refugee organisations, social networks, publications or activities in which the former Kindertransportees might have participated - the Hyphen, for example, founded in 1948 precisely to cater for that in-between generation of refugees who had not reached adulthood in Germany, but who were too old on arrival in Britain to integrate seamlessly into British society. Fast’s lack of familiarity with the post-war refugee community also leads her to reach some very questionable conclusions, such as that it was ‘very unusual’ for former Kindertransportees to marry non-Jews; I would estimate that at least one in five did so. This book is a useful addition to its field, but a truly authoritative study of the subject remains to be written.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Cultural intermediaries