Kindertransport memorial unveiled

By Jonathan Wittenberg, December 2, 2011

On Wednesday in Hoek van Holland, in sight of the gangway where over 70 years ago they embarked for England and freedom, gathered tens of Kinder from all over the world.

They had come for the unveiling of a statue in commemoration of the Kindertransport. The bronze figures of children with their backpacks and cases relate closely to those previously fashioned by the same artist, Frank Meisler, himself a Kind, in Berlin, Gdansk and at Liverpool Street station.

In November 1938 the Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare told the British Parliament that no upward limit would be placed on the number of children from Nazi occupied Europe allowed into Britain, so long as their maintenance could be guaranteed by voluntary agencies and sponsors. 'Here is a chance', he said, 'of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible sufferings of their parents and friends'. It is humbling to consider that the agonising decision to send their children to a foreign land in the knowledge that they would very likely never see them again could have constituted some kind of mitigation of their suffering for those thousands of parents who are, perhaps, the real heroes of the Kindertransport.

Within days of this decision Norman Bentwich was sent to Amsterdam, where both the Dutch committees for Jewish and for non-Aryan refugee children assured him of their support. From the first transport on December 1st 1938 until the last, Dutch groups met every train at the border station in Holland, lining the platform and giving the tired and anxious children food and drink, before accompanying them to Hoek van Holland and seeing them safely on board ship.

On November 26 Norman Bentwich met Gertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a Christian member of the Netherlands Children's Refugee committee. He asked her to secure permission for Jewish children from Austria to join the transports. The head of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo in Vienna was Adolf Eichmann. A fearless woman, she managed to persuade him and obtain the necessary authority. The first group left from there on December 10.

Months later, when it seemed as if the last group of children to travel before the outbreak of war would be stranded in Germany, the same lady hired a bus and had them driven through small country roads into Dutch territory, phoning the port and telling them to hold the boat until they arrived. Those children reached Britain on 1st September. When Holland was stormed in the Blitzkrieg in May 1940, she brought over sixty children through the bombs to board the last boat bound for Britain at Ijmuiden.

When I mentioned Gertruida's name at the unveiling, one of the Kinder approached me. 'Forgive me', he said; for several minutes he couldn't talk because of his tears. 'I was one of those children. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here alive today.'

Thus the Kindertransport also belongs to Dutch history. After the ceremony I was told how people regularly leave flowers by the monument in Berlin. It will be interesting to learn how local Dutch people react and what memories from the war the statute in Hoek van Holland will stir. There is already talk of doing something at the border town of Venlo where the trains first stopped after leaving Germany. The Nazis were able to observe the local Dutch people helping the children and, when they later occupied the country, took their revenge on them for this act of humanity.

Last updated: 11:50am, December 2 2011