On November 9 1938, a Wednesday, at the age of seven years and eight months, I was standing at my bedroom window looking across the street where, some 25 yards away, the synagogue, the famous Schiffschul, was burning. Unknown to me, so were
22 other synagogues and some 60 shtiebls in Vienna alone.
Four-and-a-half weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, December 10, together with hundreds of other children aged from three to 17, I boarded a train and began a two-day journey that ended with a boat-trip landing us at Harwich.
The experience of these two events, the one arising directly from the other, certainly lends a certain perspective to one’s recollection and, 75 years on, some things, dimly perceived at the time and even more dimly understood, have become clearer.
In many cases, parents told their children that the separation would not be that long, that they would be joining them sooner or later. In fact, only some 3,000 of the 9,739 children ever saw their parents again. And certainly the older children, seeing the forced smiles and hidden tears, had some idea of what the parents were saying and especially what they were not saying.
There was a very considerable difference between the experience of the German and Austrian communities. The Jews in Austria had had a very real taste of the “Kristallnacht medicine” ever since the first hour of the Anschluss in March 1938. The norms of civilised or even semi-civilised behaviour had long since been abandoned in post- Anschluss Austria.
But, in Germany, things were very different. In his book, Last Waltz in Vienna, George Clare pointed out that, even after Kristallnacht, arriving in Berlin was like landing on another planet. You could actually go to a coffee house without encountering the ubiquitous Juden unerwünscht (Jews not welcome) signs — plastered everywhere in Vienna, but not everywhere in Berlin. The point is that, before Kristallnacht, life in Germany was very unpleasant, but dangerously bearable.
Which explains why, in the six years between Hitler’s coming to power on January 30 1933, and Kristallnacht on November 8 1938, out of 600,000 Jews, barely 100,000 had emigrated, whereas, after that watershed, apart from the children, approximately 140,000 managed to get out of Germany. Three hundred thousand did not.
So, to that extent, while Kristallnacht led directly to the death of 90 Jews, with a further 1,000 victims who succumbed to their treatment in Dachau and Buchenwald, where 30,000 had been immediately incarcerated, by making clear that there was no possible future for those who thought things couldn’t get worse, Kristallnacht actually saved lives. The flames of the burning buildings illuminated the writing on the wall.
What was truly irreplaceable, and hit the Jewish communities like a volcanic eruption, was the destruction, within 24 hours, of 200 synagogues, together with 750–800 shtiebls (buildings each capable of holding some 100 people,) and their contents, some 10,000 sifrei Torah, all of which signalled the end not just of religious life, but also the destruction, even for non-religious Jews, of their communal life in Germany and Austria.
There was one thing that both groups of Jews had in common — a frantic attempt to get their children away.
The first Kindertransport train left Berlin with 200 children on December 2. But it was the first train from Vienna, which left at about 11.45pm on a Friday evening, December 10, that had a direct bearing on a very old controversy. This dates from 1961, when Hannah Arendt, covering the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker magazine, coined the ineffable phrase, “the banality of evil”.
This refers to two of the most prominent points in Eichmann’s defence. What does Eichmann actually say? He says first, I was a mere cog in a wheel, concerned with efficient transport arrangements; second, I was following orders and, third, I had no particular animus against Jews, i.e. I would have transported Chinese or Hottentots if so ordered. It remains extraordinary that this hugely experienced journalist accepted Eichmann’s presentation at face value.
But it is the third of his claims that relates directly to the December 10 Kindertransport. The true story was revealed in 1968 by Vera Weismuller, the wife of a Dutch Catholic banker, and hugely involved in organising Kindertransports.
She arrived in Vienna on or about December 3, carrying with her the priceless permissions for 600 children to board the train for Britain. On arrival, she was immediately incarcerated in one of the cells in the infamous Hotel Metropole — the SS and Gestapo headquarters.
In the morning, she was ushered into the presence of Eichmann; but not before she was subjected to a “personal” search by two Gestapo women. He then asked her: “Do the children know that they are going?” When she replied “Yes”, he asked: “Do the parents know the children are going?” When she replied “Yes”, he said: “Then you may take the children, but there is one condition: they must travel on Saturday.”
At first sight, the order was so obviously aimed at those, probably about 50 per cent of the children, who came from Orthodox backgrounds, and one is tempted to say that, thank God, he was unaware that even the most Orthodox Jew is enjoined to set aside the laws of Shabbat for the purpose of saving life. But, of course, it wasn’t aimed only at the Orthodox; families who were certainly not observant still had a Friday-night family meal, and it was not a proper Friday night without their children, so they, too, were targeted by Eichmann’s order.
Now there are dozens of examples of Eichmann’s dedicated pursuit of Jews, in matters much more severe than an order to travel on Saturday. But one thing unites them all. The infliction of gratuitous pain is the common feature of all Eichmann’s actions, and is completely at variance with his claim of an absence of animus against Jews.
And what about the children once they got to England? When I addressed the who’s who of Anglo-Jewry on March 9 1988 at the Wiener Library, where we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, I felt obliged to point out that the Kindertransport did not represent Anglo-Jewry’s finest moment of glory.
In the nine months during which the children arrived, there were living in Great Britain, in varying degrees of affluence and poverty, some 125,000 Jewish families. Of the 9,739 children, about 4,500 were accommodated in hostels, 3,000 were offered a home by Jewish families, and about 2,300 were accommodated in non-Jewish households. Since the organisers tried their best to get Jewish children placed with Jewish families, 3,000 Jewish families offered to take a refugee child in, and 82,000 families did not.
Now it is certainly the case that many of these families could not afford to make the offer — but many could, and didn’t. It was this extraordinary refusal by so many to rise to the occasion that caused Chief Rabbi Hertz, in January 1939, to state that he wished he could say that he had found as much support in his work of rescuing Jews from Europe among the Jewish community as he had among many in the non-Jewish community. This makes the contribution of those British Jews who did put their shoulder to the wheel all the more praiseworthy.
This year, there have been many detailed accounts of the contribution which the children and the refugees generally have made, in every field of endeavour.
But there is perhaps one contribution that the Kinder made without their ever being aware of it. And it is this; when Chamberlain returned from Munich in September 1938, he was greeted and cheered as if he were a visiting Messiah. And yet, when the scales were finally removed from his eyes and he decided to confront Hitler after the occupation of Czechoslovakia on March 15 1939, he found that he had a majority of the British public behind him.
Now historians are quite clear that the reason for the abandonment of the policy of appeasement was, indeed, the occupation of Czechoslovakia. But that does not explain the complete change in public opinion. So what exactly were the major events that took place between September 1938 and March 1939? There were, in fact, only two: Kristallnacht and the Kindertransports.
What in fact happened is that the British public felt cheated. They thought they had signed up for “Peace in our time”. What they got instead was a pogrom in the heart of modern Europe, and a picture of children, including toddlers, walking down a gangplank at Harwich clutching their pathetic suitcases.
A feeling began to spread that “it’s not right”, and this may partly explain why it was that when Chamberlain declared war in 1939, and one year later when Churchill was left to fight that war, the climate of opinion had changed sufficiently for them to have a reasonably united nation behind them.
The two events may have played only a very small part in that change of opinion, but a part they surely played.