Don’t fall for myths about welcoming refugees

Support for Ukrainian refugees contrasts with the treatment of those fleeing Germany


2nd December 1938: Some of the 5,000 Jewish and non-Aryan German child refugees, the 'Kindertransport', arriving in England at Harwich from Germany. (Photo by Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

May 16, 2022 14:23

The overwhelming support for Ukrainian refugees appears almost in defiance of the government’s delay in issuing visas. Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who launched his “Ukrainetransport” in March, says he has “stopped counting” after receiving offers from nearly 1,000 households to host families.

But it begs the question: were British families always so welcoming to refugees? Did the refugees from Nazi Europe, including the 10,000 Kindertransport children in the late 1930s, receive an equally warm response?

Of course, times were different then. The media spotlight today falls on a Ukraine facing utter devastation in plain sight, but during the ’30s and ’40s there was no such media attention, no TV and, of course, no social media.

In pre-war Britain, Jewish children were helped to resettle through World Jewish Relief and the Quakers. But did Jewish people as individuals hold out their arms to the children?

There is an assumption that Jewish refugees were welcomed with a tolerance seen as a beacon of Britishness, according to the Refugee Council. But many historians have debunked this. For instance, Louise London, in her definitive account of British immigration policy and the Holocaust, Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948, says the process was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews — perhaps 10 times as many as it let in. Some 70,000 Jews had been admitted by the outbreak of war, including 10,000 children, but British Jewish associations had some half a million more case files of those refused.

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Jewish and Quaker leaders explored ways with the British government to help Jewish children reach safety in Britain without visas.
Louise London disputes the idea pre-war Britain was a haven for those fleeing brutality.

“We remember the touching photographs and newsreel footage of unaccompanied Jewish children arriving on the July, 1939, 7,700 had arrived…There are no such photographs of the Jewish parents left behind in Nazi Europe.”

In their book, Refugees in an Age of Genocide, Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox write: “Of all the groups in the 20th century, refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as ‘genuine’ but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovak Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility, as well as sympathy.”

Girls too old for Kindertransport were only given domestic visas and the Jewish community had to guarantee the expense of accommodation and maintenance; there was a residual fear that they might threaten British jobs.

But did the prevailing attitude of suspicion towards refugees filter into the minds of the communities who could help them? Many Jewish organisations, the Quakers and staunch religious educationalists like Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, helped rehabilitate the children but there remains a question: why didn’t families themselves offer their homes, rather than leave them in institutions?

It is a question that has disturbed Jennifer Steinberg (not her real name) all her life. She recalls growing up in Sunderland near the hostel, known as Kensington Esplanade, run by Rabbi Schonfeld. It was home to 27 Kindertransport girls.

“My brother and I were shocked to find there were these 27 girls and nobody had taken them into their families.” Steinberg feels that the community’s “well-heeled” residents could and should have absorbed these children into their families.

One of the girls was accepted into a household but she was kept away from the rest of the family, “This girl was referred to, very cruelly, as ‘the refugee’.

“I assume she was German. My mother’s friends were bitchy as hell about her and the story was they took her in because they needed someone in the house as they were out at work all day.”

Jennifer Steinberg considers there may have been some unconscious bias against the refugee girls. “I definitely picked this up as a child and teenager — a way of speaking about refugees in a very negative way. Being a refugee was a lowly position, regardless of who you were, regardless of whether your parents were concert pianists or brain surgeons”.

One of the girls in that hostel, Daisy Roessler-Rubin, who passed away in 2011, praised the Sunderland hostel, which reminded her of the TV series, Upstairs Downstairs. In a 2011 memoir in AJR Journal, she described her journey from Berlin in 1939 at the age of 12, amid the tears, the little girls clinging to their mothers and hugging their treasures – dolls, teddy bears and photos.

She recalls the girls being well treated in the hostel. They had daily lessons and went to synagogue on Shabbat. Small groups were invited to tea with some of the congregants. In the summer on the beach, people would offer them ice cream and cinema tickets. But few ever saw their families again.

Was there really an unconscious bias against ‘the refugee’ as implied by Jennifer Steinberg? If so, we can be grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the Jewish organisations, the churches and Refugees at Home for shining a light on the greater humanity of people today.

May 16, 2022 14:23

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