Pretending the Kindertransport was a part of a 'noble tradition' is ignorant of history

Special provision was made for children because Britain refused to let in their parents

March 15, 2022 17:50

There is history and there is myth, and they are not the same thing. In the category of myth come those tales nations tell themselves to feel virtuous, even heroic. One such tale has been told with great frequency in recent days about the UK and, as it happens, it involves Jews. 

The conservative commentator Simon Heffer nodded to it in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme on Sunday. The panellists were talking about Britain’s obligations to those fleeing war in Ukraine and Heffer said: “We have a noble tradition of looking after refugees: I think back to the kindertransport.” It was a sentence that had been uttered, in one form or another, so many times in the previous week or so, plenty of listeners might not even have noticed it. 

But it nagged at me, for the very same reason that most might not have registered it at all: it is becoming a settled part of the British national story. But it really shouldn’t be. Because to cite the kindertransport as evidence of a “noble tradition” of welcoming refugees is to betray the facts and to deceive ourselves. 

It is quite true that between March 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939, some 9,000 Jews below the age of 17 came to Britain on the specially chartered trains that would become known as the kindertransport. But here’s the question asked by too few of those who like to invoke that episode as proof of British generosity: why exactly was it children who were admitted, given that it was Jews of all ages who faced the threat of lethal Nazi persecution in Europe?

The answer is not flattering. Special provision was made for those children because Britain refused to let in their parents - or indeed any adults. Consult “The Final Solution,” the magisterial history of the Holocaust by the late David Cesarani – and how we miss his calm, reasoned scholarship – and you soon learn that then Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare waved aside demands that Britain extend a hand to Jews fleeing Nazism, telling the House of Commons that there was an “underlying current of suspicion and anxiety, rightly or wrongly, about alien immigration on any big scale. It is a fact that below the surface there is the making of a definite anti-Jewish movement.” 

 In other words, His Majesty’s government could not help Jews escape antisemitism in Germany because that might cause antisemitism in Britain. Jewish refugees would become the objects of hatred, not least from those who imagined refugees coming here and stealing their jobs. Best, then, to keep the Jews out.

British Jewish leaders and their non-Jewish allies – like the independent MP Eleanor Rathbone – had to adapt to that political reality. They lowered their sights. And so they campaigned not for the admission of all Jews in mortal peril, but for an alternative they hoped would be more palatable to British public opinion: a scheme that would provide temporary refuge for Jewish children. 

That is what put the kinder into kindertransport, and that is what led to those heartbreaking scenes that played out at railways stations across Nazi-occupied Europe – with families torn apart as parents were forced to hand over their children to get them to safety. Most would never see each other again. 

Naturally, there are important caveats. For one thing, some Jewish adults did make it to Britain. The rules on entry for domestic servants were relaxed, for example, which allowed around 14,000 Jewish women to come to work as maids. And Britain’s hard line on immigration was far from unique. Some 32 countries gathered for a US-convened conference in Evian in July 1938 to discuss the “refugee problem” where there was broad agreement on only one thing: that no one wanted to let in Jews.

For all that, the facts of British policy are pretty stark. As Cesarani writes, Britain "was prepared to allow refuge for children, but not for adults who might enter the labour market." Or to quote the historian Louise London: "Admission saved the children's lives. Exclusion sealed the fate of many of their parents."

It has to be stressed that the 9,000 or so children – and their descendants – saved through the kindertransport would be forever grateful to Britain for saving their lives. But they were a tiny, tiny fraction of the many millions of Jews who would be murdered, including many of those Jewish parents who Britain had turned away.

So yes, the kindertransport saved lives. But evidence of a “noble tradition” of welcoming refugees? Not quite, no matter what stories we like to tell ourselves.

March 15, 2022 17:50

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