Eighty five years ago the British public woke up to the news of the November Pogrom — Kristallnacht — in the German Reich. Newspapers reported that on 9 and 10 November 1938, villages, towns and cities saw widespread state-sponsored violence perpetrated against Jewish people, Jewish-owned property and synagogues. UK readers were horrified and demanded action from their government. However, the government of the time, led by Neville Chamberlain, was reluctant to make a generous offer of sanctuary to Jewish refugees. They were worried about the country’s security, cautious about the cost and concerned about causing a potential rise in anti-foreign and antisemitic sentiments in some sections of the UK electorate.
A few days later Chamberlain met with representatives from the Anglo-Jewish community, who had been leading the call for refugees in the UK, and from the Quakers, who were able to support those in need of refuge on the Continent. Among other ideas, temporarily admitting a number of unaccompanied children was discussed. Just a week later, on 21 November, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, announced this scheme as the government’s new refugee policy. The Kindertransport scheme was born — though the term was used widely only much later.
The scheme was now governmental policy, but it was not backed by government finances or given organisational support. Chamberlain made this clear in his speech in the House of Commons: “With regard to the United Kingdom, the number of refugees which Great Britain can agree to admit, either for a temporary stay or for permanent settlement, is limited by the capacity of the voluntary organisations dealing with the refugee problem to undertake the responsibility for selecting, receiving and maintaining a further number of refugees.” This meant that voluntary bodies not only had to select children but also fundraise in order to organise and support the entire process. Large-scale admission of refugees to the UK had happened before (eg Belgian refugees during the First Wold War). Even child refugees arriving without their families was not new (it happened during the Spanish Civil War) but this was a gargantuan undertaking. Continental organisations had been involved in child emigration for several years, though initially most had rejected the idea of unaccompanied child emigration. They were now under increased pressure because of the mounting persecution, and many struggled to cope with the number of desperate parents asking for help.
The major drawback of the scheme was the fact that only those under the age of 17 (later lowered to 16) were to be admitted — and not their parents and adult family members. Politicians were fully aware of what they were asking of parents. Hoare stated in Parliament: “I could not help thinking what a terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany”. By November 1938 conditions were clearly so terrible that many parents were willing to take this step and part from their children.
Thousands of families were desperate to put their children on lists administered by the continental organisations, but many of these children never made it onto a train to the UK. Lack of funds meant that the number on the scheme had to be restricted, especially since the government demanded that a £50 bond for each child refugee had to be put into an account to guarantee that the child would not cost the UK any money in future years.
Around 10, 000 children escaped on a Kindertransport in 1938/39 but this number pales into insignificance when we think of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust.
Individual British citizens were generous within their limited means: often small amounts of money were collected by local organisations. We have archival material that shows that the Woodcraft Folk in Tooting and the Jewish Weekly Appeal Fund in London sponsored a child. But lack of funds limited the number that could be given a place on a Kindertransport.
Lack of governmental support also meant that volunteers, not trained staff, were put in charge of selecting children for the scheme. These volunteers were under pressure and felt that they needed to choose the children they thought most likely to integrate successfully. They often did not give the most pressing cases a place on the trains, such as children with disabilities or those from families where a parent suffered from mental illness, but instead picked those who did well at school and were good-looking. Correspondence shows that some influential volunteers had antisemitic prejudices and followed eugenicist ideas.
Foster parents were also selected by untrained volunteers and received no preparation for their task. The foster parents’ motivation varied from philanthropy to filling a void in their own lives. A few adults were motivated by clear self-interest and exploited the child refugees as free labour, or were physically and sexually abusive. Some tried to alienate the children from their religious community or cultural tradition. Some simply became overwhelmed by the task, and many Kindertransport refugees had to change placements frequently.
All these challenges should not be overshadowed by the interesting and moving stories of the rescue and resettlement of former Kindertransport refugees that we will hear on 2 December, when the 85th anniversary of the first Kindertransport train arriving in the UK will be celebrated. Yes, among all the devastation there was escape, rescue and hope. In some cases, foster parents and child formed a strong bond and were able to be respectful of different backgrounds. Five-year old Renate Collins (nee Kress) was fostered and later adopted by Sidney and Arianwen Coplestone, a Baptist minister and his wife in Porth, Wales. Renate’s birth parents and 62 further relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Renate tells how the Coplestones wanted her to be aware of her Jewish religion and of her birth family. They gave her stability and adopted her after the war.
Other stories tell of survival against all odds: Anne Senchal (nee Marschner) was deaf and was admitted to the UK with her older brother and a small group of children from a school for the deaf in Berlin despite their disabilities. She suffered extreme hardship growing up during the war, at times lacking even minimal support for her special needs. Later, she married and had two daughters, one deaf and one hearing, the latter working as a sign language interpreter to this day.
However, celebrating stories of survival cannot be our only aim; we need to understand the historical detail of the Kindertransport, be clear about its problematic aspects and not just treat it as a humanitarian success story.
It was cruel to separate children from their parents. The lack of governmental support both in financial and organisation terms led to additional trauma for the child refugees and some long-term negative consequences. As Kindertransport refugee Gertrude Goldberg put it: “When we arrived it was a lottery. People just picked us. It was only going to be temporary. I remember everything being so strange. It was bitter cold. I’d never been in the house before. I started crying. […] My younger sister and I were separated. She was very unhappy there.”
It is time to acknowledge the complexity of the Kindertransport and what really happened, so that we can use this knowledge to help with present day needs. The history of the Kindertransport shows us that relying on volunteers is not enough.
Rather than just commemorating the past we need to learn for the future. We need governmental organisations with trained professionals to support refugees. We need to have established, long-term procedures in place because young refugees will need our support.
Andrea Hammel is Professor of German and the Director of the Centre for the Movement of People at Aberystwyth University
Her book The Kindertransport: what really happened is published by Polity on 17 November