The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory by Jennifer Craig-Norton (Indiana University Press, £75; Pb £35)
If you think the Kindertransport movement was a hugely humane undertaking, with wholly benevolent aims, and a strong success story to be found in its aftermath, this book will disappoint. Jennifer Craig-Norton explodes the myths of the successful outcomes, the easy settling, and the general warm welcome for the Kindertransport children. A lot of that did happen, but a study of some of the original documentation tells a different picture.
Take, for instance, the children who came after the Polenaktion, the little-known, forced expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany two weeks before Kristallnacht. Some 20,000 people were dragged from their homes, loaded on to open trucks, driven through streets of their home-towns with crowds jeering at them, put on trains and taken to the Polish border. And the Poles were not keen to receive them.
Herbert and Manfred Haberberg were two Kinder who came that way, already doubly refugees, pulled from their parents, treated,in Herbert’s case, to backbreaking physical labour on a farm and not helped to gain higher or further education.
The records are also full of class distinctions, from the view that these children of doctors and lawyers would not settle well with working-class families, to the insistence that they must leave school at 14, despite their talent and academic successes, because they were refugees.
Few records display affection or a sense of belonging to their sponsors. There were exceptions, with the smaller committees, such as that run by the West London Synagogue looking after just over 100 children, sometimes showing greater care. The WLS Hospitality Committee took considerable interest in the after-care of its children and in several cases funded its Kinder through university.
There are many letters and photographs sent by the Kinder after they had re-emigrated to Australia or the United States, telling Elsa Goldschmidt — who had run the WLS committee, and who they felt had been amazingly good to them — about marriages and successes. But the overall story is patchy, and the reluctance to ask the children themselves what they wanted to do, to allow them to pursue their dreams, is tragic in the light of everything else that was to befall them. This included in most cases discovering that their parents had been murdered in the extermination camps.
Craig-Norton has done us all a great service. The Kindertransport was indeed a brave and humane endeavour. But it was limited by lack of resources, lack of training for those who helped, and a lack of vision as to what the children might wish to become. And it did not produce only “the successes” that it originally claimed, but a legacy, for some, of trauma and disaffection, and a sense that they belonged, and were at home, nowhere.
Baroness Julia Neuberger is the Senior Rabbi, West London Synagogue