The big Kindertransport myth

The Kindertransport was not a British government scheme - the state restricted rather then aided the entry of child refugees, says historian Tony Kushner


As late as the 1980s, little was known about the Kindertransport. Now it is the most celebrated refugee movement in British history. What caused this remarkable transformation and has there been distortion in the telling of one of the most remarkable morality stories coming out of the Nazi era?

At the time, what became labelled as the Kindertransport did achieve prominence both in the political sphere and in the media.

The debate in the House of Commons on 21 November 1938 — when Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, announced the scheme — was given prominence, as was former prime minister Lord Baldwin’s radio broadcast asking for financial support for it a few weeks later.

From December 1938 well into the spring of 1939, the British press — including sections of it which were deeply anti-alien, often with a strong tinge of antisemitism, such as the Daily Express — were camped out at Liverpool Street station waiting for the latest consignment of children coming fresh from the port of Harwich. The stories that came out of these arrivals were almost universally sympathetic, as they often are for child refugees, especially for young girls. Older boys were regarded as less photogenic and deemed less sentimentally attractive.

Once war was declared, the plight of these children became more obscure, lost in more important narratives relating to the military situation. Indeed, hundreds of these children, especially the older males, became victims of the government’s indiscriminate policy of the mass internment of ‘aliens’ and some were deported to Canada and Australia.

For the refugee committees — national and local — the work continued and the financial struggle to maintain the children grew ever larger. The thousands of ordinary people who had looked after the children before September 1939 kept doing so, or passed their charges to new homes as they became evacuees. Others went on to other countries — America, Palestine and elsewhere — reflecting their legal status as temporary transmigrants. In short, these children were often multiple refugees, constantly on the move in search of “home”.

There was a brief flurry of interest in the later stages of the war as issues of guardianship were raised in Parliament, leading to a vicious propaganda war between the “liberal” and “orthodox” refugee organisations. But through most of the 1940s and 1950s, the story of these children and the movement as a whole became increasingly obscure.

Karen Gershon, a superb poet who arrived on the Kindertransport, put together the remarkable We Came as Children published by Victor Gollancz in 1966. This “collective autobiography of refugees” was curated by Ms Gershon from hundreds of testimonies. It remains one of the most powerful evocations of refugee-hood but, while it received positive reviews at the time, the volume did not lead to a major rediscovery of what still had not become known as the Kindertransport.

It took the work of individuals such as Bertha Leverton, Bea Green and other former child refugees who organised 50th anniversary events in the late 1980s on both sides of the Atlantic to give the Kindertransport iconic status.

Even then, what needs to be explained is why people — Jews and non-Jews — were now willing to listen and engage.

The reason was a growing engagement in the Holocaust and a wider context in which the life stories of these children could be placed.

It is the growing interest in the Holocaust that has, on the one hand, created a deep and sincere interest in the Kindertransport (the popular use of the term dates only from the late 20th century). On the other, it has led to major distortions in terms of chronology and who was responsible.

The Kindertransport was in essence a pre-war scheme with all permits to entry cancelled at the outbreak of the conflict. Tragically, there were transports that were planned in September 1939 but these were not allowed entry. There was one further arrival, in May 1940: a ship that left Holland and had the ignominy of being fired at by both the Nazis and the British.

In more recent versions of the Kindertransport story, however, the children are often described as Holocaust survivors who through British generosity managed to escape the gas chambers. It may well have been the fate of many of these children had they not left, but however violent and dehumanising the Nazi treatment of the Jews was in the last year of peace, none could yet envisage the horrors of the “Final Solution”.

But perhaps the most prevalent (and still growing) mythologies of the Kindertransport was that it was somehow a British government scheme. As the fame of the scheme has grown, it is not surprising that such a claim is made. If the Kindertransport has become the example of mass-rescue by a liberal democracy (contrasting, for example, with the Wagner-Rogers Bill in 1939, whereby Congress decided not to allow 20,000 German children into America), then the desire to take credit is irresistible.

Thus in 1999, a plaque was unveiled in the House of Commons “In deep gratitude to the people and Parliament [my emphasis] of the United Kingdom for saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish and other children who fled to this country from Nazi persecution on the Kindertransport 1938-1939”. Perhaps recognising this distortion, when Flor Kent’s Fur das Kind was unveiled at Liverpool Street station in 2003, the words “and parliament” were removed.

In essence, the only role of the British government was in announcing the scheme and in setting the legal parameters for the entry of the children. The children were to be 16 or under and were to come to Britain strictly “on condition that they would be emigrated when they reach[ed] 18”.

This was a voluntary scheme funded and implemented by the British public — either directly by guaranteeing the children or through the refugee organisations that were set up to administer it. Indeed, it was not the first — in the First World War, several hundred Serbian refugee children were brought to Britain to be educated and the Inter-Aid Committee had brought younger refugees from Nazism up to November 1938.

In 1937, close to 4,000 Basque children were allowed in — much to the irritation of the British government, which feared an anti-alien reaction. This scheme was implemented by private organisations ranging from trade unions and left-wing groups through to the Catholic church.

Being private schemes, often involving adults with no experience of children and with no “safeguarding” in place, there were huge variations in the children’s experience. Many were treated with deep love and affection, but equally it would be wrong to ignore the all-too-common stories of sexual, physical and economic exploitation, with the Kinder being no exception.

At a time of another global forced migration crisis, the Kindertransport has been evoked by both those arguing for a more generous and those who want a more restrictive refugee policy.

Eighty years on, it is time to strip away the mythology of the Kindertransport and to look at both its achievements and its fundamental flaws. It would now be unacceptable to have a scheme without proper safeguarding — even though hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children in Britain are currently exploited in the sex industry. Is it justifiable, however, to argue that we should allow in only children and not their parents or other adult refugees? This, sadly — with the exception of the 20,000 Jewish women brought in as domestic servants — is the true story of the British government’s involvement in refugee entry during the 1930s.

Professor Tony Kushner is a member of the Parkes Institute, University Of Southampton. He has donated his fee for this article to the Refugee Council

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive