The Wiener Library holds many personal accounts of children evacuated from Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia between December 1938 and September 1939. Using individual first-hand accounts sourced from The Wiener Library and documents held at The National Archives, this talk gives insights into how Britain dealt with the refugee children who arrived on the Kindertransports and the difficulties they faced.
Published date: 26 February 2010
My talk today is about the Kindertransport, a story of approximately 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, who were sent on transports from Nazi Germany and Austria, Czechoslovakia and later Poland, between December 1938 and September 1939. They came to the safe shores of Britain.
The documents I’m going to be using are predominantly Foreign Office files, Home Office files and some very interesting Ministry of Health files, along with a few bits and bobs from the General Registry Office and the records of the security services.
I’d like to say a few words about the Wiener library. I’ve managed to do a lot of my reading, a lot of research at the Wiener library, and tried to get a better picture of what it was like for the Kinder, and the sources there were incredibly invaluable for telling real life stories about these children.
The Wiener library itself is the world’s oldest Holocaust memorial institution. It traces itself back to 1933, when Alfred Wiener, who was a German Jew, fled Germany in 1933 and went to Amsterdam, and there together with Professor David Cohen he set up the Jewish Central Information Office, collecting a lot of information about events happening in Nazi Germany.
The collection was actually transferred to Manchester in 1939, and the British government used the resources there in their intelligence departments. It soon became known as the Wiener library, and after the war its academic reputation really did increase, and the collecting policies were broadened considerably.
It’s a particularly valuable source for historical material, particularly focusing on the Holocaust and has an impressive collection of both primary and secondary sources. It’s continually acquiring unpublished documents, among which are recent testimonies of many of the Kinder.
I called it [this lecture] Britain’s rescue plan – I kept thinking ‘well, probably I should have called it Britain’s rescue mission’. Initially there was no plan. It was about one thing and that was just to save lives. Save lives of children who were at the time regarded as being in a most vulnerable position; so children with parents that had been arrested for political reasons or were blacklisted, orphans, and children, as I’ve said, of political activists.
This is just a photograph of two of the youngest Kinder that came over to the shores.
The whole mission, really, was thanks to organisations and, in particular, some individuals; people with positions of authority in the government, and really quite extraordinary civilians who just simply wanted to help.
I think in this particular context it’s probably important to try and understand what it may have been like as a child in the 1930s, so I just want to spend a few moments just talking about that.
Already after the First World War, Jewish children were subjected to bullying; anti-Semitism was rife. German schoolchildren were allowed to wear swastikas, anti-Semitism was spread quite openly throughout institutions and organisations, and the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 brought along further restrictions for the Jewish population, and I think the Jewish children really did suffer immensely; beaten up, called names, humiliated by their teachers. There are records and evidence in our Foreign Office files of that.
But by 1933 the government already had limited the number of Jews in schools to 5%, and of course the Nuremburg laws in 1935 produced further restrictions really on Jews as a whole, and this meant they lost their right to become citizens, so these children could no longer play in the park, they couldn’t go to the cinema, they couldn’t use the swimming pools.
In the 1930s, 1936-1937, there was a slight lull in the German laws, so the Jewish population really felt that maybe the worst was behind them and things could only get better, and although quite a lot of them did emigrate, most of them decided to stay and sit it out.
I think the departure tax was so heavy that the population really didn’t want to leave everything behind; they didn’t want to leave their families behind, they didn’t want to leave their businesses behind, so had they left they would have to give up absolutely everything, and emigration was of course a complicated business.
Kristallnacht; we have plenty of reports of Kristallnacht here in our FO371 files, especially details of Goebbels’ speech. In the early hours of 10th November, a wave of violence against the Jews in Germany and Austria broke out, and overnight, plainclothes SS storm troopers raided shops, destroyed about a thousand synagogues, seven and a half [thousand] businesses were destroyed, homes were destroyed.
These are just a couple of accounts that we have from a report by Apollonia Rissik about what it was like for the Jews, and then what it was like for Mischlinge, so half-Jewish half- Aryan children as well, and how difficult it was for all of them concerned.
Many foreign journalists covered the events, and of course after those events, the minister of education announced that all Jewish children attending German state schools were to be dismissed at once, and so they were expelled from their schools and they were not allowed to go to German university, and so things really became really very grim for the young ones.
Many other social restrictions of course happened at the same time, and really parents started to flock at the gates of the Reichsvertretung der Deutshen Juden, the representative body of German Jewry in Berlin, and an organisation called Kultusgeimende, which is in Vienna, and those were offices you could apply to for emigration. The person in charge of emigration in Vienna was Adolf Eichmann at the time.
Well it did cause a great wave of sympathy in Britain, the news of Kristallnacht, and the Home Office really were receiving approximately a thousand applications a day, and so on the 15th November, a delegation of British Jewish leaders met the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to appeal for help, and they asked the British government to allow the temporary admission of children and teenagers up to the age of 17.
I’ve just literally copied just a few examples of Cabinet papers, and also from Hansard some of the little snippets that tell us what their plans were.
Here it says: ‘in addition large numbers of children under 17 will now be admitted and special facilities will be given to refugees to receive training especially in agriculture.’ We will return to that point later on.
But quite importantly, the following day the cabinet debated the issue, and the committee for refugees decided that they could accept unaccompanied children under the age of 17. There really was no limit that was publicly announced, or that was made public.
The number 10,000, possibly stems from the fact that a little while before, the British Colonial Office rejected the idea of accepting 10,000 children to be sent to Palestine for emigration, so it was sort of a doctored figure of 10,000.
Lord Halifax, who actually at the time was Foreign Secretary, felt that this act of generosity would prompt the United States into doing something about the situation in Germany and indeed in Austria, and in February 1939 the Wagner-Rogers Bill died in committee. It proposed to allow 20,000 refugee children from Germany into the United States, and it didn’t happen.
If we look at the fact that Britain allowed 10,000 children in; in the grand scheme of things, when we know that one and a half million children died in the Holocaust, that’s not a huge number, but if you think about it, America allowed 1,400 unaccompanied refugee children in from 1934-1945.
So that evening of 21st November, Samuel Hoare, who was the Home Secretary, met a large group, as I’ve said, of Jewish and non-Jewish groups who were working on behalf of refugees, and they all joined together to form the sort of umbrella organisation of it all called the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany.
It was agreed to speed up the process to get these children as quickly as possible, by dispensing with the need for visas and issuing them special documents, that would be more like group lists, and that they could come in very, very quickly.
And of course the plan was agreed on the 21st November in the House of Commons, accepted, and that really began the story of the Kindertransports.
I think we need to look at the organisations that were particularly involved in bringing over the Kindertransports and raising money and funds. The Jewish Refugee committee; it was founded by Otto Schiff in 1933. He was a Jewish Berliner, and he sought and gained asylum just after the First World War in this country.
He was one of the delegates, and he actually referred back to the Alien Act of 1905 whereby no refugee would become a burden on public funds, and he promised to abide by this law.
So he said the children will come in, they will not be a burden on public funds, ‘we’ll fund it all’, and he assured the government, along with other delegates, that he would guarantee this, he would guarantee a sum of £50 (approximately, I would say, about £3,000 now) for every child, and that money was to be put aside for their eventual re-emigration into Palestine.
Many reports about Otto Schiff tell us he was selfless, he was devoted; he gained a tremendous respect from the government, and was really the link between these movements and the government in trying to get as many children through as easily as possible.
Then we have the Central British Fund for German Jewry; founded, again in the early months of 1933, by a group of Anglo-Jewish leaders and this was in response to Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany. Among the founders were Anthony de Rothschild, Leonard Montefiore and Otto Schiff as well, and Norman Bentwich, a very important figure in the Kindertransports, was to take charge of the training and immigration from 1939.
He had quite a lot of experience; he was a committed Zionist and had a lot of experience having been Deputy High Commissioner for German refugees since 1933. His wife was very heavily actively working as well for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany.
It changed its name in 1939 to the Central Council for Jewish Refugees and the fund was aided by various organisations including the Jewish Refugee Committee, and the Refugee Children’s Movement. The archive materials are kept on microfilm at the Wiener library, the originals are at the London Metropolitan archives; they detail appeals, financial statements and suchlike.
The Children’s Inter-Aid Committee, well they already, as early as 1936, had been bringing children into the country from Germany; I think around about 500 children had come in, and they all had guarantors, so they brought the children over and everyone had a home to go to.
And of course they were fundamental in being part of the delegation to the Prime Minister, saying, ‘we need to look at our programme, what we’re doing now, and we need to make it much larger; it’s going to happen on a much larger scale, what can we do about it, we’ve got to get some process rolling that’s going to cope with the amount of refugees that we need to bring into the country’.
And this organisation knew how to do it – they’d been bringing children in already, they’d selected the children that were under special hardships, so they really were very experienced in already bringing in refugee children.
If we move on to the Society of Friends, the Quakers; I’ve read quite a lot about individual Kinder and what they think of the Quakers. A very, very underpublicized group of people; they were absolutely phenomenal in what they did for the Kindertransports, they absolutely stood firm in their bases in Vienna and Germany, and they didn’t give in to Eichmann – they stood there and they said ‘No, we will get these children out.’
On the other side, in Britain, they were waiting at the train stations; they were helping with the children, they were sorting them out, taking them to their homes, putting them into hostels, arranging fundraising as well and in fact in the latest letter from the Association of Jewish Refugees which you can read online on their website, there is a gentleman who is appealing for more Kinder to come forward and to talk about the Quakers, because he feels that they should be honoured in the Righteous among Nations in Yad Vashem for saving so many Jewish lives. Sir Samuel Horne himself was a Quaker.
And, the Movement for the Care of Children in Germany of course changed to the Refugee Children’s Movement because they weren’t really just children from Germany, they came from Austria, they came from Czechoslovakia, and they came from Poland, after 1939.
This organisation really began from the debate of the 21st November when all the delegates decided that they should work under one umbrella, alongside the Children’s Interaid Committee, to cope with the rush of applications; word had got out that the immigration laws had been relaxed, and there were a lot of children that wanted to come over.
The president from 1939 of the Refugee Children’s Movement was the poet Lord Gorell, and he worked with two outstanding volunteers; two women, which I feel I really must mention. One, Lola Hahn Warburg, who came to Britain in September 1938 – she was blacklisted by the Nazis for being politically outspoken. She was a real expert on children who struggled to settle with their foster parents and teachers and employers, and then Elaine Blond, and they continued to work as volunteers in this organisation; Elaine Blond happened to be the youngest daughter of Michael Marks, of Marks and Spencer’s fame.
We have the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, an office headed by Doreen Warriner. I think Sir Nicholas Winter’s been in the press quite a bit – it was actually here that he came and first saw the plight of the child refugees from Prague, and he returned to London with handfuls, armfuls of lists of children who were really at risk and he said ‘I’m going to do something about it, I’m going to find them homes to go to’, and that is exactly what he did, and he saved 600 children in that way.
He did remain an unknown hero until his exposure on ‘That’s Life’ [TV programme] in the 1980s by Esther Rantzen, and in fact I went along to meet his train in September – he arrived after so many years with a dozen or so original Kinder that had come over from Prague. He met them at Harwich and got on the train, and they got off together at a wonderful ceremony at Liverpool Street station, just a couple of months ago. He was 100 years old this year.
The role of Save the Children fund; the Save the Children fund did not want to be prominent in the plan for rescuing these refugees. I think they gave a couple of reasons. Firstly they believed that ‘wherever possible children should not be removed from their own home country except under dire necessity’ (well this was dire necessity) and secondly ‘my society has hesitated to accept a liability which is indeterminate’.
The funds did run out. It wouldn’t have looked very good to the British public if Save the Children would run out of money because of the Kindertransports. So they were part of the Children’s Aid committee, but they didn’t really want to be prominent in Kindertransports.
All these organisations that we’ve mentioned here pulled together to organise the Kindertransports; very hastily they sent representatives out to Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, just to speed up the process of emigration. And of course in this country BBC Home Service issued appeals on the radio; the Lord Mayor’s fund, Christian and Jewish organisations started to scour the country for suitable homes and hostels and everyone kind of pitched in. There was a wave of sympathy for these children.
This letter I found, dated October 20th 1938, so already before even Kristallnacht, obviously just after the annexation of the Sudetenland; a letter to Mr Chamberlain, from a Mrs Ormiston: ‘for two schoolchildren about seven years of age, I have a home any person may interview, also I would like to love them, the same as I would my son and do a mother’s duty.’
The departure; throughout Germany and Austria by now, queues at the emigration office were incredibly long and once identified and grouped by organisations in offices in Vienna and Berlin, the parents or guardians of these children would receive a travel date and departure details. They were allowed one piece of hand luggage, a suitcase and 10 Reichsmarks, although accounts say that these children did smuggle lots of valuables in their sandwiches and in the heels of their shoes. They were warmly dressed, in their Sunday best; sturdy boots, sturdy coats. The parents did dress them as best as they possibly could.
I think it’s important to try and think of a platform scene here now, where a lot of children and parents are standing and they don’t know what to say to each other. The accounts that I’ve read suggest that the older children, the 13, 14 year olds were very angry at being sent away, they felt that they could do something, they didn’t want to go, they wanted to stay, they wanted to fight. So a lot of children left their parents having had an argument.
The younger children were quite excited. Parents made them believe that they were going away on a holiday, that they’d be back, that they’d come and get them very soon. So what must it have been like for the parents? [Quotes] ‘In no time, the suitcase was gone, the child was gone, the other children were gone, just emptiness, and then we turned around and went home. I did not talk.’ It must have been heart-rending for the parents to have given your child away, knowing full well that you probably wouldn’t see them again.
The first transport left Berlin on 1st December – left with urgent cases on board, mostly children from a Berlin orphanage, and some children of Polish descent who were being threatened with deportation, and those whose parents had been arrested or sent to concentration camps; that would have been in the early days of Dachau and Buchenwald. These were the children that arrived on the first transport.
They were accompanied by adults. There is a list here in our Foreign Office files: eight adults that accompanied them. They had to return; if these accompanied adults hadn’t returned, then Kindertransports would have been very difficult. I would imagine that the German government would have probably called a halt to them and would have made emigration that much more difficult.
As well as urgent cases obviously, priority went initially I would have thought, to those who were in the know, and to those maybe who had a bit of luck on their side. Most transports went through the Netherlands. The first boat was the de Prague, left the Hook of Holland with about 200 children onboard; no exact number there. Children at this stage were registered… [but]…nobody knew exactly the numbers because at the last minute, parents would change their minds and take their children and say ‘no, you’re not going you’re not going, we’ll keep you.’
And, likewise, parents would throw their younger children onto the train, to an older child and say ‘look after this child, look after this child’, out of desperation; certainly that happened towards the end of the Kindertransports when parents were desperate to get their children out, by any which way.
The Netherlands played a crucial role in the Kindertransports. As I’ve mentioned, Norman Bentwich before, he’d actually gone to Amsterdam in November, and he met with the Dutch, to discuss the transports. He met with the Dutch refugees committee, and they decided how it was going to be done. The refugee bodies in Holland were very well equipped to manage this first part of the Kindertransports. They had good rail links across the German border, and then obviously this ship was very easy to get on from the Hook of Holland.
In fact, this picture is of a girl who I believe is experiencing sea-sickness. It was a terrible journey, especially during the winter months crossing the Channel, and many of the Kinder recount that journey as being really, really, really horrible. They’d never actually felt sea-sick before; a lot of them, most of them, hadn’t even been on a boat before, so it was a very new experience and a very unpleasant one for them as well.
Transports also left from Hamburg. These were susceptible to delays by the German authorities, and the Kinder actually would just be put into spare berths of the transatlantic liners that were coming through, and they would be dropped off in Southampton, and in fact our Ministry of Health files has got some quite comprehensive lists of Kinder, some with addresses of where they came from.
The Germans of course preferred to send the children by rail. They didn’t really want to be seen as having refugee ships leaving Germany. It wasn’t good publicity for them.
‘No objections.’ – Telegram to Sir George Ogilvie Forbes, at the Foreign Office in Berlin. ‘Permission obtained. Bring them through’. And so the first transport arrived.
The Foreign Office files have got snippets here and there all over the place, about the details of who left when. No real detailed lists apart from those that I found in the Ministry of Health files, but they will give us an estimate of how many children were sent, the dates that they were sent, and when they actually arrived.
And here they are – they arrived at the Netherlands, and they were given a medical check-up upon arrival. They were to have a medical check-up as well before landing; before stepping off the boat in England. And here we have a police officer, or a transport man from Holland, with a group of boys, smiling. The Dutch treated the Kinder incredibly well.
One of the accounts: obviously a lot of the boys talk about food, food and food, and they did really have to get used to British food but they weren’t used to white bread, and there’s a lovely description: a boy says about his first mouthful of white bread, saying ‘It tastes like cake’. It was very expensive in Germany.
I’d just like to mention here the Danzig Jews as well. This was a little later on, so we’re going now into 1939, April, and funds started to dwindle, quite rapidly. [We can see on this slide] [Quotes] ‘I’ve received a substantial grant from the Baldwin fund, and it may therefore be possible for them to take action with regard to the early removal of a token party from Danzig’.
And we can see 50 of them were unguaranteed, 12 were guaranteed, and seven belonged to the Youth Aliyah movement. The unguaranteed children did not have homes to go to; they didn’t have foster homes to go to. They would be put into hostels or holding camps, and we’ll discuss that a little bit later on. The guaranteed had homes to go to, they’d found homes, and we’re going to discuss Youth Aliyah a little later on, I’ll explain what Youth Aliyah was.
But I particularly like this long letter about how to do things the correct way; perforated edges, the appearance of this, how should the form look, and the little hand written answer: ‘The answer is, I think, that the cards are quite alright, and the children can come at once. Perhaps Passport Control department could send a brief telegram to Danzig to explain position to the shepherd.’
As we’ve said, as they arrived, the children either knew where they were going to, or they didn’t. If they had foster homes or hostels to go to they would go by train to Liverpool Street Station, and there they would be met by their new families, or the organisations that had arranged their accommodation or their hostels. The Quakers, as I’ve said before, were very good at meeting at the station.
Those that didn’t have guarantors went initially to one of two holding camps. One at Pakefield that was closed very soon after first arrival, and Dovercourt, the main holding camp for children before homes could be found for them.
Just very briefly; the work of the Jewish Chronicle was incredibly important in Kindertransport. I’ve actually managed just to find a couple of, how should I say it, maybe inaccurate reports, which did frighten the population somewhat, because they claimed that before a child could get a visa or an exit permit, they had to sign a slip that they would never see their parents again; firmly denied, of course, by the Home Office.
But the Jewish Chronicle did write requests such as, ‘Please help me to bring out two Berlin children, boy and girl, best family, very urgent case’, and, ‘Which family would like to take over Jewish boy, 15, from first class, orthodox Viennese family’.
Of course, some reports, like these, were a little misleading, and indeed the Home Office and the Foreign Office strongly denied this allegation.
The borough of Harwich issued a letter about the arrival of the first party of children on the 2nd December, with a figure of 198, age ranges from four to 18, ‘at present housed at Dovercourt holiday camp. The children were all medically examined before they left for England, and were examined by Dr Phelan and myself before leave to land was granted. All the children were stripped to the waist for the examination, and heart, chest, eyes and throat examined. The children were all found to be in a healthy condition, and the majority compared favourably with the English of their own age. Arrangements had been made for the cleansing and delousing for any children that required.’
The Ministry of Health file that I’ve actually got here on display for you gives us information of dates of arrival from the transatlantic ships we mentioned earlier, and some examples of medical certificates of children with suspected illnesses such as trachoma and polio, and these caused a great amount of concern with the Ministry of Health officials.
These are letters from the Southampton Port Health Authority; I still haven’t got around to why they changed it to ‘Health’ on the January letter and why they’d left it as ‘Sanitary’ on the 14th, but, these really give us information about the dates the boats came over and how many children were on board, and alongside these letters are actual lists, comprehensive lists of the children that were on board.
These are in the Ministry of Health files; you wouldn’t really look for passenger lists in Ministry of Health files, but there they were, and as mentioned before, some even have names of places where they were born, streets, addresses, dates and contact numbers.
Those lists actually tell us a lot about the age of the children that came over, a huge amount really between the ages of 13, 14 and 15 and I’ve just scanned a couple up for you here, so [this one] has got the most comprehensive information about the children who arrived in Southampton, and [this one] omits the actual home addresses and where they came from, and in fact the homes that they were allocated to.
This is such a letter which demonstrates actually how worried some people were about the spread of disease that these children might bring in, and in fact the files have got some League of Nations reports on polio in Germany and in Austria, comparing them to those of the UK. I won’t go into too much detail, but the file does contain details of quite a few children who did end up in isolation hospitals.
I have a couple of images from the Wiener library: [children] arriving at Liverpool Street, and arriving at Harwich.
So those children who didn’t have guarantors, what happened to them? Well, this is the holding camp of Dovercourt. It was established by Billy Butlin, and only enjoyed one season, and closed for the season, and reopened in the coldest winter on record, to house the Kindertransports. It’s only a couple of miles away from Harwich, so it was very quick to get them there, the children, and the report here that I have from the Women’s Voluntary Service: ‘It is used as a kind of clearing station for German and Austrian Jewish and non- Aryan refugee children until arrangements can be made for their future. These children are from five to 18 years of age, and their parents are mostly dead or in concentration camps’.
Not quite like 1931, but nevertheless, the first entrants, children, really did have very traumatic reasons…it was a traumatic thing for them to come over, so the first children at Dovercourt were really the most needy.
‘The Nazi’s apparently are only too glad to get rid of the children with the exception of boys of 17 or over, who they require for labour’.
The occupations – what did they do? Drawings, songs, they learnt how to speak English, the boys played football, indoor games; all very jolly to start off with, but take a longer look at some of these children and they were quite withdrawn. After the initial welcome party, they weren’t necessarily as happy as they seemed to be.
Of course, the problem was the cold – it was freezing – they said their hot water bottles froze if they put them on the floor. Chalets were just a wooden construction, they weren’t heated in any way; clothing was donated by Marks and Spencer’s, and the report finally said: ‘Conditions at the Dovercourt camp appear to be reasonably satisfactory’ – read into that what you will.
The worst thing about Dovercourt I suppose, I think the worst thing that I found out about it was the Sundays. Apparently on Sundays, these children obviously needed to go to homes, it sounded a bit like a cattle market; foster parents were invited to pick their children, and the children would put their Sunday best on and parade in front of prospective foster parents.
And of course the little ones went first, the more Aryan looking children went first, and you were really left with troublesome teenage children at these holding camps, and really they needed to go somewhere, they needed to go somewhere where they would be happy.
Some of the children from the Dovercourt camp, the older girls, over 14 year olds, were taken by foster parents and were used as maids. They don’t necessarily paint the best picture of the way some of the British public behaved towards Kindertransports, but I think in general from what I’ve read, the good certainly by far outweigh the less.
Food; food is a big issue. Issues about Kosher food, and so there were obviously people [who would] analyse the diet children were getting, and to look at the children and to examine them as well.
Children weren’t used to this kind of food: Irish stew, made with all possible vegetables; kipper; bread and butter; tea. They didn’t know tea with milk, they didn’t drink tea with milk, so all this was really quite alien to the children.
The report says: ‘Cooking is undertaken by the ordinary staff attached to the camp but kosher food is supplied. The cooking apparatus and table, crockery, cutlery etc are all part of the permanent camp equipment.’ Some of the children were so young they didn’t know what kosher food was. Some of them didn’t even know what the word orthodox meant, in fact, relatively speaking, not all Jewish children were orthodox, so, they did try and get it right.
They did a nutritional survey; here we have [a photo of...] mostly teenage boys, eating their meal at Dovercourt, and a report from the Public Health Department about their health, and examined here really, I particularly like ‘A child was questioned as to the condition of his teeth and stated that he’d been treated for this by a dentist in Germany, and had been told that he was suffering from the English disease. I gathered a lack of calcium was the cause of this’.
The Movement for the Care of Children in Germany, or the Refugee Children’s Movement issued lists of hostels, and so the children moved from Dovercourt, either to foster homes, or to hostels, or to farms.
Well, August 30th 1939, just a couple of days before the outbreak of war, and a telegram to the Hague saying, ‘We can’t send any more children, we’ve run out of money’. That was the reason. And in fact, the report suggests, that the Gestapo were trying to get them out as quickly as they could, but Kindertransports really came to a standstill on August 30th 1939.
There was one final Kindertransport in May; the Dutch ship brought over the last lot of Jewish unaccompanied children to Britain then. So what happened to these children during the war years?
This is an image of young men on an agricultural training scheme for refugees. Now in Germany already, in the 1930s, the Reichsvertretung in Germany were considering the future of their youth, and they’d set up a movement known as Halutz, meaning young pioneers, and this organisation really was to prepare Jewish youth for a future in Palestine.
The main focus was on agriculture. The movement believed that there’d be a stronger case for emigration if they were useful in agricultural work and that of working the land of Palestine. A large number of training institutions were already established in Germany, but they were constantly being interfered with by the Gestapo.
The Central British Fund actually earmarked a large proportion of their funds for this cause; committees were set up, led by Jewish leaders, and a lot of countries agreed to take on these children, to take them out of Germany, to set up farms, or to work on farms, and the institutions also provided training in domestic work as well.
The Youth Aliyah was the under- 17 section of the Halutz movement, and provided training for young Jews waiting to migrate to Palestine. It was founded in 1932 in response to helping unemployed teenagers in Germany, with strong Zionist values.
These agricultural centres sprung up all across the UK. Great Egenham Farm was one. It was run by a camp leader called Fred Dunstan, who actually changed his name; he was called Fritz Deutsch. The refugees were encouraged to anglicise their names. The Wiener library has got quite a lot of information about these farms, and what it was like for children at these farms.
The Halutz movement here; the Czech Committee were really quite concerned about the youngsters in Czechoslovakia, and it says here that ‘a grant given towards the training of 300 children in England between the ages of 14 and 16 years. 200 of these should be trained on farms in England for Palestine, and their future emigration will be guaranteed by the Youth Aliyah. A further 100 should be also trained on farms for other countries overseas. A detailed scheme has been handed to Mr Winton.’
A couple of forms here; if you accepted a young refugee on your farm to work you had to fill out a form, and [the child also] had to go through quite a lengthy questionnaire. I’ve just picked out a couple of questions: ‘Do you desire to go to Palestine? Do you prefer to go to the colonies, or to another country overseas? Would you prefer if possible to remain in the United Kingdom? Would you desire to go back to Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia after the war?’ and ‘Do you wish to enter the Army Pioneer Corps?’ ‘Have you already been before the tribunal?’
This is an exemption certificate from internment. Police regulations and policies towards enemy aliens changed after the outbreak of war, and of course those children who’d reached the ages of 16 and 17 were left in a very vulnerable position. Some of these Kinder were working in prohibited zones along the east coast and south coast of Britain, and there was a blanket rule that they were all going to be interned, and many were, and many were sent overseas.
This is just a letter from the Zionist Federation, [referring to] the work at David Edder Farm…David Edder Farm was a special farm that was set up for this kind of agricultural work, and they really tried to keep their workers there, but they were asked to leave because the farm was situated in a prohibited area.
I won’t go into too much detail about the Dunera, but the SS Dunera set sail on 10th July with about 400 refugees from the Refugee Children’s Movement on board. They were interned as Category C aliens and a further boat, the Ettrick, went with 200 children on board, but after the sinking of the Arandora Star by a U boat off the coast of Ireland on 2nd July, the reports of the terrible conditions of how these enemy aliens were being treated, and how the experiences of the individuals on the Dunera, public opinion began to shift.
The Home Office issued a White Paper in July, listing some of the headings under which the internees could be released, and the under 16s and over 65s and the under 18s ‘who had been resident with British families or in an education establishment prior to internment’ were to be released – that is the Kinder.
So the young men under the age of 18 who were sent abroad, were give the opportunity to return, and many of them did choose to join the Pioneer Corps. Girls joined the ATS. Some went to work as Land Girls, some went to work at Lyon’s Tea Houses as well, and some went into domestic service.
But evacuation really didn’t help. This is just a couple of things from the MI5 files, which just give a little bit more detail about their policies towards what happens to a child, a Kinder, upon reaching the age of 16. They would have to come before a tribunal to make sure that their views hadn’t changed, that they weren’t a threat to the country.
This list was compiled in 1943 – the grand total there of 8,274. I’ve just mentioned evacuation. It didn’t really help the figures with the Refugee Children’s Movement; evacuation. A lot of children had to move away again from families, or homes that they had grown used to. A lot of them had assimilated very quickly, they’d learnt the English language; they’d stopped speaking German. Some indeed no longer practised their faith, or in some cases weren’t encouraged to.
And so the figures became, I think, a little vague. It was evident really by 1943/44 that a lot of these children would not be seeing their parents again, and something really had to be done for those children. The Guardianship Act, the Refugee Children’s Act of 1944, came into being. It was unprecedented; nobody had heard of a guardianship act like this. By this act the Home Secretary was empowered to appoint a legal guardian to refugee children in bulk, and in fact it was the chairman of the movement, Lord Gorell, who was appointed.
But it was not without criticism. One of the files here has got absolutely lists of his children, thousands and thousands of them, and of details of really who would be involved in that guardianship role.
The three categories: ‘a) who arrived in the United Kingdom after, or at the end of the year 1936 in consequence of war, or of religious, racial and political persecution and who had not at the time of arrival attained the age of 16 years, and b) who had no parents in the United Kingdom, and c) who had not attained the age of 21years, and in the case of the female has never been married.’
Each child had to fill out a form, and this particular one assumes that the parents were lost in Theresienstadt camp.
The file actually contains lists of children and their last known address. [Quotes] ‘As arranged by telephone today, I’m sending herewith an alphabetical list of particulars of the only 498 children of whom the Secretary of State has yet appointed a guardian under the act. You will see that Lord Gorell is the guardian in each case. Any enquiries to him in his capacity as guardian under the act should be addressed to him at the Refugee Children’s Movement.
Of course, appointing Lord Gorell as a guardian to so many Jewish children, didn’t really go down very well with the Chief Rabbi, and although they appeared to have a good working relationship in the books that they wrote afterwards, the file of letters shows us really how difficult relations were between some of the Jewish organisations and some of the Christian organisations that helped with the Kindertransports.
Dr Schonfeld, the rabbi, who was the son-in-law of the Chief Rabbi, really felt that the guardian should be Jewish, and that orthodox values should be very much at the forefront of the guardianship role. He accused the Refugee Children’s Movement of not honouring the religion, and the Refugee Children’s Movement defended themselves, purely in that they couldn’t examine every family, they couldn’t visit every family and they couldn’t ensure that every family would be an orthodox family, if that was what was requested.
There was also, of course, the Christadelphians, an organisation who did help the Kindertransports; really were there to convert some of the Jewish children to Christianity, so that really wasn’t great PR on their behalf.
But of course Otto Schiff came in to defend the guardianship acts, and felt really that the Refugee Children’s Movement had enough, a lot of people in there who were Jewish, and who believed that Lord Gorell was the right person.
‘Mr Schiff pointed out that there are on the council of the children’s movement, two Jewish representatives: Mrs Laski,’ (that was Miss Blond who I mentioned earlier on) ‘and Mrs Hahn Warberg’, (the two volunteers that I spoke about earlier) ‘and there is no difficulty between the Movement for the Care of Refugee Children and the Jewish community in general. Such difficulties as occur from time to time…etc, etc.’
Guardianship ceased upon marriage, adoption, or reaching the age of 21. In a very few cases it ceased when parents returned for their children. Not many parents returned. The majority of parents perished in the Holocaust, in Auschwitz, Dachau, Therezienstadt, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, to name a few.
Those who were reunited found it incredibly hard. The parents probably had witnessed and experienced the unthinkable, and they had incredibly changed. On the left there’s a guardianship act for ‘Parents of Bergit, Maria Bergit Popper. The parents have arrived in this country. The appointment of Lord Gorell as guardian has not been revoked.’
Things were very unstable for both parents and children if they happened to be reunited. Kinder themselves had changed; they’d lost the language, they’d assimilated, they’d become part of the British way of life.
And on the right: revocations of Lord Gorell, for reasons of marriage, as I said earlier on, and adoption. And this act in fact sort of just drifted away, it sort of disappeared, and his role ceased to be in the 1950s/late 1940s.
The reunions; it wasn’t really until 1988 that the first reunions of the Kindertransport began, by a lady called Bertha Leviton, that was here in the UK. She’d planned it; she’d founded the organisation, and she says this: ‘It is hard to credit that before 1988 hardly anyone had heard of, or was the least bit interested in, the Kindertransport, yet today we are researched, filmed, written about and recognised as part of British history.’ I think, I must say, there’s still an awful lot of research to be done on this.
In 2006, the bronze sculpture was unveiled, at Liverpool Street Station; it’s a beautiful sculpture, with 16 milestones, each bearing the name of a city from where the Kindertransports departed.
I’d like to mention the Association of Jewish Refugees at this point; they have just released a database, called ‘Making New Lives in Britain’, and they record a continental background, the journey to Britain, reception, subsequent experiences and lives of a strongly representative sample of the almost 10,000 predominantly Jewish children of the Kindertransport. This is now published in the form of a statistical database. I think the database will lead on to further research especially on migration as well.
One of the pamphlets that was issued by the Chief Rabbi was called ‘The Child Estranging Movement’, a criticism of some of the ways refugee committees behaved, or acted. In the same year, a pamphlet was published called ‘A Great Adventure’, and I think this is certainly what the British really had in mind: ‘To have given 10,000 children the opportunity to grow up in an atmosphere of decency and normality, to work, to play, to laugh and be happy, to assure their rightful heritage as free men and women.’ And I think this was Britain’s rescue plan.