Please Note: Some may find this content upsetting.
Today, we live in a world of 24-hour media where images are beamed across the globe within seconds of an event, enabling us to see, hear and connect with people and their lives.
Over 75 years ago though this was entirely different, news from other parts of the world was limited, edited and much slower to reach us.
The current and heart-breaking refugee crisis, got me thinking of another refugee crisis during which shone a short but lasting beacon of light in one of the worst periods of our history.
This crisis was taking place during WWII and it led to a series of rescue missions for mainly Jewish children fleeing the German regime.
The missions were informally called Kindertransport (or transportation of children) and took place in the 15 months between December 1938 and May 1940.
The Kindertransport is an amazing story of the true wonder of the human capacity for kindness and connection during the darkest of times.
Before the onset of the Great Depression in Germany in 1929–1930, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (or Nazi Party for short) was a small party on the radical right of the German political spectrum.
On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler to be Chancellor of Germany and soon after that, Adolph Hitler began instituting policies that isolated German Jews and subjected them to persecution.
Within months, tens of thousands of Jews left Germany; in total, more than 340,000 Jews emigrated from Germany and Austria. Of these, about 100,000 who fled to other European countries were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.
Soon emigration slowed considerably as visas became impossible to get.
Among other things, Hitler’s Nazi Party, commanded that all Jewish businesses be boycotted and all Jews be dismissed from civil-service posts.
Within two years, German businesses were publicly announcing that they no longer serviced Jews. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September 1935, decreed that only Aryans could be full German citizens.
After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 nations in western Europe and America feared an influx of refugees.
In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside United States consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000.
Britain limited its own intake in 1938 and in May 1939, a policy statement approved by the British Parliament, contained measures that severely limited Jewish entry into Palestine.
In a highly-publicised event in May–June 1939, the United States and Cuba refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis.
The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to all but 30 of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States.
Denied permission to land in Cuba or the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe and on June 7, the captain had no choice but to return to Germany with most of his passengers still on board.
On June 10, Belgium accepted 200 passengers from the St. Louis. Two days later, the Netherlands promised to take in 194. Britain and France admitted the rest.
Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.
To try to deal with the “refugee problem” – a conference proposed by President Roosevelt was held in the French resort town of Evian, attended by representatives from thirty- one countries.
The Evian Conference began on July 6, 1938 and lasted for eight days. Despite grand proclamations, the Conference proved to be ineffectual, as most countries continued to refuse to accept new immigrants. After discussing a variety of potential settlement locations, the participants could only agree to meet again later.
In late 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old ethnically Polish Jew who had been living in France for several years, learned that the Nazis had exiled his parents to Poland from Hanover, Germany, where Herschel had been born and his family had lived for years.
This angered Herschel enormously and he sought revenge. On November 7, 1938, the teenager shot Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, in Paris.
Rath died two days later from his injuries and Hitler attended his funeral. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’, immediately seized on the assassination to rile Hitler’s supporters into an anti-Semitic frenzy.
The Kristallnacht pogrom (A Pogrom is a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.”) of November 9–10, 1938, was the result of that rage.
Just before midnight on November 9, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent a telegram to all police units informing them that “in shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.”
Starting in the late hours of November 9 and continuing into the next day, Nazi mobs torched and vandalised hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany and damaged, if not destroyed, thousands of Jewish homes, schools, businesses, hospitals and cemeteries. Nearly 100 Jews were murdered during the violence.
The police were instructed to arrest the victims. Firemen stood by synagogues in flames unable to do anything; they had explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent “Aryan” properties.
In the immediate aftermath, the streets of Jewish communities were littered with broken glass from vandalised buildings, giving rise to the name, Kristtallnacht, Night of Broken Glass.
Kristallnacht marked a turning point toward even more violent and repressive treatment of Jews by the Nazis. By the end of 1938, Jews were prohibited from schools and most public places in Germany–and conditions only worsened from there.
UK Parliament agrees to immigration of refugee children
Following the violent Kristallnacht pogrom of 9-10 November 1938, the British government eased immigration restrictions for certain categories of Jewish refugees.
Spurred by British public opinion and the persistent efforts of refugee aid committees, the British Jewish Refugee Committee (later the Refugee Children’s Movement) appealed to Members of Parliament and a debate was held in the House of Commons, on 21 November 1938.
It was the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” that swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom.
It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would re-join their parents when the crisis was over. A £50 bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.”
Typically and very sadly, these children never saw any of their relatives again, as many were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
The Refugee Children’s Movement acted quickly. It sent representatives to Germany and Austria to establish selection and transport procedures, and priority was given to those children most in danger. These associations generally favoured children whose emigration was urgent because their parents were in concentration camps or were no longer able to support them. They also gave priority to homeless children and orphans.
Parents or guardians couldn’t accompany the children. The few infants included in the programme were tended by other children on their transport. The children were to travel in sealed trains so as not to be seen.
These were known as the Kindertransports, or children transports.
In Britain, a radio appeal for foster homes was broadcast on the B.B.C. Home Service and generated many hundreds of initial offers.
The first Kindertransport from Berlin departed on 1 December 1938, less than one month after Kristallnacht; the first from Vienna left on 10 December.
After three months, the emphasis shifted from Germany to Austria. Transports from Prague were hastily arranged after the German army entered Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Transports of Polish Jewish children were arranged in February and August 1939.
Transport trains crossed into the Netherlands and Belgium and then continued to Britain by ship. The first Kindertransport ship arrived at Harwich in England on 2 December 1938; they continued to arrive twice a week until June and July 1939, when they landed daily.
The last transport left on September 1, 1939, just two days before Great Britain’s entry into the war; this marked the end of the programme.
The last transport from the Netherlands left for Britain on May 14, 1940, the day on which the Dutch army surrendered to German forces.
By that time, approximately 10,000 children had made the trip (some 7,500 of them Jewish) from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to Great Britain.
Upon arrival in Harwich, all the children received medical examinations and were then put on trains to London. They would have been nervous, excited and terrified at the prospect of a new life in Britain.
Some children left to live with relatives already in England, whilst others went to live with foster families already arranged before their arrival.
To ease their fears, some kind Londoners took children to the cinema and gave them treats as they waited to be collected by their foster families.
Those children without sponsors were housed in a summer camp in Dovercourt Bay and in other facilities until individual families agreed to care for them or until hostels could be organised to care for larger groups of children.
Many organisations and individuals participated in the rescue operation, people of many denominations worked together to bring refugee children to Britain.
Ordinary Britons opened their homes, despite the severe shortages they were living with and welcomed children in to their family. Indeed, some children were adopted in later years by the families who had fostered them.
After the war, many children from the children’s transport programme became British citizens, the majority stayed and raised their own families. Some emigrated to Israel, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
During the war little was known of the horrors of the concentration camps and it wasn’t until after 1945 that the true extent and scale of the atrocities became better understood.
Those who saved the children from the Nazi regime, saved those children’s lives.
Many thousands of people survive today, the children, grand-children and great grand-children of these brave young refugees, the Kinders.
Were it not for the energy, determination and kindness of all who arranged the safe passage and care of these innocent children to a new life, many of these children would not have survived.
The Kindertransport is a true story of Wonder; you can listen to the podcast episode here
I leave you with a poem written by Tom Berman, one of the Kinders brought to the UK.
The Leather Suitcase
when this case
with protective edges
at the corners.
when voyage meant
waiting for a thinning mail
weeks, then months,
across the Reich
and starts again…
a lighted gangplank,
night ferry to gray-misted
again the rails
reaching flat across
in my bedroom
a silent witness
with two labels
“Wilson Station, Praha”
“Royal Scot, London-Glasgow”
from a far-off country,
containing all the love
parents could pack
for a five year old
off on a journey