• Kindertransporte •
Kindertransporte is the name given to the evacuation of – mostly – Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia to safety in Great Britain before war was declared in September 1939. The children had to travel unaccompanied and could only bring one small suitcase with them. To understand how parents could consider sending their children – some as young as three or four – all alone to a strange country, it's important to know what life was like for Jews and other 'undesirables' under the Nazi regime. The picture below shows hand-sewn Nazi insignia, which Jewish women might be forced to produce in concentration camps.
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, he began to promote the idea of a pure German race and express his hatred of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and anyone else he felt let down this Aryan ideal. Jews were banned from certain shops, restaurants and other public places and increasing numbers of Jewish teachers, doctors and civil servants were sacked. Then in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, to protect 'German Blood and German Honour'. Now Jews could no longer be citizens of Germany or marry non-Jews, and began to be persecuted in earnest. As Hannah Hickman wrote in the memoir of her escape from Nazi Germany to Britain as a girl of eleven, Let One Go Free:
This (the Nuremberg Laws) meant for example that my cousin Hanna Jacobsohn, who was half-Jewish, could not marry her fiancé Walter Naumann, who was 'pure' German. The only way they could marry was by emigrating under great difficulties to the USA. The anti-Jewish views of Hitler and his ministers, proclaimed well before they came to power, were put into practice as soon as they took over the government. To them the Jews were the scapegoats, responsible for defeat after World War 1, for the chaotic inflation and the massive unemployment. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of eliminating them from positions of state, of persecuting them and finally destroying them.
On 7 November 1938, a young Jewish man called Herschel Grynzspan shot a German diplomat in Paris, apparently in revenge for the fact that his family had been forced to flee from Poland. This was just the excuse the Nazis had been waiting for. They organised a mass uprising against Jews across Germany on the night of 9-10 November, in which over 400 synagogues were burnt down, 7,500 Jewish shops looted and destroyed, and approximately 30,000 Jewish men sent to concentration camps. Ninety-one Jews were killed outright in what became known as 'Kristallnacht': The Night of Broken Glass.
Kristallnacht showed the world how brutal Nazi Germany had become and how unbearable life was for Jews there. A debate on the matter was held in the British Parliament, and as a result it was decided that permission could be granted for Jewish children under eighteen to enter Britain, unaccompanied, where they would at least be safe. Ten thousand children under the age of seventeen came to Great Britain via Kindertransporte in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
One man in particular helped over six hundred children escape: Nicholas Winton, a left-wing British stockbroker who visited Prague at the invitation of a friend and saw firsthand the plight of refugees trying to escape Hitler's army. He worked day and night to raise funds for the evacuation and tell people what was happening elsewhere in Europe, knowing that war was imminent. Tragically, time ran out for the children due to leave Prague for England on 1 September 1939. Hitler invaded Poland that day and borders were immediately closed; the train on which they were sitting wasn't allowed to depart. All two hundred and fifty of those on board later died in the concentration camps, a tiny fraction of the million and a half children who were to perish by the end of the war.
Those who found sanctuary in Britain might be thought of as the lucky ones, yet they had problems and demons of their own to face. Most of them never saw their parents again and had to make a new life for themselves, often in difficult circumstances. Many had been taken into kind homes but others weren't so lucky and struggled to cope without the support of a loving family. They reacted to their predicament in different ways. In the words of one of the original Kinder, Margaret Olmer (quoted in Barry Turner's excellent book, And the Policeman Smiled):
'I had a drive to give back to myself, to society and to my people. I never felt any desire for violent revenge – just a tremendous desire to succeed here. I see it in so many people. They have replaced tenfold what was taken from them. They came from such shortages and came with nothing.'
For anyone interested in Kindertransporte and the Holocaust, a visit to Beth Shalom ('House of Peace') is the most inspiring experience. This Holocaust Centre has been set up by a Christian family in the middle of the Nottinghamshire countryside, with exhibitions, lecture halls and a memorial garden dedicated to victims of the Holocaust and genocide in other countries. This centre works with several Holocaust survivors and Kindertransportees to ensure their stories are not forgotten and to reach as many people as possible. The website www.holocaustcentre.net gives more information about Beth Shalom and a virtual tour around it, but a personal visit is unforgettable. The beautiful garden is full of roses and sculpture dedicated to victims of the Holocaust in this truly spiritual place.
Here are brief extracts from the stories of three people who came to Britain as children in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Firstly, Hannah Hickman, nee Weinberger, originally from Germany:
The violence done during Kristallnacht to parts of our flat was only one instance of the widespread attacks on Jewish property throughout Germany. In Würzburg, the synagogue was destroyed, candlesticks and articles used in the religious service were broken. The Torah scrolls, rolled-up parchments on which the five books of Moses in the Old Testament are inscribed by hand, and which are venerated as the word of God, were burnt. The Jewish school across the courtyard was also destroyed. When we returned to school, we found the furniture broken, with books and other articles strewn around in disorder. I was particularly upset about my needlework project: it was to have been a short apron, and Mother had taken me into town on a special trip to choose the apple-green linen with pink and brown embroidery thread. It did not survive the attack. From now on we had classes in one of the few remaining Jewish buildings with a large enough room. It was like a village school in which lessons for different age groups were held simultaneously. During the time until I left the following June, the number of children fell steadily as more and more families emigrated...
On 4 June 1939, my mother woke me about four o'clock in the morning. I hastily got dressed and had breakfast. Then my parents and I left for the railway station in Würzburg, where we lived. Soon the train arrived. It had already called at many cities and was full of children, some as young as three or four years old. My parents were allowed to travel with me for about half an hour, then at the next suitable station they got out and we said goodbye. I remember seeing them walking beside the track as the train pulled away. I never saw them or my brother and sister again...
From Let One Go Free by Hannah Hickman, published by Quill Press in conjunction with the Holocaust Centre
And this is part of Bob Rosner's story:
I was just under nine years old and I left Vienna, Austria, on 20 June 1939. I had no conception of what the end station, the terminus, might consist of. I didn't know anything about England really and, of course, I couldn't speak English. But I also had no conception of what kind of journey it might be.
I think that in all cases it was a very difficult thing for people to decide what things they might put into their small suitcase or bag. I still have here a silver spoon. My parents decided that I should have something to remind me of home. They perhaps knew the probability of us meeting again was very small and they had a knife, fork and spoon engraved with my name, Robert, and this is what remains. But consider the problem. How do you as a young person, how do you as a parent, decide what to put in one small case or bag? Do you put in things to do with washing and cleaning? Do you put in clothes? Toys? Do you put in mementoes of home maybe? What do you exclude? It's a great problem, and it was a great problem for all of us. I think that at the finish it was mostly clothing.
The fact is that our parents were not allowed to actually say goodbye to us at the railway station. They had to stay outside because they were Jewish... My parents went to a lot of trouble to explain and tell my sister that she must look after me. My sister, by this time aged thirteen, was told how important it was to look after me, who was coming up for nine. And she was enjoined to make sure that I was well and properly looked after – quite an important sort of load to give to a thirteen-year-old child, going into the unknown.
I felt pretty lousy, of course, at being separated from my parents. There was a feeling of adventure in going off into the unknown, because I knew that the life surrounding me was difficult, dangerous and harassing. I wasn't sure that all of this would disappear and now I would find something much better, but of course I hoped and expected to do so. I can remember little of the actual train journey, except that the train was stopped once or twice for uniformed folks to get on and go through all the luggage, of course, take whatever they wanted and generally harass and intimidate the young people. But I do seem to recall the train stopping after it crossed the Dutch border and the sun shining; and in the sunshine there were a lot of nice ladies who were serving us with tea, coffee, biscuits, chocolate, who would smile, pat us on the head, put their arms round us and generally make us feel that, at least in that part of the world, we were not verminous insects to be done away with...
Everything (in England) was totally different from what we had left. The clothes that people wore were different; the fields in the countryside looked different; it looked as if everybody lived in little houses. Where I came from, nobody lived in little houses; everybody lived in flats. The trains were different; the buses and cars looked quite different, drove on a different side of the road, and so on. When we stopped to use the toilets and have a cup of tea, we were offered this grotesque kind of tea and the snacks were not very palatable. But it was obvious that the two people who had met us, who became our guardians, were dying to be friendly, helpful and welcoming. But there was no language communication...
It was a bright idea of my foster parents to insist on sending me directly to school with their son Lionel. I also discovered that from the word go, Lionel wanted to be my ally. Every fight in the playground, he stood alongside me, and it was the two of us against the rest... But perhaps the most significant way for me to learn English and about English ways was that my guardians encouraged all their neighbours from the terrace of houses where we lived to visit in the evening and try to engage me in slow but purposeful English conversation. Quite a few did that, so that nearly every night there were two or three neighbours coming in to see me and help me.
From One of the Lucky Ones:Rescued by the Kindertransporte, published by The Holocaust Centre.
Finally, Suzanne Pearson, nee Ehrmann, originally from Czechoslovakia:
My transport left Prague on 29 June 1939 with about 241 children aged 2-15. I find it difficult to remember how I felt on that day when my parents took me to the railway station, and I became one of the children on one of the last trains to safety before the war started. Perhaps it seemed an adventure, and I certainly did not realize that I would never see my parents again...
When the war ended, eventually I got news of my parents' deportation to the ghetto in Lodz (a town in Poland where Jews were forced to live herded together under Nazi control, in terrible conditions; many starved to death or died of disease). This news was sent to me by my father's secretary: my father had left with her a letter for me and some belongings. I knew my father to be a resourceful man who would have tried to contact me if he were still alive, and so I realized that he and Mother were not likely to be returning ...I continually tried to get information about the death of my parents, but it was only in the 1970s that I learnt that my father's death is recorded in Lodz in October 1942. My mother was still alive there in 1943, but after that there are no records and I do not know how either of them died...
My own beliefs remain intact. My Jewishness is a positive part of myself, although I am not observant. I am on the left of politics, and like to think of myself as tolerant and anti-racist. My hope is that by telling my story, it will help young people to begin to understand what can happen to ordinary people when they become the victims of racism, discrimination and prejudice.
From Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, published by The Quill Press in association with The Aegis Trust.