On 75th Anniversary of the Kindertransport, British Jews Finding It Hard to Ask Questions

The narrative of Britain selflessly opening its doors to the Jewish refugees is compelling but 'it takes more self-confidence to say that British Jews weren’t always so wonderful.'

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last Sunday a moving event was held at St James’s Palace in London. Prince Charles held a reception for a large group of elderly Jewish men and women in their 80s and 90s born in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who had been allowed into Britain as refugees in late 1938 and 1939 right up until the outbreak of World War II.

The atmosphere at the reception was solemn but also festive, as the children of the Kindertransport lined up to greet the prince and thank the United Kingdom for giving them a haven, saving their lives just before the Nazi empire closed its gates and began enacting the Final Solution for the extermination of Europe’s Jews.

That is the accepted narrative of the Kindertransport. On its 75th anniversary, the nine-month operation that saved the lives of nearly 10,000 Jewish children was celebrated last week with a series of events; a shining example of British kindness to poor refugees and the local Jewish community’s mobilization on behalf of its brethren.

The Kindertransport is taught about in schools, noted routinely at Jewish events and immortalized by a poignant memorial outside London’s Liverpool Street train station: the statues of five wistful children with their meager belongings.

In the elegant Jewish Museum in Camden there are is a small exhibition devoted to the Kindertransport, which contains a few clues to uncomfortable questions not usually asked. The caption on an information board says that “After Kristallnacht, the British government agreed to relax immigration laws for Jewish and other non-Aryan children,” and that “adapting to life in Britain without their parents was difficult ... Most of the children never saw their families again.”

Letters of guarantee for 50 pounds that were necessary so the children could receive a visa are also on display, as is the small suitcase carried from Berlin by 15-year-old Martin Thau. We are told that his stepmother, who packed his case, and his sister also applied for visas but could not leave Germany, and Martin never saw them again.

These short captions hint at some thorny issues that are not mentioned in polite British-Jewish society. Why did it take a particularly violent outbreak of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism to get the British government to change its policies and allow the victims of Nazism into Britain? Why were the children of the Kindertransport allowed in but their parents consigned to extermination? The Germans would have allowed the adults out, it was Britain’s refusal to give them visas that damned them. What was the influential British Jewish community doing about this in the 1930s?

Other major Jewish communities have been debating these questions for decades. American Jews have been asking themselves for many years why they didn’t do more to raise awareness and lobby the Administration in the 1930s and even during the Holocaust. The accusation that the Zionist leadership and Jewish yishuv in Palestine did not do enough for European Jews was a burning political issue in Israel, even before the state was established and certainly in the years after. In Britain though, outside a small academic circle this issue has barely been heard.

Last month, veteran journalist Michael Freedland wrote what can be certainly described as a rare column in the Jewish Chronicle headlined “When we did not do enough.” Freedland highlights the stories of non-Jewish families who opened their homes to lonely Jewish refugees while at the same time lamenting “for every non-Jew who said yes, there were Jews who said no,” and “that Jews in the street here were worried about having these strangers among us.”

He tells the story of the Jewish community in the coastal town of Bournemouth, who when asked to provide homes for Kindertransport refugees decided that rather than risk the good relations they had with local residents by harboring alien citizens, to give each of the children 10 shillings and send them away. “It is a disgrace that needs thinking about” he writes, but few British Jews seem capable of doing so.

The narrative of Britain selflessly opening its doors to the Jewish refugees is too powerful for these question marks, and recently it has been boosted afresh by the most senior Jewish politician in the land, leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband, who often speaks of being the son of Holocaust refugees who found sanctuary in Britain, holding their experience up as an example of what British society is all about.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, the leading chronicler of the history of Britain’s Jews, says that it is no coincidence that in the official events for the Kindertransport’s anniversary “several facts were conveniently omitted. The first of these facts was that the initiative of bringing unaccompanied child refugees was undertaken despite the established organs of British Jewry and not because of them.”

According to Alderman, the leaders of British Jewry in the mid-1930s were not in favor of allowing large numbers of Jewish refugees into the country and did little if anything to lobby the government to change its immigration policies. The man who organized efforts by the Jewish community on behalf of European Jews in the 1930s was the banker Otto Schiff, who had been decorated by the government for his work with Belgian refugees during World War I. Schiff was trusted by the government, says Alderman, “because he brought to bear their prejudices that only a certain type of Jew should be admitted to England.”

Thousands of Jews were allowed in, but only those who were guaranteed not to be a “financial burden,” and in many cases the arrival of German Jewish refugees in the mid-1930s was stymied by organizations such as the British Medical Association and the Association of University Teachers, who were anxious not to allow Jewish doctors and academics, who had all been forced out of their jobs by the 1934 Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws, to enter Britain.

Schiff and his Jewish colleagues including Neville Laski, a judge and at the time the president of the Board of Deputies, the main representative body of British Jews, supported the government’s policies. “Laski accepted the view that Jews by their very presence in Britain caused anti-Semitism,” says Alderman, “and having accepted that, he was fearful that the more foreign-speaking Jews you allowed in this country, the greater anti-Semitism there would be.”

The prevailing view within the Jewish establishment only changed following the annexation of Austria in March 1938, following which thousands of Jews were humiliated in the streets of Vienna, and the widespread pogroms of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Following Kristallnacht a high-level delegation of Jewish leaders met with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, urging him to change the refugee policy. The delegation, headed by former minister and first British Commissioner to Palestine Herbert Samuel, who according to Alderman should be seen as “the great hero of the Kindertransport,” tellingly did not include Schiff, who it was feared would not argue in favor of accepting more refugees.

In a matter of days, the government agreed and parliament voted in favor of allowing unaccompanied children to enter Britain as refugees. In the 1930s, fear of a wave of anti-Semitism in Britain was not unfounded, but that hardly explains the reluctance today of British Jewry - without a doubt one of the most well-integrated and successful Jewish communities in history - to ask itself some tough questions.

Professor Alderman has a lecture he sometimes gives on “Why British Jewry stood aside during the Holocaust,” but says that “it has caused an uproar in the past when I gave it to Jewish groups - they found it too uncomfortable, upsetting and incredible,” and once he was even disinvited from an event when he proposed the subject to the organizers.

Another issue conveniently brushed over is the reason the children had to come over on their own, leaving behind their parents and elder siblings ?(16 was the age limit?) and the resulting trauma, guilt and often ill-treatment of the surviving children. Not all the children who arrived were lucky enough to be sheltered by warm families - some were exploited as child labor by their foster families, there were cases of sexual exploitation and in many cases the children were sent to families clearly unsuitable for them ?(in some cases after the war there were ugly fights over children who had converted to Christianity under the influence of their foster parents?).

But by and large, the children’s stories that have been widely published as part of the official commemoration process have been positive and grateful. It is natural for those whose lives were saved to be grateful, as it is for many, if not most British Jews, who are the descendants of refugees who arrived in Britain throughout the previous centuries, to focus on the positive aspects of their immigration and integration.

And of course, there are a lot of positives in the Kindertransport story: British people from all walks of life, Jewish and non-Jewish, who opened their homes and helped lonely children, aside from the basic fact that nearly 10,000 souls were saved from almost certain death.

And it is easy to excuse many of the failings in a program that was launched in a matter of days, was run by different and often competing organizations and had little if any time to locate suitable accommodation and families for all the children. And yet, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Kindertransport narrative has paid little attention to these failings, and glossed over the children’s hardships and trauma, partly because of the uncomfortable fact that the only reason their parents were left behind was that the British government refused them visas.

Collective amnesia

The lack of attention to these issues is not due to a lack of information. In addition to Professor Alderman’s research, other historians have written critically about the Kindertransport and other aspects of Britain’s pre-war immigration policy for years now. One of them, Professor Tony Kushner, believes that they are beginning to be heard within the wider Jewish community.

Kushner, who has written extensively on the way the Kindertransport narrative highlighted the “escape” from Germany ?(though they were all allowed out legally?) and the gratitude toward the British government while glossing over the negative aspects, says that “immediately after World War II British Jewry was struck by collective amnesia, probably caused by the guilt of those who had survived. The official line was that ‘we did everything we could have done,’ but that was simply untrue. They tried to convince themselves that ‘wasn’t it wonderful’ and it was wonderful, up to a point. Legally they needn’t have to admit a single child and they admitted 10,000. But except for a handful of individuals, no one lobbied the government to admit large numbers of refugees from Nazism.”

And while the main events commemorating the Kindertransport anniversary last week were celebratory, Kushner gave talks along more critical lines at two smaller events. “I raised there the fundamental question of was it the right thing to separate them from their parents and why were they alone, and since much of the audience were members of the second and third generations, they were more probing and willing to criticize, whereas the older generation feel a bond of gratitude. Slowly, there is a more open view of the Kindertransport and what was an alternative narrative is starting to become more mainstream.”

Kushner acknowledges that this is still happening mainly outside the central forums of the Jewish community, and that for the discussion to be more widespread “takes a greater degree of self-confidence and maturity because the current narrative is an overwhelmingly more assuring one, that Britain did everything it could. It takes more self-confidence to say that British Jews weren’t always so wonderful.”

Prince Charles meeting Kindertransport refugees and members of their families to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport, at St. James’s Palace in London last week.Credit: AP
Kindertransport.Credit: Tess Scheflan (Reproduction)



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