LONDON – On December 2, 1938, a 13-year-old boy arrived in Britain on the first ever Kindertransport – the operation that would save 10,000 mainly Jewish children from the Nazis by bringing them to stay with volunteer families in the United Kingdom.
Leslie Brent grew up to become an exemplary British citizen. After school he served as a British infantry captain (born Lothar Baruch, he Anglicized his name when he enlisted), and after the war became a world-renowned immunologist and transplantation biologist.
“I’ve had nothing but kindness in this country,” Brent, now 93, tells Haaretz. And it’s a kindness he would like to see extended to modern-day child refugees.
In November 1938, following Kristallnacht, the British government agreed to amend visa requirements in order to allow children at risk in Nazi Europe to be brought to the United Kingdom. For several years now, Brent has argued that the British government should follow this example to help address the crisis of children fleeing war-torn countries across the world.
“I don’t know a single Kinder who has not worked well, and often with distinction, for his or her newly adopted country,” Brent says. “I have seen absolutely no reason why modern child refugees wouldn’t do exactly the same.”
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Events marking the 80th anniversary of the start of the rescue mission (November 15, 1938) have focused on parallels with the current child refugee situation, with many of the leading advocates for a more humane policy coming from within the ranks of the Kinder themselves.
The biggest event is a ceremony in central London on Thursday, organized by former Kinder and Labour Party peer Lord Alf Dubs and Barbara Winton. Her father, Sir Nicholas Winton, saved 669 children from Czechoslovakia, including Dubs.
More than 60 Kinder will be feted by 1,000 guests at the Quakers’ Friends House event, with speakers including Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, government ministers, Sir David Attenborough and Vanessa Redgrave.
London’s Jewish Museum is also commemorating the anniversary with “Remembering the Kindertransport: 80 Years On.” The exhibition runs through February 10 and features video testimony from six Kinder, alongside personal objects and photographs they brought with them from Europe.
“The effort by Jewish organizations, Quakers, charitable organizations and local committees was incredible,” explains co-curator Dr. Kathrin Pieren. “The first transport took place less than a month after Kristallnacht. It was difficult; the [British] government made it clear it would not cover any of the costs, so the various groups had to fund and organize it themselves,” she says.
The Kindertransports ran for nearly 18 months, with the last transport from Nazi Germany leaving Berlin on September 1, 1939, just before the start of World War II. The final Kindertransport came from the Netherlands and reached Britain on May 14, 1940.
Each child had to have a guarantee of 50 English pounds – a considerable sum in those days (and worth about $3,400 today) – and the expectation was that they would leave for another country after the war. However, the majority stayed and became British citizens. “The idea was that they would only be here temporarily,” Pieren says. “No one knew what was going to happen.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a panoply of events, including many that tie the experiences of Jewish refugees from Europe to more recent arrivals.
It’s a link made explicit by some of the stars of the exhibition themselves. Elsa Shamash, now 91, laments the current situation in Hungary and Austria, not to mention the rise of the far-right in Germany.
“I don’t feel very happy about the situation in England either,” she says in her video testimony, decrying U.K. government policy toward both refugees and migrants from former British colonies.
The Kindertransport and modern-day child refugees are firmly linked in the public imagination thanks to the efforts of Dubs – one of Britain’s best-known former Kinder. He arrived in Britain alone, age 6, from Prague.
A leading advocate for refugee children throughout his political career, in 2016 Dubs sponsored an eponymous amendment to allow unaccompanied children with no direct family link to the country to come to the United Kingdom. The consensus was that Britain had the capacity to absorb some 3,000 children before the amendment concluded in 2020. However, the British government has now made it clear that it will be accepting fewer than 500.
To coincide with the 80th anniversary, Dubs has also launched It’s Our Turn – a campaign calling on the U.K. government to echo the experience of 1938-39 by resettling 10,000 children over the next 10 years.
Campaigners say United Kingdom has a far from exemplary record when it comes to providing sanctuary for children fleeing war and persecution.
According to the child refugee charity Safe Passage, it has resettled just 20 unaccompanied children from conflict zones in the past two years. A further 400 minors have been accepted together with their families. (United Nations data show that more than 20,000 unaccompanied child refugees arrived in Europe in 2017 alone.)
“There are hundreds of children waiting in Calais, thousands in Greece – some in circumstances so bad that they have attempted suicide,” says Safe Passage spokeswoman Rosie Rooney. “The government contention that once a child makes it to Europe they are safe doesn’t hold up.
“We’re so lucky to have so many Kinder supporting us,” Rooney continues. “They are presenting an alternative to the argument that there is no space, we can’t help. The same argument was made in 1938, and now we see the Kindertransport as a proud British achievement. So just as campaigners countered that narrative in 1938, we need to counter it now.”
Rooney believes the parallels resonate. “Most people agree that vulnerable children have the right to grow up in safety, and Britain has always seen itself as a humane country that helps others in need,” she says. “This is a tangible way we can demonstrate that that’s true.”
Brent agrees wholeheartedly. In a world experiencing ongoing conflict, the richer countries cannot expect to sequester themselves from the consequences, he says.
“I think we have to prepare to accept more refugees; it’s inevitable,” he says. “But Brexit has unleashed a wave of hatred of foreigners which is quite frightening – one of the many negative aspects of Brexit,” he says, referring to the U.K. public’s decision to leave the European Union.
“People say the situation is very different” than in the ’30s, Brent says. “But these are parentless children, exploited, destitute. It may be unworthy of me, but I can’t help thinking there is an underlying racism here. I wonder if these refugees had been European, would the attitude have been the same?”