The Kindertransport (German for "children's transport") was an organised rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.
World Jewish Relief (then called The Central British Fund for German Jewry) was established in 1933 to support in whatever way possible the needs of Jews both in Germany and Austria. Records for many of the children who arrived in the UK through the Kindertransports are maintained by World Jewish Relief.
On 15 November 1938, five days after the devastation of "Kristallnacht", the "Night of Broken Glass", in Germany and Austria, a delegation of British, Jewish, and Quaker leaders appealed, in person, to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain. Among other measures, they requested that the British government permit the temporary admission of unaccompanied Jewish children, without their parents.
The British Cabinet debated the issue the next day and subsequently prepared a Bill to present to the United Kingdom's Parliament. That Bill stated that the Government would waive certain immigration requirements so as to allow the entry into Great Britain of unaccompanied children ranging from infants up to the age of 17, under conditions as outlined in the next paragraph. No limit upon the permitted number of refugees was ever publicly announced. Initially, the Jewish refugee agencies considered 5,000 as a realistic target goal. However, after the British Colonial Office turned down the Jewish agencies' separate request to allow the admission of 10,000 children to British-controlled Palestine, the Jewish agencies then increased their planned target number to 15,000 unaccompanied children to enter Great Britain in this way.
On the eve of a major House of Commons debate on refugees on 21 November 1938, Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare met a large delegation representing various Jewish, Quaker and other non-Jewish groups working on behalf of refugees. The groups, though considering all refugees, were specifically allied under a non-denominational organisation called the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. This organisation was considering only the rescue of children, who would need to leave their parents behind in Germany.
The agencies promised to find homes for all the children. They also promised to fund the operation and to ensure that none of the refugees would become a financial burden on the public. Every child would have a guarantee of £50 sterling to finance his or her eventual re-emigration, as it was expected the children would stay in the country only temporarily.
In that Parliamentary debate on refugees of 21 November 1938, Home Secretary Samuel Hoare paid particular attention to the plight of children, as recorded in Hansard. Very importantly, he reported that enquiries in Germany had determined that, most remarkably, nearly unanimously every parent asked had stated that he would be willing to send his child off unaccompanied to the United Kingdom, but leaving his parents behind (see debate transcript).
He declared that he (and the Home Office) would have no objection to expediting and speeding up the immigration process, as for instance that travel documents would be issued on the basis of group lists rather than individual applications.
Within a very short time, the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later known as the Refugee Children's Movement (RCM), sent representatives to Germany and Austria to establish the systems for choosing, organising, and transporting the children. World Jewish Relief (formerly the Central British Fund for Germany Jewry) were involved in the rescue operation.
On 25 November, British citizens heard an appeal for foster homes on the BBC Home Service radio station from Viscount Samuel. Soon there were 500 offers, and RCM volunteers started visiting possible foster homes and reporting on conditions. They did not insist that the homes for Jewish children should be Jewish homes. Nor did they probe too carefully into the motives and character of the families: it was sufficient for the houses to look clean and the families to seem respectable.
In Germany, a network of organisers was established, and these volunteers worked around the clock to make priority lists of those most in peril: teenagers who were in concentration camps or in danger of arrest, Polish children or teenagers threatened with deportation, children in Jewish orphanages, children whose parents were too impoverished to keep them, or children with a parent in a concentration camp. Once the children were identified or grouped by list, their guardians or parents were issued a travel date and departure details. They could only take a small sealed suitcase with no valuables and only ten marks or less in money. Some children had nothing but a manila tag with a number on the front and their name on the back, others were issued with a numbered identity card with a photo:
This document of identity is issued with the approval of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom to young persons to be admitted to the United Kingdom for educational purposes under the care of the Inter-Aid Committee for children. / This document requires no visa. / Personal Particulars. / (Name; Sex; Date of Birth; Place; Full Names and Address of Parents)
The first party of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on 2 December, three weeks after Kristallnacht. In the following nine months almost 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to England. There were also Kindertransports to other countries, such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer arranged for 1500 children to be admitted to the Netherlands while waiting for entry to Great Britain; the children were supported by the Dutch Committee for Jewish Refugees until their further passage. In Sweden, the Jewish Community of Stockholm negotiated with the government for an exception to the country's restrictive policy on Jewish refugees for a number of children. Eventually around 500 Jewish children from Germany aged between 1 and 15 were granted temporary residence permits on the condition that their parents would not try to enter the country. The children were selected by Jewish organizations in Germany and placed in fosterhomes and orphanages in Sweden.
Initially the children came mainly from Germany and Austria (by then part of the Greater Reich). In March 1939, after the German army invaded Czechoslovakia, transports from Prague were hastily organised. In February and August 1939 trains from Poland were arranged. Transports out of Nazi-occupied Europe continued until the declaration of war on 1 September 1939.
The very last transport from the continent, with 74 children, left on the passenger-freighter SS Bodegraven on 14 May 1940, from IJmuiden, Netherlands. Their departure was organised by Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, the Dutch organiser of the first transport from Vienna in December 1938. She could have joined the children but chose to remain behind. This was a rescue action, as occupation of the Netherlands was imminent, with the country capitulating the next day. This ship was the very last to leave the country freely.
As the Netherlands was under attack by German forces totalling 750,000 men from May 10, and bombings had been going on, there was no opportunity to confer with the parents of the children. At the time of this evacuation, these parents knew nothing of the evacuation of their children: according to unnamed sources, some of the parents were initially even very upset about this action and told Wijsmuller-Meijer she should not have done this. After May 15, there was no more opportunity to leave the Netherlands, as the country's borders were closed by the Nazis.
During the war years many Kindertransport children served in the British armed forces, the nursing professions, in food production and in war-related industries. Several thousand remained in Britain when the war ended, and as adults made considerable contributions to Britain's services, industries, commerce, education, science and the arts, for the defence, welfare and development of their country of adoption.
The Nazis had decreed that the evacuations must not block ports in Germany, so most transport parties went by train to the Netherlands; then to a British port, generally Harwich, by cross-channel ferry from the Hook of Holland near Rotterdam. From the port, a train took some of the children to Liverpool Street Station in London, where they were met by their volunteer foster parents. Children without prearranged foster families were sheltered at temporary holding centres at summer holiday camps such as Dovercourt and Pakefield. While most transports went via train, some also went by boat, and others aeroplane.
The first Kindertransport left Berlin on 1 December 1938 and arrived in Harwich on 2 December with 196 children. Most were from a Berlin Jewish orphanage burned by the Nazis during the night of 9 November, and the others were from Hamburg.
The first train from Vienna left on 10 December 1938 with 600 children. This was the result of the work of Mrs. Gertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a Dutch organizer of Kindertransports, who had been active in this field since 1933. She went to Vienna with the purpose of negotiating with Adolf Eichmann himself, but was initially turned away. She persevered however, until finally, as she wrote in her biography, Eichmann suddenly "gave" her 600 children with the clear intent of overloading her and making a transport on such short notice impossible. Nevertheless, Wijsmuller-Meijer managed to send 500 of the children to Harwich, where they were accommodated in a nearby holiday camp at Dovercourt, while the remaining 100 found refuge in the Netherlands.
Many representatives went with the parties from Germany to the Netherlands, or met the parties at Liverpool Street Station in London and ensured that there was someone there to receive and care for each child. Between 1939 and 1941, 160 children without foster families were sent to the Whittingehame Farm School in East Lothian, Scotland. Whittingehame was the family estate and home of the late British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration.
The RCM ran out of money at the end of August 1939 and decided it could take no more children. The last group of children left Germany on 1 September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, and two days later Britain, France and other countries declared war on Germany. A party left Prague on 3 September 1939 but was sent back. Because of the outbreak of war, the border with the Netherlands was closed for some time, although the Netherlands remained neutral and was not invaded until 10 May 1940.
Days after the invasion, 74 children boarded the last known boat transport to leave the Netherlands, on 14 May 1940, the same day as the bombing of Rotterdam and the Dutch army's surrender to Germany. It was the last boat to leave the port of IJmuiden (near Amsterdam), and was also the work of Wijsmuller-Meijer. She had collected 66 of the children from the orphanage on the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam, part of which had been serving as a home for refugees.
Many children were still in the Netherlands and Belgium when Germany occupied those countries, ultimately resulting in many of their deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
In the UK a number of members of Habonim, a Jewish youth movement inclined to socialism and Zionism, were instrumental in running the country hostels of South West England, where some of the Kindertransport children were placed. These members of Habonim were held back from going to live on kibbutz by the effects of the Second World War. Other Jewish youth movements in the UK including Bnei Akiva also subsequently participated in this work by running additional hostels.
These hostels were turned into centres for study of secular and Jewish subjects as well as temporary homes for the children. They were run on communal lines. About 120 of the Kindertransport children grew up during the war years at these hostels at Exmouth, Dawlish, and South Devon. Bnei Akiva ran a number of hostels including at Gwrych Castle in North Wales, Bromsgrove and Farnham. The hostels themselves were large family mansions that were made available by their owners and helped by both the British government and the Jewish social and charitable organizations. Some of the Habonim members also participated with the older children in helping to farm and to grow agricultural produce to aid the war effort. The languages used were a mixture of German, Polish, Czech, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.
Records for many of the children who arrived in the UK through the Kindertransports are maintained by World Jewish Relief through its Jewish Refugees Committee. On the supply of authorised documentation, copies of these documents can be supplied to family members at a small fee to cover administration costs.
At the end of the war, there were great difficulties in Britain as children from the Kindertransport tried to reunite with their families. Agencies were flooded with requests from children seeking to find their parents, or any surviving member of their family. Some of the children were able to reunite with their families, often travelling to far off countries in order to do so. Others discovered that their parents had not survived the war. In her novel about the Kindertransport titled The Children of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek describes how often the children who had no families left were forced to leave the homes that they had gained during the war in boarding houses in order to make room for younger children flooding the country.
Before Christmas 1938, a 29-year-old British stockbroker of German-Jewish origin named Nicholas Winton planned to fly to Switzerland for a ski vacation when he decided to travel to Prague instead to help a friend who was involved in Jewish refugee work. Thereafter, he established an organisation to aid Jewish children from Czechoslovakia separated from their families by the Nazis, setting up an office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He ultimately found homes for 669 children. Winton's mother also worked with him to place the children in homes, and later hostels, with a team of sponsors from groups like Maidenhead Rotary Club and Rugby Refugee Committee. Throughout the summer, he placed advertisements seeking British families to take them in. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland – the start of the Second World War.
Winton acknowledged the vital roles of Beatrice Wellington, Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and others in Prague who also worked to evacuate children from Europe, in the early stages of the German occupation.
Wilfrid Israel (1899–1943) was a key figure in the rescue of Jews from Germany and occupied Europe. He warned the British government, through Lord Samuel, of the impending Kristallnacht in November 1938. Through a British agent, Frank Foley, passport officer at the Berlin consulate, he kept British intelligence informed of Nazi activities. Speaking on behalf of the Reichsvertretung (the German Jewish communal organisation) and the Hilfsverein (the self-help body), he urged a plan of rescue on the Foreign Office and helped British Quakers to visit Jewish communities all over Germany to prove to the British government that Jewish parents were indeed prepared to part with their children.
Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld brought in 300 Orthodox children under auspices of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council. He housed many of them in his London home for a while. During the Blitz he found for them in the countryside often non-Jewish foster homes. In order to assure the children follow Jewish dietary laws (Kosher) he instructed them to say to the foster parents that they are fish eating vegetarians. He also saved large numbers of Jews with South American protection papers. He brought over to England several thousand young people, rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers and other religious functionaries.
In 1940, the British government ordered the internment of all male 16- to 70-year-old refugees from enemy countries — so-called friendly enemy aliens. Many of the children who had arrived in earlier years were now young men, and so they were also interned. Approximately 1000 of these prior-kinder were interned in these makeshift internment camps, many on the Isle of Man. Around 400 were transported overseas to Canada and Australia (see HMT Dunera).
As the camp internees reached the age of 18, they were offered the chance to do war work or to enter the Army Auxiliary Pioneer Corps. About 1000 German and Austrian prior-kinder who reached adulthood went on to serve in the British armed forces, including in combat units. Several dozen joined elite formations such as the Special Forces, where their language skills were put to good use during the D-Day Invasion and afterwards as the Allies progressed into Germany.
The British internment period for friendly enemy aliens generally lasted only a few months, until they were processed by the government and released.
The One Thousand Children (OTC) was a similar but much less organised effort to transport unaccompanied children, mostly Jewish, to the United States. The program brought about 1400 children aged between 14 months and 16 years to the United States between November 1934 and May 1945. Like the kinder, these OTC children were forced to leave their parents behind in Europe; many of them were later murdered by the Nazis.
In contrast to the Kindertransport, where the British Government waived immigration visa requirements, these OTC children received no United States Government visa immigration assistance. Furthermore, it is documented that the State Department deliberately made it very difficult for any Jewish refugee to get an entrance visa. And it was even harder to secure the appropriate papers for their parents, hence most had to remain in Europe.
In 1939 Sen. Robert F. Wagner and Rep. Edith Rogers proposed the Wagner-Rogers Bill in the United States Congress. This bill was to admit 20,000 unaccompanied Jewish child refugees under the age of 14 into the United States from Nazi Germany. However, in February 1939, this bill failed to get Congressional approval.
A number of children saved by the Kindertransports went on to become prominent figures in public life, with no fewer than four becoming Nobel Prize winners. These include:
In 1989, Bertha Leverton, who escaped Germany via Kindertransport, organized the Reunion of Kindertransport, a 50th-anniversary gathering of kindertransportees in London in June 1989. This was a first, with over 1200 people, kindertransportees and their families, attending from all over the world. Several came from the east coast of the USA and wondered whether they could organize something similar in the U.S. They founded the Kindertransport Association in 1991.
The Kindertransport Association is a national not-for-profit organization whose goal is to unite these child Holocaust refugees and their descendants. The association shares their stories, honors those who made the Kindertransport possible, and supports charitable work that aids children in need. The Kindertransport Association declared 2 December 2013, the 75th anniversary of the day the first Kindertransport arrived in England, as World Kindertransport Day.
The first documentary film made on the subject of the Kindertransport was My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports, which was shown, and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996 and released theatrically in 1998. The director, Melissa Hacker, is the daughter of the costume designer Ruth Morley who was a Kindertransport child. The film is narrated by Joanne Woodward
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, narrated by Judi Dench and released by Warner Bros., won the Academy Award in 2000 for best documentary feature. There is also a companion book by the same name. The film's producer, Deborah Oppenheimer, is the daughter of a Kindertransport survivor. The director, Mark Jonathan Harris, is a three-time Oscar winner.
The Children Who Cheated the Nazis, narrated by Richard Attenborough is a British documentary film by Sue Read and Jim Goulding, first shown on Channel 4 in 2000. Attenborough's parents were among those who responded to the appeal for families to foster the refugee children; they took in two girls.
Kindertransport: The Play, is the name of a play by Diane Samuels, which examines the life, during World War II and afterwards, of a Kindertransport child. Among other things, it presents the confusions and traumas that arose for many kinder before, and after, they were fully integrated into their English foster-homes; and, as importantly, when their real parents reappeared in their life, or more likely and tragically, when they learned that their real parents were dead.
In the novel The Remains of the Day and subsequent film adaptation, two teenage refugee sisters fleeing Germany are employed in Lord Darlington's household, only to be dismissed soon afterwards when Darlington, a Nazi sympathiser, reads the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain.
Austerlitz, by the Anglo-German novelist W G Sebald, is an odyssey of a kindertransport boy brought up in a Welsh manse who later traces his origins to Prague and then goes back there. He finds someone who knew his mother, and he retraces his journey by train.
Sisterland, a young adult novel by Linda Newbery, concerns a Kindertransport child, Sarah Reubens, who is now a grandmother; sixteen-year-old Hilly uncovers the secret her grandmother has kept hidden for years. This novel was shortlisted for the 2003 Carnegie Medal.
My Family for the War, a young adult novel by Anne C. Voorhoeve, recounts the story of Franziska Mangold, a ten-year-old Christian girl of Jewish ancestry who goes on the kindertransport to live with an Orthodox British family.
Far to Go, a novel by Alison Pick, a Canadian writer and descendant of European Jews, is the fictional account of a Sudetenland Jewish family who after fleeing to Prague use bribery to secure a place for their six-year-old son aboard one of Nicholas Winton's transports.
The English German Girl, a novel published in 2011 by Jake Wallis Simons, a British writer, is the fictional account of a 15-year-old Jewish girl from Berlin who is brought to England via the kindertransport operation.
"The Children of Willesden Lane", A historical fiction novel for young adults about the Kindertransport, told through the perspective of Lisa Jura, the mother of the author.
In BBC1's The Kindertransport Story, three rescued children, now in their eighties, tell their moving stories. Also taking part in the programme was Lord Attenborough, whose own parents took in two girls after responding to the urgent appeal for foster families.
The End Of Everything Ever - a play for Children by the New International Encounter group which follows the story of a child sent from Czechoslovakia to London by train.
On 1 September 2009, a special Winton train set off from the Prague Main railway station. The train, consisting of an original locomotive and carriages used in the 1930s, headed to London via the original Kindertransport route. On board the train were several surviving Winton children and their descendants, who were to be welcomed by the now hundred-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton in London. The occasion marked the 70th anniversary of the intended last Kindertransport, which was due to set off on 3 September 1939 but did not because of the outbreak of the Second World War. At the train's departure, Sir Nicholas Winton's statue was unveiled at the railway station.
Jessica Reinisch notes how the British media and politicians alike allude to the Kindertransport in contemporary debates on refugee and migration crises. She argues that 'the Kindertransport is used as evidence of Britain’s “proud tradition” of taking in refugees' and such allusions are problematic as the Kinderstransport model is taken out of context and thus subject to nostalgia. She points out that countries such as Britain and the United States did much to prevent immigration by turning desperate people away; at the Évian Conference in 1938, participant nations failed to reach agreement about accepting Jewish refugees who were fleeing Nazi Germany.
Many German refugee boys and some Winton children were given refuge in Christadelphian homes and hostels and there is substantial documentation to show how closely Overton worked with Winton and, later, with Winton's mother.
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