This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransports.
On the night of 9/10 November, 1938, Jewish homes and businesses across Nazi Germany were trashed – an event known as Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass. Five days later, a delegation of Jews and Quakers appealed to the British government to waive the usual immigration controls and permit the temporary immigration of unaccompanied Jewish children. The government readily agreed, under certain conditions, mainly that the children wouldn’t be a burden on the state – they had to have homes to go to, whether with relatives or foster homes.
The first Kindertransport left Berlin on 1 December, 1938 – just three weeks after Kristallnacht – and arrived in Harwich the following day. The cargo of 196 children had mostly come from a Berlin orphanage burned down on Kristallnacht. Over the ensuing nine months, around 10,000 children arrived in Britain this way. The last Kindertransport before the outbreak of war made it on 1 September 1939. A later consignment was turned back, though a small boatload of children came to Britain from Holland in 1940.
Why should I be documenting this? Well, you see, I have a personal interest. My mother was among the children so saved. She had been born in Berlin in 1936, and was sent to Britain to be placed in the care of cousins. She arrived on one of the very last transports, and arrived at Liverpool Street Station (via Berlin, Den Haag and Harwich) on 23 August, 1939, a date we commemorate chez Crox as ‘Up Yours Adolf’ day. (Her parents were less fortunate.) On 24 June 2013, my mother and around 600 other representatives from the Association of Jewish Refugees commemorated the anniversary at a reception at St James’ Palace hosted by Prince Charles.
Today, statues at Liverpool Street Station commemorate the event. I like to think of my mother as the very small girl with the teddy bear (she was three and a half years old.)
It seems that the Holocaust remains very much a live issue. Judging from the homework tasks assigned to Crox Minor and Crox Minima, primary and secondary-school history curricula in Britain seem to discuss nothing else – there is a preoccupation with the rise of Nazi Germany that borders on obsessional.
The Holocaust and related issues are staples at the cinema – The Pianist, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List to name but
three six three. I have seen none of these films, nor do I intend to.
Some of these effusions are explicity aimed at children and/or what marketing people call ‘young adults’, such as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and The Book Thief. I have read both books, but do not intend to see the film of the first, though I might see the second, as the book was recommended by Crox Minor.
There is a line to be drawn (the colour of which is perhaps a subject for another day) between dignified commemoration and self-congratulatory wallowing, especially as it seems that no amount of repetition can persuade people to apply this history to the present day.
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. What’s prompted me to do so now is the continued debate about ‘our’ response to the ongoing conflict in Syria. Two years or more after the civil war started, more than a million children have been made refugees by the crisis. More than a million. Yet ‘our’ belated response has been a series of posturings about whether ‘we’ should launch punitive strikes against the Syrian regime, none of which will do anything to diminish the number of imperilled children.
Yet, back in the day, the UK government wasn’t talking about striking Nazi Germany (World War II was more than a year in the future) but worked very quickly to admit Jewish children to the UK. They set the whole thing up in two weeks, a whole year before anyone said anything about military action.
Why haven’t the lessons of history been learned? Why are we not applying the Kindertransport philosophy to Syria?
Yes, Islamic Relief UK and other agencies are sending aid to Syria, but are interested parties petitioning the government to relax immigration procedures for Syrian refugee children, as the Jews and Quakers did 75 years ago for German Jewish children? Perhaps they are – if you know, please add details to the comments.
And if the government were so petitioned, would it do something as immediate, as decisive and as positive as the British government did in 1938? I’d hope that it would — though, in a political climate stoked against immigrants by the likes of UKIP and the Daily Nimbyist Bungaloid Curtian Twitcher, it probably wouldn’t.
Which would be a shame. The Jewish refugees to Britain have probably been a net benefit to British public life, and the gratitude that they have publicly shown will be a benefit to Britain’s standing for generations to come. For this reason I look askance at politicians who make capital from slurs directed at immigrants, and, especially, towards asylum seekers. That, and the fact that were it not for some quick thinking in 1938, I wouldn’t be here.