The Acculturation of the Kindertransport Children: Intergenerational Dialogue on the Kindertransport Experience

Ruth Barnett. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 23, Issue 1. Fall 2004.

Large numbers are difficult for the human mind to grasp. We do not have the facility for mental representations of mega-numbers like the world population of five billion, the UK population of 58 million, the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, 70,000 murdered Czech Jews named on the walls and ceiling of the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. These numbers are part of the stuff of factual history, based on documentation and other evidence. They are difficult to take into one’s mind imaginatively and so they tend to elude meaning.

Almost 10,000 children were brought to England on the Kindertransport, and nearly two million more children perished because they were not rescued from the Nazis’ annihilation campaign. These latter two figures have entered factual history. They too fall into the category of unimaginable and unrepresentable mega-numbers. But every single one of these two million children has a personal story that is well within our ability to imagine meaningfully and with which we can identify. For example, we are drawn by the story of Anne Frank. Each of the two million children has their own personal story, and collectively they form part of the narrative history of the Holocaust.

The murdered children can’t tell us their stories, and many of those who survived are unable to talk about their anguished trauma. Now, 55 years since the end of World War II, we are losing “story-carriers” daily as the first generation naturally age and die. We need to gather as much personal experience, through dialogue and recorded testaments, as is still possible, i.e., what it was really like for them as they lived it, and not rely on selected images from news reels of the time telling a romanticized story of rescue—selected clips of smiling children carried by or holding the hands of kindly policemen—that has entered the factual history of the Holocaust. As far as I know, this news item was dropped. Children brought to safety—end of story. But it was not the end of the story for the Kindertransport children. All were deeply and irrevocably affected, although this was not realized at the time by most of them or their caregivers. Compounding the trauma of loss of their parents, country, language, and just about everything familiar, they had to adjust to totally new situations, bewildering for all and terrifying for some. Their lives went on, changed forever, as many were not to realize until very much later.

The Kindertransportees’ Experience of Dialogue

Many, perhaps most, Kindertransport children did not recognize themselves as members of a group 10,000 strong. Some still don’t recognize themselves as former Kindertransportees and others reject this identity. I don’t know when or by whom the term Kindertransport was coined. These children simply knew themselves as children and, like any normal child, wanted to be “just like the other children.” They strove to be as much like the others as they could be because above all they had a desperate wish to be accepted. Not wanting to be seen as different, they did not make waves, fitting in as well as they could. They were not newsworthy—at least not until 1989, when Bertha Leverton organized the ROK: Reunion of Kindertransport.

Until that event, the word Kindertransport had not entered my vocabulary, and it was for me a shock to learn that I was one of nearly 10,000, when my mental picture was of only me and my brother coming to England from Berlin. For me, this two-day reunion event was an epiphany. I was overwhelmed by the personal stories I heard and the dialogue with other former Kindertransportees. I suddenly realized how much available knowledge I had avoided for 50 years. Like many others who attended that event, I became eager to know more, to make up for lost time. Scales dropped from my eyes and ears. Pieces of unrecognized experience began to fall into place, and I was willing and keen to read books and see films that I previously had found various reasons and means to avoid. My personal analysis helped me deal with these new insights.

To my consternation I found that several current clients in my private therapy practice had Holocaust trauma in their personal histories that I had not picked up before. Others started telling me about things to do with the Holocaust in their background. An unconscious block that had kept it a taboo area was suddenly dissolved. The Reunion of Kindertransport event had enabled me to construct my own Kindertransport narrative out of jigsaw pieces of what had been unconscious, unknowledge. More importantly, through this event I had given myself permission to see and hear what always had been taboo.

This taboo against knowing, a block that prevents awareness of the effects of Holocaust experience, was widespread after World War II, even among professionals working with people traumatized by the Holocaust. This was noted particularly by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich and expounded upon in their 1967 book, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: Grundlagen kollektiven Verhaltens (translated into English in 1975). The effect of this taboo on Kindertransportees was that they should avoid questioning, and they did so. This was how the “collective silence” was created and maintained for so long.

In response to the opening up of awareness and interest in the Kindertransport generated by the 50th anniversary Reunion of Kindertransport (ROK), a colleague, Judith Elkan, and I ran a series of groups in London and a day conference in Sheffield, over a period of three years, to allow Kindertransportees to share and explore their experiences. I have written up this work in some detail in an article. So I will only mention a few of the main findings from this project and my own clinical experience that have a bearing on intergenerational dialogue.

Three fundamental factors in the original uprooting and separation of the Kindertransportees very much affected the potential of individual children to adjust to their new life. These were: how much stability there had been in the child’s relationships and life prior to the separation; whether the child had been able to keep in touch with a relative or important person from the past during and after the separation; and the age of the child at the time of separation.

First, those children who were fortunate to have stable home lives before 1938 were better equipped on the whole to meet the Kindertransport experience. They were likely to have more capacity to trust in new people and digest new experiences. But many families had already been severely harassed and disrupted by Nazi persecution in the five years between 1933 and 1938, aside from the usual problems of family life. Some parents were able to maintain a sensible dialogue with their children and help them to make some sort of sense out of the disruptions. Others tried to protect their children by keeping them from knowing what was happening: “What they don’t know can’t hurt them.” But children sense when something is wrong, and not being told can be frightening and unhelpful. It may lead to the child’s filling in the knowledge gap with disturbing fantasies; e.g., some former Kindertransportees reported recurring nightmares about something they discovered later had not happened. On the whole honest, straightforward dialogue between parents and children proved more helpful to children than absence of it or gaps and secrecy, setting better foundations for dialogue with their own future offspring.

For example, Joseph recounted his memory of Kristallnacht as a seven-year-old boy walking the streets of Berlin with his father on the edge of the crowd. His father explained that they were safe in the crowd because the people doing nasty stupid things would think they were taking part and would leave them alone whereas they were going into Jewish homes arresting people for no good reason (in fact the SA did visit his home that night). When Joseph questioned how grown-ups could behave in a way that children would not be allowed to do, his father replied that adults got angry too and then they behaved like very bad children, particularly if their parents had not taught them properly. Thus Joseph remained confident in his parents’ ability to protect him, while for many Kindertransportees this confidence already had been shaken by the time of the separation. Joseph understood at a deeper level that his parents were sending him to safety, whereas some of the children felt deeply betrayed and abandoned, and that they had been sent away unwanted, though knowing rationally this was not so.

Second, it was vitally important for the Kindertransportees to be in contact with someone from their former life, at least one root that did not get severed and lost. This could mean the difference between psychological and mere physical survival. As we know, hidden behind the many success stories of Kindertransportees who made excellent adjustments and went on to make valuable and sometimes phenomenal contributions to their host community, there were some casualties, some tragic stories. Attachment theories had not yet been developed in 1938/9, and well-meaning adults, thinking that only a loving foster-family was needed, split up siblings between different foster-homes, with subsequent loss of contact. These children had a further separation inflicted on them. Hans and Uschi’s story can demonstrate the importance of dialogue with a familiar person. Uschi, at the age of seven, became four-year-old Hans’ “interpreter.” For Hans, the whole world had suddenly gone mad; everything was changed and, unable to speak English, he was frightened by it all. But Uschi would explain everything to Hans’s satisfaction. It did not matter that much of it turned out later to be pure invention. “Look after your little brother” were her parents’ last words, and so Hans was her raison d’être and link with her parents.

Third, the age of the child at the time of separation was significant, but mainly on an individual level. It is a much more complex issue than can be summed up with the generalization, “the younger the child the more severe the separation.” Very young pre-school children from families that had been able to maintain stability and who had already been accustomed to spending manageable amounts of time away from their parents—if also able to keep in dialogue with a relative—could adjust more easily and successfully than older children who had suffered demoralizing experiences such as school friends turning antisemitic, or a relative coming home from a labor camp broken in body and spirit.

In the 1990s, when Kindertransportees began dialogue with each other, most had reached the stage of having grandchildren and some, as grandparents, found they could respond to their grandchildren’s questions more openly than they had been able to do with their own children. They did not feel the need to protect their grandchildren from “frightening knowledge” as they had done with their children. But they had to face the impact of recognizing the loss of their own grandparents. As Sara described, “I found myself having pangs of jealousy—I did not have my mother any more when I came to England but I also lost my Omi and Opa.”

Dialogue Between Generations of the Kindertransport

The 50th anniversary of the Kindertransport stimulated the inner experience of many Kindertransportees, causing a sort of psychic encrustment to dissolve, allowing them to reflect on their early experiences and face the ways in which it had changed their lives. A collective movement was initiated through the ROK newsletter, which provided another means for dialogue, as did the many talks that Bertha Leverton and others were invited to give. The Kindertransportees claimed an identity for themselves, and the Holocaust Survivors Centre in London, originally founded for camp survivors, embraced hidden children and Kindertransportees. Gradually, through various kinds of dialogue, there was an important shift from regarding the Kindertransportees as “people who were rescued and therefore did not suffer” to recognizing the trauma that all of them suffered to some degree. The momentum was furthered by Dorit Whiteman, an American research psychologist and Kindertransportee who attended the 50th anniversary. She met and interviewed many Kindertransportees, whom she called escapees. Her intention was to write about “what happened to those to whom nothing happened at all,” but when she discovered in her research how much her interviewees’ lives had been changed, she changed her title to “The Uprooted” and produced a powerfully moving book.

By 1999, when Bertha Leverton and her team organized the 60th anniversary Reunion of Kindertransport, dialogue had already begun in families, and so the adult children of Kindertransportees were encouraged to take part. Both my colleague, Judith Elkan, and I were asked to facilitate open workshops for children of Kindertransportees. We each had a similar experience. Rooms meant for 30 people were filled with twice that number. The children of Kindertransportees had brought their parents and they wanted to get into dialogue between the generations. These large groups created a remarkably stimulating and safe ambience in which people of each generation were able to describe their experiences of the other generation in ways they had not done before.

Many of the adult children reported they had been able to encourage and support their parents in visits to their original birthplace; they had increased their knowledge of what had happened, and both Kindertransportees and their children had gotten in touch with the roots that had been severed by the Kindertransport. But they had been unable to listen to and tell each other what it had felt like to live together as families in the unseen shadow of the Kindertransport. This is what most of them were ready and wanted to do now. But for most of them, the theme was still too loaded with anxiety and fear of hurting and being hurt to do this within the family. They needed a different and safer forum, and these workshops were seized upon for this opportunity. The time allocated was not enough, even with agreed “overtime.”

Subsequently, Judith Elkan and I invited all those who had left contact addresses to a seminar to continue this dialogue. There have been five seminars so far, arranged under the auspices of LINK Psychotherapy Trust, and the series is continuing. Some people have come consistently, but at each meeting there have been new people. Always two and sometimes three generations have been represented. The members of this group have gained validation of their personal experience through telling and being listened to by both generations. Furthermore, they have bounced their ideas about the narratives off each other. Second-generation members, struggling in the face of the enormity of what their parents endured, are using this group to find a voice for their own experiences. The dialogue gradually has gained momentum and shifted from just listening to each other’s stories to “looking between the lines” to understand the psychological processes and meanings involved.

Mourning has been a major theme. The generations work together to put into words and recognize the long-denied or minimized losses the Kindertransport children suffered. This creates a medium for recognizing that the second generation has suffered loss too: the lack of knowledge of their roots, the inhibition of dialogue with their parents, the absence of grandparents. The generations help each other to bear knowing. Strange behaviors of their parents take on meaning for the second generation as they begin to understand what it was like for their parents to deal with the situations in which they found themselves. Likewise, parents become open to understanding how their children had difficulties in spite of their parents’ monumental efforts to give them the best.

Both generations recognize elements in themselves of a compulsion “to repair the damage” literally, rather than go through the pain of mourning to a reparative resolution. Many of the first generation used their need to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and succeed—not only for their own sake but for their lost parents—to apply themselves diligently to fitting in and learning. They became workaholics and achieved by sheer drive and will to succeed. Sometimes they provided a too daunting model for their children, and misunderstanding arose between parents who could not understand their children’s difficulties. Adult children recalled feeling they couldn’t have their own life. These misunderstandings were aired in the seminars and the issue of separation tackled. Adult children of kindertransportees have difficulty believing their parents can manage without them, and the parents have difficulty letting their children go.

Identity is another major theme. This emerged in response to the newfound common identity of belonging to the Kindertransport. In their stories, both generations could identify with the common thread, “I never felt I belonged” or “There wasn’t anywhere I could feel I belonged.” Severed from their roots in another country, the Kindertransportees could not fully belong anywhere in England. This was so even for those who were sensitively treated in caring foster-families. Parents, home, and mother tongue could not be replaced. Painfully, the dialogue uncovered how the Kindertransportee parents transmitted this feeling of “we don’t really belong here” to their children, who felt all through their childhood that they were “not quite like the rest.” What had happened to the Kindertransportees’ religion and Jewishness was repeatedly discussed as individuals needed to sort out their personal position on this subject.

Fear of involvement is a constant backdrop to the exploration of difficult and painful feelings like guilt, shame, resentment, and suppressed rage. One second-generation person expressed this as being “a prisoner of the Holocaust”: “I can’t stop. It haunts me. I must find out more.” Ambivalence about involvement is manifest in that most members are unable to commit themselves to coming to each seminar until they are only a few days away.

Transmission of trauma to the next generation is a theme that caused pain and needed a lot of unraveling of misunderstandings before it could be understood, accepted, and then explored. Experiences that were impossible for the Kindertransport children to process at the time of separation and adjustment to life in England had to be locked away in the attics of their minds. This is poignantly portrayed in Diane Samuels’ play, “Kindertransport.” As shown in the play, it is often the questions posed by the third generation that precipitate the attic’s being opened. At first very painful for the parents to acknowledge, discussion about the past brings considerable relief and healing to both generations, recognizing that the second generation has a “second chance” to mourn the losses. One second-generation member expressed his difficulty in “letting go”—a sort of masochistic hanging on to pain as a means of feeling alive in the face of deadening depression. The depression could be lifted by mourning the losses. Facing this together has a healing effect for both generations.

Conclusion

To understand the collective narrative of the Kindertransport, as part of its history, we need to examine not only the available testaments that have been collected, i.e., the individual stories, but also the dialogue among Kindertransportees, then- children and grandchildren. The first stage has been to identify the kindertransportees as a group of individuals who went through a traumatic separation experience involving massive loss—of parents, home, country, language, and all that had been familiar. For many Kindertransportees this was the start of a process of self-discovery that meant constantly rewriting their personal story as they learned more about their own, each other’s, and their children’s experiences. Their lives have taken on a new look and collectively we can begin to understand in greater depth how they came to terms with the losses and adapted to a new culture. A particularly poignant issue is the collective denial that their own ability to parent the next generation could have been affected by the ruptured parenting they had themselves. Kindertransportees put their desire to make up to their children for their own and their parents’ losses high on their list of priorities. For many it is a profound disillusionment to accept the transmission to the next generation of something created by the Kindertransport experience.

The mechanism of this transmission of trauma has been based, at least in part, on the desire of the Kindertransport parents to protect their children from the hardships and horrors they went through themselves, by not telling them. This wall of silence detracted from a normal flow of dialogue between the two generations. The children mostly sensed that there was something “bad” that was not to be talked about and were provoked by a conflict between wanting to find out and preserving what they saw as their parents’ frailty and need for protection. Thus both sides experienced themselves as needing and wanting to protect the other from being disturbed and damaged by the Kindertransportee’s story. In fact, both sides were protecting themselves from the anguish that would accompany the telling. Through facilitated dialogue, many families were enabled to begin to bear listening to each other’s feelings and experiences. This has led to some sharing of painful feelings and has been difficult for some but has led to enrichment of the intergenerational relationships. It also has added to knowledge about the collective experience of the Kindertransport.

Outwardly successful acculturation of the Kindertransportees masked the fact that the inner processes were, for most Kindertransportees, held up for decades by society’s collective denial of the emotional effects of the separation and losses the Kindertransportees suffered. I have outlined just five of the many themes explored in the intergenerational seminars, which show that intergenerational dialogue can be a powerful medium for continuing the Kindertransport acculturation internally. These themes of mourning, separation, identity, ambivalence, and transmission of trauma to subsequent generations are major ones. There were many more interwoven in the fabric of the dialogue.

While there are living Kindertransportees there is still work to be done through intergenerational dialogue for the benefit of future generations. Many of the first generation are embracing and working on reviewing and accepting the fullness of life in preparation for leaving it. An increasing number have been publishing books about their quest to reclaim their personal narrative. Second generation “Kinder’s Kinder” are realizing the importance of dialogue with their own children, the third generation. Some are also writing books of their stories, e.g., Anne Karpf’s The War After? There is work for researchers to collate the individual stories into collective narrative for posterity.

There is an accumulation of knowledge from researching the kindertransport experience, but can we use it? How can we bring it to those in a position to make use of it? Separation from parents as a means to rescue children from danger zones is still happening. For example, large groups of children were brought out of Kosovo without their parents. Among the asylum seekers entering the United Kingdom are planeloads of “seedling” children, organized by unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Can we use what we have learned from the Kindertransport to understand and offer appropriate help to children suffering separation and loss today?

Facilitated dialogue is a powerful medium. What might we offer those in charge of refugee children? And how might we go about delivering what we have gained from work with the Kindertransport? The task of telling the story continues. Many Kindertransportees go into schools as live witnesses to resource Holocaust education now required by the UK National Curriculum. Some also go into German schools as Zeitzeuge. Some second-generation Kindertransportees (and a few from the first generation) take part in workshops for dialogue between inheritors of the aftermath of the infamous Third Reich on both sides. Research, archiving, and continually updating, increasing, and improving education about the Holocaust and other genocides helps decrease the misunderstanding, suspicion, and threat that feed into the vicious circle of racism, violence, war, genocide and denial.