Kindertransport: History and Memory

Rebekka Göpfert & Andrea Hammel. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 23, Issue 1. Fall 2004.

The experiences of Kindertransport children are considerably different from those of adults who fled. Normally children were unable to decide on emigration themselves, and it was often only at the station that they realized they had to leave their parents. Emigration for them took place at the stage when a familiar environment with known people is a necessary requirement for development. Moreover, children are always dependent on the help and support of others, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings.

The term “Kindertransport” refers to an operation under which nearly 10,000 Jewish and non-Jewish children were rescued from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and brought to Great Britain. Because this operation was limited to children and adolescents up to the age of 16, most of them had to leave their parents behind. Only a small proportion of those saved were reunited with their parents after the end of the war. As most of those rescued by the Kindertransports still today call themselves Kind (plural Kinder), I have also used this term for the children who in the meantime are between 65 and 80 years old.

After the British government had been alerted by Jewish organizations to developments in Germany and particularly to the pogrom night of November 9, 1938, there were several reasons for Great Britain to issue group visas for an unlimited number of children. Firstly the UK felt a particular responsibility for the refugees from Europe in that Palestine was governed as a British protectorate, but in order not to endanger its diplomatic relations with Arab states the United Kingdom had decreed strict immigration restrictions. Furthermore the government, seeing itself as a world power, hoped with misaction to represent a role model which would encourage other countries to follow suit. Not least, the government was aware of its responsibilities to its own Jewish community and did not wish to evade them.

However, the fundamental attitude to the Jewish refugees from Europe tended to be reserved. The outcome of the conference at Evian-les-Bains in July 1938 corresponded roughly with the British position towards the refugee question. Under no circumstances did the government wish to give the impression that Britain had opened wide its doors to allow even more refugees to enter the country. It also wanted to avoid encouraging the German government to carry out further expulsions. The danger of provoking further persecution and expulsion of the Jewish population by adopting over-liberal refugee regulations was an argument which was constantly drawn upon both before the outbreak of war, and also during the war itself, to justify the British asylum policy.

The decision to issue group visas for Jewish children reflected to a degree this attitude and was, moreover, relatively easy to carry out with the agreement of the British public. Children aroused sympathy in the majority of the population and they posed little danger, at least in the short term, to the labor market. Moreover the children’s stay in the country was at first only planned to be temporary, for at the time of their arrival it was confidently assumed that they would either return to their home countries or would migrate to the U.S.A. or Palestine. Furthermore, it may seem strange from today’s perspective how casually children were separated from their parents through the visa regulations. However, for a large section of British society, who could look back on a long tradition of boarding schools, it was completely normal for children to grow up from an early age away from their parents.

The number of visas was at first unlimited. Thereafter, as a reaction to critical enquiries about the number of children expected, there were varying statements which swung between 5,000 and 50,000. The fact that it was in the end around 10,000 children and not more is largely attributable to the start of the war. Great Britain would probably have accepted more children had the war not broken out on September 1, 1939.

The admission of the children was decided and the formal preconditions were created at a breathtaking tempo by today’s standards. The first transport was ready to leave Berlin on December 1, only two weeks after the proposal of the Jewish delegation had been presented. In Great Britain the organization of the whole action had at first been taken over by the Council for German Jewry. Very soon after, following the arrival of the first Kinder, the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM) was founded and became responsible for all the needs of the Kinder, the host and biological families, the reception homes, and so on. On the German side individual Jewish communities took charge of announcing the possibility of emigrating, and were active in the preparation for, and organization of, the departure.

Once they had arrived in the UK the Kinder were at first housed in reception camps and then distributed to guest families and homes. At first, host parents were allowed to choose “their children” in reception camps such as Dovercourt. But this resulted in younger girls finding new homes, while older boys were often disadvantaged. Because caregivers recognized how humiliating this procedure must be for the children—it was likened by one Kind in retrospect to a “cattlemarket” atmosphere—, it was changed, and the RCM took over wherever possible the matching of foster parents and Kinder.

In allocating Kinder those responsible tried to place children from religious homes with Jewish families. This was not always successful, and there were repeated cases of attempted conversion, but there were also numerous Christian families who took great care to maintain the tradition of the children entrusted to their care. The latter kind of host parents, for example, sent the Kinder regularly to Jewish religious instruction and offered them, if not kosher, at least vegetarian food.

Despite the efforts of the RCM to find a suitable child for each foster family, there were numerous host parents who, for whatever reason, requested the transfer of the Kinder. Interestingly, it was far less often the Kinder themselves who asked to be moved. There were other causes for changing the new home. Following the outbreak of war those Kinder who had reached the age of 16 were interned as enemy aliens, though the majority were soon released again. The fear of bombing caused British schools to be moved away from conurbations to the countryside. Naturally this also affected the children of the Kindertransports.

The factors mentioned were the main reasons for numerous transfers of Kinder. For them this always meant leaving a place which at least for a while had become familiar. The result was renewed insecurity for the Kinder. They were obliged to adjust to a new environment and build up new relationships; and in most cases no one involved could say how long the new placement would last.

It is easy in retrospect to judge critically the work of the RCM. Psychological and educational aspects were hardly considered, and the list of psychological damages among the Kinder resulting from unsuitable host families is long. However, one should bear in mind the circumstances under which the entire operation was carried out. Since one condition attached to the agreement of the action was that absolutely no state resources should be drawn upon, the whole operation had to be financed by donations. The costs incurred by the RCM fell into two categories: accommodation of the Kinder and administration. Although the accommodation costs for the great majority of the Kinder were met by the families and institutions which had taken them in, the RCM had to find money for roughly every eighth child. On top of this came money for clothing which the RCM paid for all Kinder. Administration and organization involved various costs such as salaries for employees (even if a majority of these gave their services free) and the cost of a large office. Overall this amounted to 40 to 45 percent of the sum spent on the Kinder themselves.

In spite of extensive fund-raising and support from wealthy Jewish families and businesses (among them the Marks and Spencer chain), there was a severe shortage of money. At the headquarters of the Refugee Children’s Movement in Bloomsbury Square there was also an acute shortage of personnel, and there was often insufficient staff available to visit individual Kinder. Moreover the RCM was heavily dependent on host families who were prepared to accommodate the Kinder without charge. It can be assumed that in some cases the RCM left Kinder in unsuitable families rather than sacrifice the accommodation. To these problems were added the deterioration in communications following the outbreak of war, which meant that many Kinder could no longer be visited regularly, and that any difficulties which did arise could only be reacted to after a long time delay.

One of the commonest remarks which crystallized out of the interviews of the Kinder was that to this very day it is difficult to decide in retrospect what was most important, having been rescued, having their dignity protected, or having their Jewish roots respected and nurtured. These questions were rarely addressed explicitly, but the dilemma between gratitude and bitterness surfaced in most of the interviews and played a significant role in their life-stories. This was particularly clearly the case with survivor guilt, the phenomenon which often arises among Holocaust survivors and which has become well-known in the meantime to researchers in this field. This is particularly often observed in the Kinder, for they were saved because their parents found the strength to send them away. Very few of the parents survived the Holocaust.

However, today the Kinder, incidentally like the children who survived the Holocaust in hiding, have to struggle with other feelings from those who survived the concentration and extermination camps. In the face of the horror of the camps the Kinder are not so readily allowed to grieve over their experiences and losses. Society and their own consciences seemed to say that only those who were freed from the extermination camps were real survivors, while nothing really happened to them because they spent the worst period in the security of Great Britain, without suffering hunger or pain.

This form of survivor guilt finds expression not only in guilty feelings towards those who were murdered, but still more in relation to the family and friends who survived the concentration camps. It is therefore no coincidence that the first large Kindertransport reunions (like the first reunions of the hidden children) took place at a time, towards the end of the eighties, when the majority of the survivors of the concentration camps were already dead. One can see here a coming out from under the shadow of the Auschwitz survivors. Many Kinder were for the first time enabled to articulate for themselves and society that also they had survived traumatic experiences about which they grieve and must to this day come to terms.

In the interviews there is confirmation that the circumstances of the Kindertransports—the memories of persecution and humiliation by the National Socialists, the early separation from parents, the repeated change for some of foster parents, evacuation and internment, the experience of being an outsider in a foreign country, the loss of family members, and survivor guilt—were traumatic experiences whose effects are felt up to the present. The insecurities and psychological disturbance made the Kinder far less defended and more vulnerable to further trauma for the rest of their lives. Hans Keilson has coined a phrase taken from the example of Jewish war orphans in the Netherlands which is also applicable to Kindertransport children, that is “sequential traumatization.”

A study presented in Great Britain in 1985, for which around 300 children were questioned, lists depression, relationship problems, extreme insecurity, fear of abandonment, and restlessness as well as mistrust of their surroundings as psychological problems which often arise in the Kinder. However the study indicates that in comparison with the indigenous population of Great Britain no significantly higher rate of inpatient treatment for psychological complaints in general can be established. It is just that mental illness as well as outpatient hospital treatment for the specific problems mentioned arise far more often than among native-bom Britons of the same age groups.

Particularly interesting in this study are the differences which can be established between men and women, and also between members of different age groups. Women appeared on the whole to be less satisfied and happy with their later lives and more often felt themselves disadvantaged in terms of career. One explanation for this may be that men had the chance to fight in the British armed forces, which earned them prestige and respect and could compensate at least in part for their refugee status. Interestingly Kinder from orthodox families clearly found it most easy to adjust to their new environment in that they were accustomed from early age to taking, to a certain degree, the outsider role.

In discussions with the Kinder a further peculiarity was uncovered. Kinder who migrated on to the U.S.A. or Israel often regarded their own life stories in an easier or more reconciled way than those who stayed in Great Britain. This may, for one thing, have to do with the fact that further migration was often linked to the coming together of family and friends, whereas those who stayed in Britain were much less often reunited with surviving relatives. More important, however, seems to be the different status accorded these two categories. In Great Britain the Kinder are to this day, even though largely integrated and furnished with British passports, regarded as refugees. On the other hand the American Kinder are immigrants among many other groups, together with whom they become respected American citizens. Speaking English with a foreign accent is almost the rule in the U.S.A., while in Great Britain it continues to be a differentiating characteristic. The same applies to foreign-sounding names.

One should add to this the fact that the Holocaust plays a much more prominent role in American than in British collective memory. This was particularly obvious in 1995 when the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of May 8, 1945 took place. In the British press and among the British public the end of the war was celebrated primarily as the last great military achievement of the British Empire, while the fact that this day meant the end of the Holocaust remained firmly in the background. This is the more astonishing since Great Britain is the country, within Europe, which between 1939 and 1945 accepted by far the majority of refugees who were able to escape the National Socialists, and in the meantime accommodated the largest Jewish community in Europe. In the U.S.A., by contrast, the Holocaust has long had a quite different status. One only has to think of the Holocaust memorial in Washington, DC and the role played by America in the negotiation over the compensation payments to forced laborers, just to mention two examples.

Two large organizations, the British Reunion of Kindertransport (R.O.K.) and the North American Kindertransport Association (KTA), play an important role in the protection and preservation of memories about the Kindertransports. We have them to thank that since the eighties regular reunions at local and international level have taken place. Here Kinder have been able to meet again after decades, and for many these events have offered for the first time the opportunity to exchange memories with others. Many did not know until then that they were not alone in their fate and that exactly the same happened to others as to themselves.

The activities of the Second Generation which in the U.S.A. combined together under the acronym KT2, also contribute much to overcoming and adjusting to the history of their parents. It has given itself the task of enabling both dialogue between the generations and also further memory work on the Kindertransports. For example, at the reunions KT2 offers to document the memories of interested Kinder in the form of a video recording, the aim being on the one hand to save for posterity their life stories, and on the other hand to facilitate talking about their experiences to their children and grandchildren. Moreover, KT2 has begun to establish an archive in which photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and other documents related to the Kindertransports are collected.

But even beyond the affected group preoccupation with the Kindertransports is gaining ground. Around ten years ago next to nothing was known about the whole action, at least in Germany. Since then it has forced itself somewhat more strongly into the public consciousness. In the meantime there have been several publications on the theme, and the large reunions have been reported in the media. A further step would be the inclusion of the term “Kindertransport” in the appropriate dictionaries and historical accounts.

In Great Britain the action has long been known to academic circles, and to the general public for at least several years. Now a statue has been erected at Liverpool Street station, and in 1999 a plaque was unveiled in the House of Commons, both memorializing the Kindertransports. These memorials remind us of this unique rescue action and perhaps also prompt us to imitate the same in similar emergencies.