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Lichtman-Behm Genocide Lecture Series: Kindertransport


A Special Rescue Operation

In 1938, immediately after the November 9, 1938 Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) Nazi pogrom in Germany and Austria, the Jews of Britain initiated the unique rescue operation now known as 'Kindertransport'.  Within days they obtained the permission of the government and, in the nine months leading up to World War II, with aid from Quaker and other non-Jewish refugee organizations, brought nearly ten thousand unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to safety in Britain.  Kindertransport was unique in that Jews, Quakers, and Christians of many denominations worked together to rescue primarily Jewish children.

Most of the children, but not all, were Jews.  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.  Most of the parents who had sent them to safety perished in the Holocaust.  Most of the children ultimately settled in Britain; others re-emigrated to Israel, the Americas, and elsewhere, scattering over the world.

Parents concerned about Nazi terror send their children to a foreign country

What made parents arrange to have their children go to another country even though they might never see them again?  The decision to send off one’s children was an enormously difficult one for parents.  Mothers and fathers felt that the Kindertransport was the best chance for their children to survive. The children in Germany and the other countries already under Nazi occupation could no longer attend school.  Parents feared for their children’s safety and believed their children would be much safer in England. They hoped that their children would be able to resume their education.  Parents hoped that they too would also find a way to get out of Europe and be reunited with their children. They knew that things were getting worse and worse for Jews and knew the Nazis were brutal even to children.

The transports

The first Kindertransport arrived at Harwich, England on December 2, 1938, bringing 196 children from a Berlin Jewish orphanage burned by the Nazis during the night of November 9, 1938.  Most of the transports left Nazi-occupied Europe by train from Vienna, Berlin, Prague and other major cities.  Children from small towns traveled to those larger cities to join the transports. The transports crossed the Dutch and Belgian borders, and went on by ship to England. Hundreds of children remained in Belgium and Holland and faced Nazi terror once again when those countries were invaded by the Nazis.  The transports ended with the outbreak of war in September 1939. 

One very last transport left on the freighter Bodegraven from Ymuiden on May 14, 1940 – the day Rotterdam was bombed and one day before Holland surrendered. The ship was raked by gunfire from German warplanes.  The eighty children on deck had been brought by earlier transports to imagined safety in Holland.  Altogether, though exact figures are unknown, the Kindertransports saved around 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. None were accompanied by their parents; a few were babies carried by older children.

Not an easy time for the children

Kindertransport children were dispersed to many parts of the British Isles. About half lived with foster families, the others in hostels, group homes, and farms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Those older than fourteen were frequently absorbed into the country’s labor force after a few weeks of training, mainly in agriculture or domestic service. Many families, Jewish and non-Jewish, opened their homes to take in these children. Many of the children were well-treated, developing close bonds with their British hosts; however, others were mistreated or abused. A number of the older children joined the British or Australian armed forces as soon as they reached eighteen years of age and joined the fight against the Nazis. Most of the children never saw their parents again.

The children on the transports were spared the horrors of the death camps, but they were uprooted, separated from their parents, and transported to a different culture where they faced not the unmitigated horror of the death camps, but a very human mixture of kindness, indifference, occasional exploitation, and the selflessness of ordinary people faced with needy children. The children had to deal with worry about their parents, homesickness, grief, and survivor’s guilt.

Sir Nicholas Winton

Many great people, including Sir Nicholas George Winton, responded to the need to rescue children.  Winton was born in 1909 and is a British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. Winton found homes for them and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. 

Winton kept quiet about his humanitarian exploits for many years, until his wife Grete found a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1988.  It contained lists of the children, including their parents' names, and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. By sending letters to these addresses, 80 of "Winton's children" were found in Britain.  The world found out about his work in 1988 during an episode of the BBC television programme That's Life! A 2002 documentary, The Power of Good: Sir Nicholas Winton and a 2011 documentary Nicky’s Family tell Winton’s inspiring story.

Some teens arrested as “enemy aliens”

People in England were scared that people of German descent might be spies for the Germans, and during the fifth column scare* in 1940, more than one thousand Kindertransportees over the age of sixteen were sent out of Britain to be interned on the Isle of Man and other sites.  Sent on the same ships as Nazi POWs, some boys were transported to Canada, and some to Australia aboard the “hell-ship” Dunera.  That many of the 'enemy aliens' were Jewish refugees and therefore hardly likely to be sympathetic to the Nazis, was a complication no one bothered to try and unravel - they were still treated as German and Austrian nationals. In one Isle of Man camp over 80 per cent of the internees were Jewish refugees.

After German U-boats sank the Arandora Star carrying 1,200 internees with the loss of 600 lives, public pressure built against further indiscriminate internment.  A large number of the deported returned to England, and along with many young people who had stayed in Britain, Kindertransportees joined the army which now accepted “enemy aliens”.

* Fifth column -- A clandestine subversive organization working within a country to further an invading enemy's military and political aims.

Reuniting the ‘Kinder’

In 1988 Bertha Leverton, a Kindertransport child living in London, began to plan a local 50th anniversary reunion of the Kindertransports. The news spread and the local gathering became an international reunion. In June 1989 over 1,200 people, Kinder (as they now called themselves) with spouses and children, arrived from all parts of the United Kingdom, Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries including Nepal. They came to see and find old friends, to rejoice in their survival, to thank the people of Britain, to say Kaddish for the thousands of parents who with the strength of love had sent their children away to live, with the inner knowledge that they themselves might not. The majority of Kinder had never seen their parents again.

The June 1989 reunion of the Kindertransport children was described in an article in the Cleveland Jewish News.

They met people they had known as children on their transport and hadn’t seen again in close to 50 years.  There was a frenzy of people peering to read nametags, greeting old friends, laughing, crying, remembering.  At the reunion it was next to impossible to get complete, or even partial, silence.  It was humorous to hear someone at the microphone trying to quiet people in their 50’s and 60’s by shouting “Kinder, silence!”