Eighty five years ago the British public woke up to the news of the November Pogrom — Kristallnacht — in the German Reich. Newspapers reported that on 9 and 10 November 1938, villages, towns and cities saw widespread state-sponsored violence perpetrated against Jewish people, Jewish-owned property and synagogues. UK readers were horrified and demanded action from their government. However, the government of the time, led by Neville Chamberlain, was reluctant to make a generous offer of sanctuary to Jewish refugees. They were worried about the country’s security, cautious about the cost and concerned about causing a potential rise in anti-foreign and antisemitic sentiments in some sections of the UK electorate.
A few days later Chamberlain met with representatives from the Anglo-Jewish community, who had been leading the call for refugees in the UK, and from the Quakers, who were able to support those in need of refuge on the Continent. Among other ideas, temporarily admitting a number of unaccompanied children was discussed. Just a week later, on 21 November, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, announced this scheme as the government’s new refugee policy. The Kindertransport scheme was born — though the term was used widely only much later.
The scheme was now governmental policy, but it was not backed by government finances or given organisational support. Chamberlain made this clear in his speech in the House of Commons: “With regard to the United Kingdom, the number of refugees which Great Britain can agree to admit, either for a temporary stay or for permanent settlement, is limited by the capacity of the voluntary organisations dealing with the refugee problem to undertake the responsibility for selecting, receiving and maintaining a further number of refugees.” This meant that voluntary bodies not only had to select children but also fundraise in order to organise and support the entire process. Large-scale admission of refugees to the UK had happened before (eg Belgian refugees during the First Wold War). Even child refugees arriving without their families was not new (it happened during the Spanish Civil War) but this was a gargantuan undertaking. Continental organisations had been involved in child emigration for several years, though initially most had rejected the idea of unaccompanied child emigration. They were now under increased pressure because of the mounting persecution, and many struggled to cope with the number of desperate parents asking for help.
The major drawback of the scheme was the fact that only those under the age of 17 (later lowered to 16) were to be admitted — and not their parents and adult family members. Politicians were fully aware of what they were asking of parents. Hoare stated in Parliament: “I could not help thinking what a terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany”. By November 1938 conditions were clearly so terrible that many parents were willing to take this step and part from their children.