OPINION: Kindertransport legacy: Confronting antisemitism in today’s world

Posted on January 4, 2024

The decision to allow Jewish children into the UK took time, persuasion and campaigning. Despite all of that work, it was really the November pogrom, known as Kristallnacht, that served as a wake up call for the rest of the world, showing as it did that the anti-Jewish hate had reached a crescendo and that there was a real risk to Jewish life. Seeing the annexation of Czechoslovakia, it became clear to many that this threat spread beyond Germany and Austria.

The Kindertransport has long been heralded as Britain’s response – seeing the risk, this country led by example, using British values to save Jewish lives. But like so much of the history of the Holocaust, it was complex.

Because while 10,000 Jewish children were saved, the majority of them would never see their parents again – they were not permitted entry and most of them were later murdered by the Nazis.

It took time for the British Government to make the decision to allow these children access. The violence seen rampaging through German towns and cities during Kristallnacht finally tipped the balance, proving to the onlooking world that Jewish people under Nazi control were at imminent risk. But this did not come out of nowhere, it came after years of increasing persecution and antisemitism.

And this ‘rescue’ of children did not come cheap – the bond required for each child was £50, equivalent to £2,780 in today’s money. Private citizens or organisations had to guarantee payment for each child’s care, education, and eventual emigration from Britain. The original plan by the British Government was for these unaccompanied children to return home to their families once the “crisis was over”.

The Kindertransport is not simply a story of rescue and survival. At its heart it is also a story of loss. It is a story of children who came here, many alone and without speaking a word of English, and who managed to rebuild their lives. It is a story of parents, who were forced to make the impossible decision to send their children away to unknown lands. It is the story of the murder of most of those loved ones left behind.

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