The Kindertransport’s complex legacy

Posted on January 10, 2024

When 200 unaccompanied child refugees arrived in Harwich, Essex, in early December 1938, they did so through a new visa-waiver system. These children from Berlin were escaping Nazi persecution, and eventually more than 10,000 children — mostly from Jewish families — would arrive in Britain via the same process.

Last month marked the 85th commemoration of the Kindertransport. Compared to some of the anti-refugee rhetoric or policies of politicians and governments today, the Kindertransport looks like a model of a successful state-run rescue mission. But is that true?

This sculpture in London commemorating the Kindertransport is part of a series created by Jewish architect and artist Frank Meisler. Each of the five pieces are located in different European cities, roughly representing key points from Meisler’s own journey in 1939. Photo by Steve Daniels via Wikimedia Commons

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, when state-sponsored violence was perpetrated against Jewish citizens across the German Reich, the British government was under pressure from the public to help continental Jewish citizens. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government was reluctant to offer refuge to Jews, however, fearing for the U.K.’s security, the financial cost and the xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments of some of the electorate. The government refused to commit financial or organizational help, but came up with the compromise of admitting unaccompanied minor children into the U.K.

The decision to only admit the children but not their families is one of the most controversial aspects of the Kindertransport. Some experts have suggested that parting from your own children was seen as more normal in the 1930s; but even in 1938 Home Secretary Samuel Hoare noted the pain that the parents were likely to experience when parting from their children:

“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.”

My own research has shown that child refugees were adversely affected by this separation. For example, Kindertransport refugee Eva Mosbacher was a well-adjusted 12-year-old from Nuremberg, Germany, who settled in successfully with her foster family in Cambridge. Nevertheless, she continuously expressed her longing to be reunited with her birth parents in her letters. In 1942, her parents were deported with 1,000 other Jews and murdered in the Belzyce ghetto in Poland. After the war, Eva stayed in the U.K. and worked as a nurse, but took her own life in 1963.

Some MPs expressed the view that only children who would be of benefit to the U.K. should be admitted. This was reflected in the selection criteria of the Refugee Children’s Committee, an interdenominational umbrella organisation based in the U.K. and tasked with overseeing the Kindertransport. Largely staffed by volunteers, it tried to only admit children who did not have any special needs or health issues. This seems especially cruel when one considers that by 1938 many of the youngsters had lived under the stressful conditions of discrimination and persecution for years.

In addition to rejecting applications if any illnesses or special needs were mentioned, children whose parents had a history of mental health problems were also rejected. Born on April 26, 1926, Herta Baumfeld was not accepted for the Kindertransport because her mother was in a psychiatric institution. Herta was subsequently murdered at the Maly Trostinec concentration camp in Belarus on Sept. 18, 1942.

Financing the escape of the child refugees and their resettlement in the U.K. was especially difficult without the help of the U.K. government. In fact, the government demanded that a “guarantee” of £50 per child was raised by volunteers to indemnify against any expense. This rule limited the number of children that could be given refuge.

What ultimately made the Kindertransport possible? It was the generosity and commitment of private citizens, charities and voluntary organizations in the U.K.

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