Operation Kindertransport refers to the 10,000 Jewish children who were transported to Britain from Nazi-occupied areas of Europe in the months and days before the outbreak of World War Two.
English Jews had began campaigning for the British government to intervene to protect children from Nazi persecution as early as 1933, when Adolf Hitler had been appointed as Chancellor, but at this time few were aware of the severity of the anti-Semitic measures that would be imposed by the Nazi regime.
The turning point was Kristallnacht (or the ‘night of broken glass’) on 9/10 November 1938, when Nazi Stormtroopers led attacks on Jewish properties, smashing and setting alight the buildings and their contents, and beating Jews who got in their way. In the days that followed, some 20,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Jewish parents began to look for a way to move their children out of Germany as soon as possible.
Kristallnacht was a turning point for the British Government, too. By the end of November 1938, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, announced that unaccompanied children would be allowed to enter Britain as refugees, though no financial contribution was made for either their transport or subsequent upkeep; this would have to be met through fundraising.
The operation began on 2 December 1938, and soon there were two Kindertransports each week, right up to the day when Britain declared war on Germany. 9,354 children had been registered with the Jewish Refugee Committee by the time war was declared, with more managing to make it to Britain during the first year of World War Two.
Some families had weeks to prepare for the departure of their children, others just hours. Each Kinder was permitted only one suitcase, so many wore extra layers of clothing, and, walking to the railway station they attempted to make their overloaded suitcases appear to be light, to give the impression that they were making only a short journey to visit relatives. In fact, the Nazi authorities were well aware of the reality, having made this satisfactory arrangement to remove Jewish children from the country.
Most of the children were from Germany and Austria, though there were also some from Czechoslovakia and Poland. It was no doubt an agonising choice for parents to send their children away, and difficult goodbyes were said at railway stations, the parents and older children wondering when – or if – they might see each other again, whilst often the younger children (some just three or four years old) were excited about the journey, unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
The trains left from Berlin and other major cities, destined for the Hook of Holland. German guards and railway police would sometimes harass the children on the journey, but once they arrived in Holland they were greeted warmly and given food and drink by Dutch women. There, the refugees took a ship across the English Channel (some, from Hamburg and coastal areas, sailed direct). Their experiences of the sea voyage varied according to the weather, some suffering with sea-sickness in the choppy waters.
Once they arrived at Harwich (Essex), there was a further train journey to Liverpool Street Station in London. It was here that their fates would be decided. A small number of the Kinder went on to the United States, Canada or Australia. Some were collected by relatives already living in Britain. Others waited to be collected by foster parents, sometimes prearranged, whilst at other times they were picked out at the railway stations (or not, as the case might be). Some Kinder were sent to hostels, or to empty holiday camps in seaside towns such as Lowestoft (Suffolk), which were cold and miserable during the winter months. Others were sent to boarding schools. Once the Battle of Britain began in 1940, Jewish refugees became evacuees, though this further journey was not always clearly explained to them, with one child thinking her train was destined for a death camp.
The refugees faced cultural, language and religious difficulties in their new homes, though they learned English with surprising speed, often being more or less fluent after a few months. They also faced feelings of loneliness, separation and uncertainty. Most foster parents were non-Jewish (including the parents of Lord Richard Attenborough, who took in two Jewish sisters), and despite the fact that they were forbidden to attempt to Christianise the children, this did occur, albeit not always deliberately. The Kinder generally had good relations with their new ‘uncles and aunties’, though there were also instances of the children being abused by their foster-parents. The majority did not speak out about such maltreatment.
After the war, they faced the difficulty of trying to locate their family members. Some had perished in death camps, whilst the fate of others was harder to trace. For those with parents who had survived, there was the difficulty of meeting as strangers, of having to get to know each other again. Indeed, some children had become so British that they were embarrassed of their foreign parents, or did not want to return to their homeland. Some Kinder emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and other destinations after the war, as British citizens.
Key contributors to the Operation have since been recognised. In Czechoslovakia, Englishman Nicholas Winton had personally aided the transport of 669 children from March to August 1939. This remained a secret until his wife discovered his scrap books in the attic in 1988. He received a knighthood in 2003.
Norbert Wollheim organised the Kindertransport in Berlin, personally escorting some of the transports. In 1943 he was interned in Auschwitz. He was the sole survivor from a total of seventy relatives. He sued the German company which had used slave labour at Auschwitz for wages and damages. He passed away in 1998.
Today, rallies are held in central London to celebrate key anniversaries of the Kindertransport. There, the Kinder and their descendants share their experiences, good and bad. Whilst some suffer from survivors’ guilt and other psychological effects, most are grateful for their parents’ selfless actions to save their lives, and many have fond memories of their time in Britain.
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I became aware of and interested in the Kindertransport just a couple of months ago, after I met with and listened to the experiences of 87 year old Stephen Mendelsson, who escaped from Germany with his brother in 1939 as part of the Operation.
My initial search for information in my library was disappointing, but then I discovered Alan Gill’s ‘Interrupted Journeys: Young Refugees from Hitler’s Reich’, which focusses on refugees to Australia, but has an excellent section on the Kindertransport. It is available from online bookstores, such as at Amazon
All pictures are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain