Remembering bravery within tragedy
Remembering bravery within tragedy
Each year on January 27th, the United Nations commemorates the victims of Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies, and in particular the Holocaust. This day is also meant to honour survivors of the Holocaust and recognize the bravery of those who came to their rescue.
One such example of this bravery and ingenuity is the Kindertransport which refers to the movement to send, primarily Jewish, children to the United Kingdom unaccompanied by their parents as Nazism and its antisemitic policies began to cast their shadows across Europe.
In the period between 1938 and 1940, approximately 10.000 children were sent from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia to foster families in the United Kingdom. Other similar initiatives sent children to Switzerland, Australia, and North America, although on a smaller scale.
The Kindertransport was not a national project, although the British government did approve the visas for these refugee children. Instead, it was devised by individuals and organisations who took it upon themselves to find homes for children and arrange for their safe passage to Britain. One such example is Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who organized a series of trains across Europe to take Jewish refugee children from Prague. He was honored for his bravery and generosity in 2014.
Children between the ages of 5 and 17 were transported by train and boat. Initially, lists of those most imperilled were composed prioritizing teenagers who were in concentration camps or in danger of arrest.Other children were selected because their parents were already in concentration camps. In each case, parents and guardians were forced to make the traumatic decision to send their children abroad knowing the likelihood that they would not see them again.
Children often did not know where they were going, did not speak English and were sent off with few possessions which would ultimately become treasured keepsakes of a life which was brutally destroyed.
Upon arrival in England, children were housed in foster homes, schools, hostels, and farms. In the beginning, children were able to maintain correspondence through regular mail delivery and later with the assistance of the red cross. However, as the war progressed and the majority of parents were interned in concentration camps this became impossible. This was not the only trauma these children experienced. Families were only lightly screened before the arrival of the ‘kinder,’ as a consequence many older children were taken in to act as household help or to work on farms.
In 1940, as there was an (unfounded) fear that there could be German spies among the refugees, the British government ordered the internment of all refugees between the ages of 16-70, including many kinder. Approximately 400 boys were transported to internment camps in Canada and Australia. The children sent to Australia on the HMT Dunera were particularly poorly treated sparking a scandal which eventually led to their release.
Although privately organized, the Kindertransport has become an iconic story of British heroism and pragmatism in World War Two. It is memorialized today by two statues at Liverpool Street station, where many young refugees arrived over 80 years ago.
The legacy of the Kindertransport is also found in popular culture. The author Michael Bond, creator of the beloved literary character Paddington Bear, was inspired by memories from his youth of seeing child refugees of the Kindertransport arriving at Reading Station in London.
To hear about the firsthand experiences of the “kinder” listen to the oral histories available on Europeana from the British Library archival holdings below.