You’re being chased out of town. There are riots in the streets. You’re not allowed to go to the cinema, the theatre, to public swimming-pools, restaurants or libraries. You can’t use public transport. Your movements are restricted by a nightly curfew. Every single day brings more challenges, more uncertainty, and even more danger.
But then you hear of this scheme, this program, this initiative. If you take part in it, in a few days’ time, you can escape all this unhappiness. You can be safe and happy and welcomed, in a land where nobody can hurt you. And you can leave right now.
But only you.
Your parents can’t come. Your grandparents have to stay behind. Your uncle and aunt won’t be there to see you leave.
You’re five…six…seven years old. You’re going to a country that you’ve probably never been to before. In all likelihood, you don’t even speak the language. Once in this new country, you cannot leave. You stay there for nearly ten years before you can return to a home that might not exist anymore, to find a family that has been wiped off the face of the earth.
This is the story of the Kindertransports.
What were the Kindertransports?
The Kindertransports was a refugee program established by the British Government in November, 1938. It was designed to evacuate persecuted Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechslovakia in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, and to give them shelter and refuge in the relative safety of the British Isles. The program lasted from shortly after Kristallnacht in Germany, to shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in early September, 1939. About 10,000 Jewish German, Austrian and Czech boys and girls were evacuated from their homelands to England, to protect them from rising Nazi antisemitism on the European continent. It is one of the forgotten stories of the Second World War.
What was Kristallnacht?
“Kristallnacht”, a German phrase commonly translated into English as ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, was a nationwide pogrom (essentially a race-riot) of Germany’s Jewish population in November of 1938. In the space of a few hours, thousands of Jewish shops were smashed, burned and ransacked. Windows were broken, shops looted and over two hundred synagogues were burnt down. Many Jews were either shot or arrested and thrown in jail. More were tortured or sent to concentration-camps. It was the most extreme anti-Jewish measure taken by the German Nazi-Party before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Effect of Kristallnacht
Jews had been fleeing from Germany ever since 1933. In 1935, various ‘Nuremberg Laws’ (a collection of anti-Jewish laws) made life increasingly more intolerable for Germany’s Jewish population. It was during this time that many forward-thinking Jews tried to escape from Germany. A few lucky thousand managed to get ships to England or the United States. Some went to the Dominican Republic. About 30,000 Jews fled to the International Settlement of Shanghai between 1933-1941.
But life for Jews who were stuck in Germany, and who weren’t able to escape, became more and more desperate and difficult with each passing day. Kristallnacht terrified the Jews and appalled the British Government. More than ever, letters pleading for the British Government to issue visas to Jews desperate to escape Germany, came flooding in.
The problem was that the British Government was unwilling to act. The year is 1938. The Depression is only just beginning to ease. The British Government did not want to allow Jews into the British Isles, who might steal jobs that were badly needed for British workers. Above all, the British Government did not see the situation in Germany as being one of refuge, but rather as one of immigration. To the eyes of the British Government, the German Jews wanted to come to Britain to work, not to escape the persecution of the Nazis. On top of this, fears of war with Germany have been growing for months now. British families are evacuating their own children to the countryside, or to towns and villages out of the expected operational radius of German fighter and bomber-planes. How could the government also take in thousands of German Jewish refugees? There wouldn’t be anywhere to house them! Orphanages, schools and foster-families were having enough issues coping with British children, let alone all these continental refugees!
But public pressure forced the government’s hand. In the end, a compromise was reached – Jewish children, unaccompanied by their parents, would be allowed passage from Germany to England. The British Government could be seen to be doing its part in trying to help Jews evacuate from Germany, but at the same time, British jobs wouldn’t be threatened since the refugees wouldn’t be old enough to work. It wouldn’t be easy, what with British children also being evacuated from all the big cities in southern England, but the government was determined to make some sort of effort.
How did the Kindertransports Work?
You are a Jewish child living in Germany in 1939. You want to be a part of these ‘Kindertransports’ that you’ve heard about. How do you join in?
Jewish children were rounded up. They were assembled in places like schools or orphanages, and then taken to the nearest train-station. Entire classes or orphanages of Jewish children, would be packed up and sent by train from Berlin, Vienna or Prague, to cities in Holland and Belgium (if you didn’t live in Berlin, Vienna or Prague, then you would have to travel there to get on the trains). Once in Holland or Belgium, you would be loaded onto a ship bound for England. Once the ship docked on the coast of England, you would be sent by train to cities or towns in southern England where you would be placed with a foster family, or housed in an orphanage. Perhaps, if you were exceptionally lucky, you might get to stay with relatives already living in England.
But once you reached England, there you had to stay. The outbreak of war meant that you wouldn’t be able to go back to Germany, or German-occupied Europe until May, 1945.
The British government was pressured by Jewish aid agencies, humanitarian groups and refugee advocates for weeks. It eventually set into motion a scheme for evacuating children from Europe.
How Long did the Transports Last?
The kindertransports lasted for approximately a year. The first transport docked in England on the 2nd of December, 1938. The ship left Europe and sailed for the coastal town of Harwich, carrying 196 German Jewish children, who had been evacuated from their orphanage in Berlin (which had been destroyed by the Nazis).
Some of the children in the first Kindertransport, photographed here in Holland, awaiting their ship to England. December 1st, 1938
Every child that was evacuated from Europe was given a bond of fifty pounds sterling, and was issued with a temporary travel permit or visa, that allowed him or her to leave Europe and travel to England. But this was only available to children who were below the age of 17. The expectation of the British government was that once the crisis and anti-Jewish fervor had died down, all the children would be sent back to Germany to be reunited with their families. If they’d know what would happen in just a few months, they might’ve tried even harder with their evacuation-plans…
In Europe, the kindertransports were handled by religious leaders and humanitarian workers who sent trainloads of children from schools and orphanages to the Belgian and Dutch coastlines where they could be sent to England. In groups of a thousand, or a few hundred each time, it’s estimated that about 10,000 children in total, were evacuated before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Life in England
You have escaped Germany. You reached Berlin, you got on a train, you arrived in Belgium and got safely across the English Channel to a British port.
As I said earlier, most children were taken in by foster-families or private sponsers. If you were one of these children, then it meant a further train-ride from your port of arrival to the British capital, London, where you would be collected at the station, or at a designated collection-point, by your sponser or foster-family. Other children were taken in by local families living near the arrival port. Leftover children were kept in transit-camps until such a time when they could be sent to specially-prepared orphanages. About half the transported children were taken in by foster families or sponsers, while the rest ended up in boarding schools, orphanages, youth hostels or on farms as farmhands.
Monument to the Kindertransports, Liverpool Street Station, London, England
For most children, life was pretty good. They received gifts and they were mostly well-treated by their host-families, although of course, there were a few which weren’t. Most of the older children found work as farmhands, general labourers or as domestic servants. The oldest of the older children even signed up to join the British Army when they reached the age of 18, determined to fight the people who had driven them out of their homeland in the first place.
The Effect of War on the Kindertransports
The start of the Second World War effectively ended the Kindertransports. In England, a wave of anti-German feeling swept through the country. Thousands of Germans and Austrians were rounded up, arrested and thrown in prison. Among these were abut a thousand kindertransport refugees who looked old enough to be young adults. It was feared by the British Government that these “enemy aliens” might try and sabotage the British war-effort. To try and render them a negligable force, they were packed onto ships and sent to Canada and Australia.
The purpose of the internments was to seperate legitimate refugees of Nazism, from German and Austrian expatriates, who the British government saw as a threat. But in the chaos following the fall of France, everything got mixed up.
The most famous case was that of the HMT Dunera. HMT stands for “His Majesty’s Transport”; the Dunera was a military troopship. Crammed onto it were 2,542 prisoners, double the ship’s actual capacity. They included a smattering of German and Italian P.O.Ws, Nazi-sympathisers, and in one of the biggest blunders ever – about two thousand mostly German or Austrian Jewish refugees, including kindertransport children. The inclusion of the Jewish refugees on the prison-ship was a shameful disaster, one which Churchill himself called a deplorable and regrettable incident.
Where was the ship going?
It left Liverpool on the 10th of July, 1940. It sailed without incident, all the way to the other side of the world! It docked in Sydney, Australia, two months later. The desperately overcrowded ship (which was only supposed to hold 1,600 people) bcame notorious for the cramped, crowded and unsanitary conditions onboard. Australian customs and medical officials, who boarded the ship when it docked in Sydney, were appalled by the conditions in which two thousand Jewish refugees, and about 540 P.O.Ws, were forced to spend two months at sea in!
The Dunera docked in Port Melbourne, Australia, 1940
The prisoners onboard ship, including the Jewish refugees, were herded into prisoner-of-war camps in Australia. Eventually, letters sent to England by the refugees made the government realise that they’d made a horrific mistake! Changes were implemented and the Jews were automatically segregated from the German and Italian P.O.Ws and Nazi-sympathisers, and given their own camp. Here, they received medical treatment and whatever food and water the Australian government could spare. They were classified as “friendly aliens”, who posed no threat to the war-effort of the British Empire.
Of the Jewish refugees who somehow ended up in Australia on the Dunera, about a thousand of them stayed in Australia where they were offered permanent residency by the Australian government. Several hundred of the younger refugees enlisted in the Australian Army to fight the Japanese and the Germans. The remainder of the refugees booked passages back to England on the next available ship.
The Last Transports
The Kindertransports ended officially on the 1st of September, 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland. On this day, the borders were closed and trains were no-longer allowed to pass freely between the countries of Europe.
The Winton Trains
The Winton trains were a small number of trains that ran from Czechslovakia to safe ports in Western Europe, transporting Czech Jewish children to safety in England. They are named after Sir Nicholas Winton, the young British businessman who initiated the scheme. Sir Nicholas and his trains managed to save nearly 700 Jewish children from death.
The number would’ve been 950 children, but the start of the war ended Sir Nicholas’s humanitarian efforts. When war broke out in early September of 1939, the ninth (and final) Winton train was stopped at the Czech border. Nearly all the 250 Jewish children onboard were eventually killed.
In 2009, a commemorative “Winton Train” ran from Czechslovakia to England to commemorate Sir Nicholas’s efforts. Onboard the train were Jewish survivors who escaped the Holocaust on the original Winton trains back in 1939, and their descendants. The commemoration was also a celebration of Sir Nicholas’s 100th birthday! As of the time of this post, Sir Nicholas is 102 years old.
The very last Kindertransport left Europe on the 14th of May, 1940. It was the steamship Bodegraven, which left the Dutch port city of Ijmuiden (“Ei-mouden”) during the fall of Holland. It carried eighty incredibly lucky children to safety in England.
Of the 10,000 Jewish children and teenagers who escaped the Nazis during the Holocaust thanks to the kindertransports, nearly none of them ever saw their parents ever again.
“The Kindertransports: A Childhood in Hamburg”, by Paul M. Cohn, a Kindertransport survivor.