Just before the outbreak of World War II, about 10,000 Jewish children were given a rare chance to escape from mainland Europe. They were sent to Britain as part of a refugee program later known as the Kindertransport. In this episode of "On The Holocaust" we focus on the events leading up to this extraordinary aid effort, the complex fates of these children, and the dilemmas of their parents.
Featured guest: Jennifer Craig-Norton, visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in the UK.
The Kindertransport: Strangers in a Strange Land - Transcription:
Parents often find it difficult to say goodbye to their children. The first day of kindergarten, the first field trip or the first sleepover at a friend's house: Even if just for a couple of hours or days, it’s often done with a lot of tears and with a never-ending sense of anxiety. How will they cope? Will they get hurt? Who will look after them?
In late 1938, thousands of Jewish parents and children in Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia faced an unthinkable dilemma: whether or not to send their children away, not for days or weeks – but for an unlimited and unknown period of time.
They had to make an impossible decision between sending their children away to Britain – without knowing for how long or who will take care of them – or keeping them in Mainland Europe, under the Nazi regime, where they were being persecuted, branded outcasts and enemies, and where the future seemed bleaker than ever.
some of these parents decided to kiss their children goodbye in train stations or harbors in central and eastern Europe. The children were sent away to unknown fates across the Channel – while the parents had to stay behind and face an even more dire reality. Almost none of them ever saw each other again.
Welcome to On the Holocaust, a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson. On today's episode we're going to examine the daring rescue operation, known as the Kindertransport, focusing on the lives it helped save, but also on some less convenient parts of the story. From the complicated lives of the children in Britain – to the longing and dilemmas of their parents back home.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “I'm Jennifer Craig-Norton and I’m a visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in the UK, where I actually did my PhD on the Kindertransport and also did a post doctoral program there as well. Prior to moving to the UK to do this research, I was a teacher in California for about 20 years, and during that time I worked as an outreach educator for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and that was actually where I first encountered the Kindertransport when I would go into classrooms to talk to groups of teachers about teaching about the Holocaust. Lots of times they were using the Kindertransport as a kind of happy story that came out of the Holocaust or sort of feel good story about the Holocaust, as teachers want to do because it's a difficult history and they want to soften it for their students and find some positive messages out of this really, really grim and difficult history. I discovered that there was really virtually nothing academic written about the Kindertransport. There were lots and lots of testimonies, memoirs. There were a couple of popular histories, but nothing really that critically examined the Kindertransport”.
Nate: In 2019, Dr. Craig-Norton published her book titled “The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory”, which presents the story of the Kindertransport – and lays out the different dilemmas, aspects and implications of the rescue initiative.
In 1938, war in Europe seemed inevitable – but it was not yet clear what kind of war it would be. However, the danger present to Jewish people in Germany and the newly German-annexed territories of Austria and Czechoslovakia was clear.
When the Nazi party took power in Germany in 1933, the Nazi leadership began a gradual process of persecution against the Jewish minority in the country. Most of these Jews considered themselves loyal patriots, proud Germans with links to the history, language and culture of the country. But the Nazi regime sought to change that.
At the center of these Nazi efforts were campaigns aimed at dehumanization and marginalization. On April 1, 1933, weeks after the Nazi party assumed power, the paramilitary SA group organized a national boycott against Jewish-owned businesses. Two years later, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws – forbidding intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews and stripping Jews of their citizenship.
Manfred Lindenbaum, nicknamed “Meni”, then a young child in Germany, vividly recalled the increasing persecution – leading to his family’s deportation from the country:
Meni: “In 1938 I have this memory of the clicking of boots and it was a Nazi official, policeman, I don't know what he was, coming into the store and telling my father: You have to immediately report to the police station with a small suitcase and you can bring ten marks with you, or some -- I don't remember that exact thing, but I remember the small suitcase. And my father had us pack and we went over to our one remaining Christian friend and I guess my father talked to him and decide -- decided that we had to leave. There was no cars. We -- there was no place to go. There was no money. And if you went down to the railway station or to get a bus, you couldn't run away. So we ended up at the police station together. Across Germany was 25,000 of us. They called us Ostjuden, which means Eastern Jews. We -- we were born in Germany. My parents had come there as children to Germany and we didn't speak anything except German.
Nate: And just like that, Meni and his family were deported to the border town of Zbaszyn in Poland in late 1939. They were kicked out of Germany along with almost 17,000 other Jews – whose only fault was having Polish citizenship.
The persecution of the remaining Jewish population in Germany soon became violent, as told in a testimony by Uri Ben Ari:
Uri: “There were beatings. Even as an 8-year-old, I was beaten up by gangs of Hitler Youth and non-Hitler Youth. And they also called me “Jewboy”, “Bloody Jew” etc. So it was clear to me that it was because I was Jewish”.
Nate: Over time, Jews were fired from government jobs – and were arbitrarily arrested and even murdered.The situation took a marked turn for the worse during the November 1938 Pogrom, also known as Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht was a pivotal moment in the history of Germany and of the Jewish population in Europe. Although the crackdown on the Jewish community in Germany was a policy objective of the Nazi regime since its ascent in 1933, the Kristallnacht – or Night of the Broken Glass – exposed the worsening attitude towards the Jews in Germany. Synagogues were vandalised, Germans of Jewish faith were lynched and humiliated by Nazi paramilitary members and angry mobs – with 91 Jews dead by the end of the pogrom.
This persecution campaign came as a shock for most German Jews, as described by Walter Zvi Bacharach:
Walter: “The feeling was: “There’s no way the Germans we live with will continue to do these things. It’s only an episode”. That was the atmosphere. It was also the atmosphere on Kristallnacht. They couldn’t comprehend it. It came as a blow. I remember my mother standing pale and crying: “What’s happening?””.
Nate: More than 30 thousand Jews were sent to concentration camps. Those who came back were scarred and broken – both physically and mentally. By that point, the German desire was clear: to kick the Jews out of Germany. Most Jews realized this was not another antisemitic wave that will gradually end – but a completely new type of event. Many of them wanted to leave – but had no place to go.
Kristallnacht got international attention and pointed to the undeniable fact that the German government viewed its Jewish citizens as enemies. But still, the overwhelming majority of the world was not willing to take in Jewish refugees from Germany and its endangered neighbors.
These events led several aid organizations to petition the British government with an urgent request: let Jewish refugees in.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “The main one was a Jewish organization, but there were other voluntary organizations. We would call them NGOs today. Some were Christian, The Quakers were very involved, and there was a non-denominational group called Save the Children. After Kristallnacht, the aid agencies brought a delegation to the British Prime Minister and the Home Secretary and begged them to at least allow children to come in and kind of framed it as a kind of temporary thing: they would be brought in for educational purposes and they wouldn't stay permanently. They would either move on somewhere else or things would die down in Germany and they would go back to their families. It was pitched in a way that it wouldn't cost the government anything. The government made it very clear that they didn't want to be involved at all financially or in any other way, in bringing the children over and placing them in foster homes or group homes or in looking after them. The only way in which the British government was involved was in streamlining the visa process. They streamlined the visa process and just told the voluntary organizations that they could bring in as many children as they could find places for and they could support because the British government was not going to support them in any way”.
Nate: These efforts helped 10,000 Jews children gain shelter in Britain – mere months before Germany's invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War. This decision gave start to a quick effort by aid organizations to find the children that were going to be taken in – and to find the British homes that were going to take them in.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “The aid organizations appealed to the nation at large, and this was the first time they had asked non-Jews to contribute to helping Jewish refugees, and that included accepting offers of hospitality and non-Jewish homes”.
Nate: Jewish parents in Europe had to face a horrible dilemma: whether or not to send their children abroad alone. The prospect of children – some of them still very young– travelling to a different country alone was not reassuring, to say the least. These children didn’t speak English and many of them didn’t have any relatives in Britain. But parents had to ask themselves where their children would be safer: at home with their families, in a state of escalating danger – or as strangers in a foreign land?
Meni Lindenbaum’s parents faced the same dilemma. In August 1939, on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, after spending almost a year in Zbaszyn, the family was given the opportunity to move to eastern Poland. It was at the local railway station station, right before boarding a train that would take them eastward, that his mother decided to send her three children to Britain,, hoping to shelter them from the coming turmoil in Europe.:
Meni: “Amidst the chaos somebody said that if anybody signed up for the Kindertransport, there's a chance that it might happen. And the -- my mother immediately took me, my brother and my sister and shoved it over to this total stranger and my mother and father got on a train to go there, and I'm sure they had no idea what was going to happen to them or to us but they made -- they obviously made a very brave and right decision”.
Nate: Meni’s sister Ruth, aged 14 at the time, was deemed too old for the program and was sent back to her parents. The three were eventually murdered in Auschwitz.
Meni arrived in England with his older brother Siegfried.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “There's the famous speech by the Home Secretary on the evening of November Twenty third, 1938, when he announced to the country that these children were going to be allowed to come into the country. He acknowledged that, well, the parents were going to be left behind in terrible circumstances. But he said that he had assurances from the refugee organizations in Berlin and Vienna and elsewhere on the continent that these parents were eager to send their children away and to a certain extent, of course. What parent wouldn't want to save their children? I think most parents had the hope that they would themselves also get out in some way. Almost all of them had undertaken some effort in the letters that were in the archival materials that were written by parents to the refugee organizations. Almost all of them had an American quota number or an affidavit. And some hope themselves that they would get out as well. For many parents, I think they saw this as just one prong of a strategy. The likelihood of the whole family getting out together to one destination was vanishingly small. They were taking a multi-pronged strategy to get themselves out so they might send their children on the Kindertransport, maybe an older daughter as a as a refugee, maybe themselves tried to get to Shanghai or elsewhere.
Nate: About 10,000 children came to the United Kingdom as part of the Kindertransport program. This number was capped by limited responsiveness by the British public – since the British government only allowed entry for children with a pre-arranged sponsor. As a matter of government policy, these Kindertransport children were mostly put in with foster families.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “In the archival materials, I found quite a bit of material from the foster family's letters that they had written to refugee agencies and so forth. I was able to start to interrogate this material to find out what were some of the motivations and many of the people who offer to take a child into their home were childless, older couples, so they were looking for a child, really, that they hoped possibly to adopt at some point. And this isn't to say that you were unhappy in these homes. There are many accounts in which children found very happy placements in such situations. All of the children were supported to some extent, by a weekly or monthly stipend to the foster parents, and it does appear to me that some people were motivated by the money that they would get by bringing a foster child into their home. Lots of people sadly were motivated by the idea of bringing in, for instance, a teenage Jewish refugee girl into their home and employing her as an unpaid maid. This was actually fairly common. There were a fair few non-Jewish families who explicitly brought Jewish children into their homes so that they could convert them to Christianity”.
Nate: Most pairs of siblings were separated upon arrival, among them were Meni and Siegfried:
Meni: “When we got to England, this was at the end and the preparations were not the same as they had been before so, again, it was a little chaotic. And I remember somebody getting up and said, "I'm going to give 10 English words and whoever can remember them and tell me what they mean gets a prize." And my brother, who was brilliant even then, he was brilliant his whole life, he did and he was given a bag of coins, probably a few cents, and somebody saw that and said, "I'm taking him home with me," and grabbed him and he threw the bag of coins to me and that started off my first year in England. The rest of us were sent all over England, me with my bag of coins for which I got a thorough beating for being a thief”.
Nate: The children escaped Germany – but remained Germans in the eyes of their British hosts. When the war was announced in 1939, British law called upon all foreign nationals to be registered and ranked to different danger statuses. Many Kindertransport children, formally still German citizens, had to face an increasing level of police and government scrutiny. In Germany they were considered unwanted Jews – but in Britain they were considered unwanted Germans. This led to feelings of isolation, detachment and the development of a complicated identity: part Jewish, part German – not really belonging anywhere.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “if you were classified as being an unfriendly alien and a lot of restrictions were put on you, you couldn't travel more than five miles from your home. You had to report to the police every time you moved. You couldn't own a bicycle. You couldn't own a camera. There was some suspicion about your loyalties, you know, to your home country. And then in the spring of nineteen forty, when it looked like Hitler might actually invade the UK, anyone who had a B classification and later all men over the age of 16, even if they had a C classification, were rounded up and interned on the Isle of Man. These were thirty thousand men. About 4000 women. Many of the younger internees, some of them were as young as 16, including several who I profile in my book were then sent on to Canada and Australia. So several thousand Jewish refugee young men were sent either to Australia or Canada as prisoners of war. And there are some poignant letters that I excerpt in my book of some of these young men who were sent to Canada and put in these prisoner of war camps with people who were ardent Nazis, writing back to the refugee organizations in Britain, you know, trying to get help to get out of this predicament that they were in, and it was particularly galling for these”.
Nate: For a while, there were some communication channels between the children and their parents – primarily brief Red Cross letters, consisting only of twenty-five words. As the war progressed all letter exchange ground to a halt. The murder of Jews in Soviet territories occupied by Germany began in the summer of 1941, and after October 1941 Jews from the Reich began to be sent eastward – to ghettos or murder facilities. We can assume that their children in Britain didn’t know the reason for the loss of communication – since although the war effort was heavily reported in all newspapers –the planned murder of Jews in German-controlled territories and German-allied countries was not widely known.
Another complication arose from the beginning of the Blitz and the mass evacuation of children to the British countryside. Many Kindertransport children were forced to flee their homes – for the second time.
In some cases, Kindertransport children also suffered different forms of abuse by their foster families.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “Every kind of abuse that you can imagine from sort of psychological abuse, pure exploitation of these children for their labour, physical abuse and sexual abuse. All of these things appear in memoirs and testimony and to some extent in the archival record, although sexual abuse is definitely swept under the rug, for sure. But it did go on. There's no question about that. A lot of these children, um, didn't feel so abused as ignored or that the people that they were placed with were indifferent to them. There is a lot of testimony and accounts of lack of affection.
Nate: The children had to endure feelings of loneliness and frustration, deriving from a forced separation that some of them couldn’t understand.
Meni: “Well, I -- if I'm ashamed of anything in my life, it's the anger that I had for my parents. The anger was so great that they, in my mind, had deserted me when actually they were doing a heroic act that I closed my mind off to them. I can remember my sister and zaide, my grandfather, like they were -- I was here yesterday. I can't remember them. And for -- I didn't understand why for a long, long time. I think when I became a grandparent I started thinking back and knowing who they were, so I treasure their letters. I don't know if I mentioned it before, I visited a cousin in Israel and -- and I asked if she had anything and she didn't answer. Eventually, as she was dying, she gave me a treasure trove of letters that my sister had written that she was studying English so she would be able to speak with me. She had rejoined my parents in Grodno and I guess a whole bunch of them were living in one room and they were working before they were rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. My parents were obviously heroes that they -- and the letters are amazing because here they are in this horrible situation and they were concerned about everybody else, about the family which was trying to get into South Africa, got there, had to leave, the ones that got to Australia. They were worried about everybody. And you read the letter and you -- outside of the fact that they say we're cold and we're hungry, they didn't -- there were no complaints in the letter”.
Nate: Meni Lindenbaum is still alive today. Later in his life, he found a purpose in volunteering and helping refugees from other war and crisis zones.
Dr. Craig-Norton: “He eventually volunteered in schools. He is very, very active with HIAS, with refugee organizations. He's dedicated his retirement years to working with refugee organizations in a way of trying to give back and. You know, he finally did come to terms with the circumstances of his life”.
Nate: Almost uniquely, Britain had granted entry to ten thousand Jewish refugee children, almost certainly saving their lives. 10,000 children who got a rare chance to grow up and live on. These children had to face numerous hardships: from emotional distress and intense loneliness and sense of detachment, to the loss of their families – the extent of which was only fully revealed in 1945. The vast majority of the parents of the Kindertransport children did not survive the Holocaust. Only a small number of families got back together after the war. These 10,000 children survived the war – but did not get a happy ending.
With that we come to a close. If you’d like to learn more about the Holocaust, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, hosted by me, Nate Nelson. Our program is produced by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan, Dafna Dolinko, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. This episode was written by Agam Kedem Levi and edited by Dor Shafir.
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