Kindertransport Anniversary Evokes Praise, Raises Questions

July 9, 2013

4 min read

And it will happen that just as you, O house of Judah and House of Israel, had been a curse for the nations, so will I save you and you will be a blessing. ZECHARIAH (8:13) Kindertransport children meet with Prince Charles to mark the 75th anniversary of the fateful journey.

Kindertransport Memorial Berlin (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Kindertransport Memorial Berlin (Photo: Wiki Commons)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport, an operation which saved nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Nazi Germany and other Nazi-controlled regions by bringing them to safety in England prior to World War II.  A large reunion of rescued children was hosted by Prince Charles late last month.  Given the ages of the survivors, this may be the last large-scale reunion of its kind.

Following Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, the night of government-sanctioned attacks on Jewish businesses and establishments in November, 1938, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to the request of British Jewish leaders to accept Jewish child refugees into Britain and waive some of the immigration requirements.  Another request to allow more such children to enter British Mandatory Palestine was denied.  Jewish Refugee Agencies hoped to bring about 15,000 children to safety this way.

Among the conditions of participation, children would be accepted only up to age 17, and only without their parents, many of whom perished subsequently in the Holocaust (only about 40% of survivors were reunited with parents after the war).  A £50 guarantee per refugee was required to cover the cost of the child’s eventual return home, as the Kindertransport was considered a temporary solution at the time.  Refugees had to agree not to accept work of any kind, whether paid or unpaid, lest they take a position from a citizen.  The various agencies involved in promoting the initiative to British Parliament also undertook to fund the transport and find suitable housing for all the refugees so that they would not become a financial burden on the state.

Those who were rescued by the Kindertransport express gratitude to their British saviors.  84-year-old Ruth Jacobs said, “I am so lucky to be here, I know that there are two million other children who are not.  To my dying day, I will be forever grateful to Great Britain.”  At age ten, she and her brother boarded a train in Vienna and never saw their parents again.

Another survivor, Renata Collins, had this to say: “I was the last one on Sir Nicolas Winton’s trains from Prague,” she says. “I was literally the last one and the youngest one on it, and I came in the end of June 1939.

“I remember being on Prague station and thinking I was going on holiday, and of course my mother knew that she would never see me again, and she never did, and I lost 64 members of my family. So I had literally no one.”

Henry Wuga, too, expressed his appreciation: “My wife and I both came to Great Britain with the kindertransport, that wonderful rescue operation.”

Kurt Stern was also rescued by the Kindertransport before ultimately making his home in Israel.  He returned to England to attend the reunion and had particular praise for Prince Charles.  “He honors the children who came to England.  Not all of us stayed in England. I myself didn’t, but he’s honoring the children who contributed to the different nations they made their home in. I think I am speaking for most of the children who arrived in Liverpool Street: Not in their wildest dreams they imagined that they would be invited to the palace.”

Yet not every refugee had a smooth experience.  92-year-old Judy Benton did not have a sponsor, or a  £50 guarantee waiting for her.  She came home one day to find her parents had been taken by the Gestapo.  Determined not to be taken as well, she made her way to the trains she heard were waiting to take children to safety, but without the requisite papers, she could not board.  With only a few hours till departure, in desperation she went to a costume shop and bought a nurse’s costume.  She slipped on board unnoticed.

The anniversary is also causing some to ask tough questions.  Did British Jewry do enough to help its brethren in need?  While many non-Jews opened their homes to Jewish refugees, a great fear possessed the Jewish community that an influx of foreign Jewish refugees would arouse anti-Semitism in the country.  They prefered not to rock the boat.

As well, while the survivors are mostly grateful to their benefactors, the emotional and psychological burden of the Kindertransport is often ignored.  It was this burden that inspired the play Kindertransport by British playwright Diane Samuels in the 1990s.  In honor of the 75th anniversary, a live radio theater production in LA was recorded and rebroadcast.  The play deals with a child refugee at two different stages in her life as she tries to cope with the separation from her mother.

Still, the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude.  Osias Findling left his parents and two younger brothers behind, only learning their fates thirty years later.  He is grateful to Britain for taking action when no other country did.  “This was the only country that did something.  It was a wonderful gesture and that must not be forgotten.”

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