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Frank Meisler’s ‘Kindertransport – The Arrival’, Liverpool Street Station, London.

British collective memory largely recognises the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) policy as a point of national pride, believed by many to be ‘the zenith of…interwar international humanitarianism.’[1] This policy was instituted, – albeit reluctantly – by Chamberlain’s Conservative government as a reaction to the Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) of November 1938, where Jewish homes, businesses, and buildings were ransacked across Germany in an act of extreme racial hatred. The Kindertransport allowed 10,000 Jewish children to take refuge in Britain to escape the persecution of the Third Reich.

Although the policy appears noble and humanitarian on the surface, there were several caveats. Firstly, the parents of these young Jewish refugees were not permitted to accompany them. This was due to the British government’s fears of developing a ‘Jewish problem in the United Kingdom’: this supposed ‘problem’ being that too many Jewish people taking refuge in the country would lead to overpopulation and employment issues.[2] Therefore, only allowing unaccompanied children to take refuge was believed to be ‘more palatable to British public sensibilities’.[3]

Furthermore, Jewish refugees were only allowed to enter the country on the condition that their escape from racial discrimination would not be a ‘financial burden on the public’, as it would cost £50 per child to safely cross the borders and house on their arrival. In an attempt to exonerate the former government from their questionable treatment of Jewish refugees, the current government – via The National Archives’ educational entry on the Kindertransport –provide the rather tenuous excuse that ‘few households could pay the sum…required’. Instead, this comes off as little more than apologia for inaction towards racial discrimination and is akin to our current government’s own treatment of refugees in the present day.

Ultimately, it was up to Jewish organisations and benefactors to foot the bill themselves to ensure the safety of these children.[4] Support was quite limited at the start of the program, with the intake of refugees only gaining further traction from Gentile (non-Jewish) groups once they learned that the refugees ‘were not all Jewish.’[5] Those who did manage to escape via the Kindertransport were not all guaranteed hospitality and care on arrival, with many being placed in refugee camps and youth hostels. Max Dickson, a German-Jewish child of the Kindertransport, recorded his experiences in refugee camps in his memoirs: ‘[There was] No one to tuck you in and give you a hug or say “I love you”. I think many of us cried ourselves to sleep those first three months.’[6] Another Kindertransport refugee, Bob Kirk, was separated from his parents in Hanover in May 1939. Kirk, along with 200 other children on his train, were led to believe that their parents would be joining them in England once their papers had been approved: ‘My parents were so intent on not making it seem like a parting that they didn’t include anything which might suggest we wouldn’t see each other again.’ Kirk’s parents were deported to Riga in 1941 and never returned. Regular discrimination, fear, and loneliness were all part and parcel of the life of a Jewish refugee, and one may already begin to start drawing significant parallels with the poor treatment experienced by contemporary refugees.

Many continue to perpetuate an idea of the Second World War as an almost-biblical battle between good and evil, with Britain acting as the righteous ‘saviours’ of Jews under threat from Nazism.  This approach makes for a compelling narrative but is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Contrary to popular nostalgia, the notion of British war-time humanitarianism in relation to refugees is questionable at best and offensively sanitised at worst. Whilst on the proverbial ‘right side of history’ in opposing the horrors of National Socialism, the British government was indifferent, if not outright hostile towards Jewish refugees, which is – depressingly – quite relevant to the current government’s own treatment of refugees.

In popular British culture, many prefer to select specific examples of British humanitarianism and ascribe them to the nation at large. This is clear in the case of Sir Nicholas Winton, dubbed ‘the British Oskar Schindler’ for his instrumental role in evacuating 669 children from Prague. Winton, however, was arguably the exception rather than the rule, and not representative of the British population.[7] Despite this, Theresa May used his story in her resignation speech in May 2019; May recalled that Winton, a long-time constituent of hers in Maidenhead, had given her some advice prior to his death, supposedly telling her that ‘Compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ This quote is rather unusual, as it is completely incongruous with Winton’s actions during the Second World War. Lord Alf Dubs, himself a refugee of the Kindertransport and one of the 669 saved by Winton, believed May’s words to be ‘an insult’ to Winton’s character:

What [Winton] demonstrated was not compromise. What he demonstrated was tenacity of purpose, a determination to battle with the British government, to battle with the Nazis, to do what he had to do…She’s using a man who is absolutely iconic for the wonderful things he did and the lives he saved…to justify compromise. That seems to me quite wrong, and a bit of an abuse.’

Despite May’s questionable anecdote, actions speak louder than words. A year after Winton’s death, May (alongside 293 other MPs), voted to turn away 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria.

Indifference and hostility towards refugees continues to be an issue. Of course, our politicians, pundits, and popular figures will happily deploy the Second World War, selecting instances of humanitarianism where convenient, while failing (or choosing not) to see the other parallels between past and present.

Today, politicians are increasingly taking harder lines against refugees to win votes. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently vowed to ‘crack down’ on those who ‘abused [the UK’s] hospitality’, hoping it would ‘restore public faith’ in the British immigration system. Johnson has also pledged to ‘make all immigrants speak English’, stating that ‘too often there are parts of our country…where English is not spoken by some people as their first language and that needs to be changed’.

Johnson’s and May’s attitudes clearly demonstrate that the current British establishment have learned very little, if anything, from the Kindertransport. The passing of the Kindertransport policy in 1938 was, of course, partially a positive action for the government to take; this does not mean, however, that the negative aspects should be ignored. The government should be ashamed of their role in the Kindertransport, but through the power of historical revisionism and compelling narrative, they have been sanitised and falsely idealised as being the driving force behind this humanitarian effort, instead of a roadblock against it. This has effectively given contemporary politicians a free pass to continue treating refugees with contempt, whilst still claiming the likes of Winton where convenient.

This self-congratulatory revisionism of so-called ‘British humanitarianism’ must be challenged, and those who continue to peddle such history for political gain must be held to account. Government actions, no matter how positive they may seem on the surface, should not be blindly praised without digging a little deeper first.

Owen A. Jones is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), conducting research on anti-Semitism and Jewish refugees of war during the early twentieth century. His research also examines relevant parallels to the present-day refugee crisis and Britain’s continued treatment of refugees. You can find him on Twitter @OwenAdamJones.

[1] L. E. Brade and R. Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938–1940’, History and Memory 29.1 (2017), p. 5.

[2] B. Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 10-11.

[3] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

[4] C. Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (London, 1988), p. 142.

[5] ibid., p. 143.

[6] M. Dickson, The Memories of Max Dickson formerly Max Dobriner (Sheffield, 2010), pp. 6-7.

[7] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

Image Credit: ‘“The Children of the Kindertransport”, Hope Square, Liverpool Street Station, London.’ (Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/), available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/15535288254/in/photostream/.

Tags : British politicsKindertransportNeville Chamberlain
Owen A. Jones

The author Owen A. Jones

1 Comment

  1. Dear Owen,

    Good luck with your degree. Your article is very interesting and well written.

    I graduated some years ago (1972) from Sheffield in History and Politics. One of my tutors that I remember well was Anthony Fletcher, a nice bloke and very helpful. One of my friends at the time was a Richard Thurlow, he was actually a postgrad in dept of economic/social history. Another really nice bloke, very modest and a good friend to a Scouser postgrad student called Alf May who was a character. I don’t definitely know but assume that he, Richard, is the same person who has written books and still lectures.

    Best wishes,

    Neville Jones

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