The Kindertransport’s complex legacy

In Short

When perception does not completely correspond to historical reality, we benefit — in the present and the future — from learning the truth.

When 200 unaccompanied child refugees arrived in Harwich, Essex, in early December 1938, they did so through a new visa-waiver system. These children from Berlin were escaping Nazi persecution, and eventually more than 10,000 children — mostly from Jewish families — would arrive in Britain via the same process. 

Last month marked the 85th commemoration of the Kindertransport. Compared to some of the anti-refugee rhetoric or policies of politicians and governments today, the Kindertransport looks like a model of a successful state-run rescue mission. But is that true?

This sculpture in London commemorating the Kindertransport is part of a series created by Jewish architect and artist Frank Meisler. Each of the five pieces are located in different European cities, roughly representing key points from Meisler’s own journey in 1939. Photo by Steve Daniels via Wikimedia Commons

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, when state-sponsored violence was perpetrated against Jewish citizens across the German Reich, the British government was under pressure from the public to help continental Jewish citizens. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government was reluctant to offer refuge to Jews, however, fearing for the U.K.’s security, the financial cost and the xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments of some of the electorate. The government refused to commit financial or organizational help, but came up with the compromise of admitting unaccompanied minor children into the U.K. 

The decision to only admit the children but not their families is one of the most controversial aspects of the Kindertransport. Some experts have suggested that parting from your own children was seen as more normal in the 1930s; but even in 1938 Home Secretary Samuel Hoare noted the pain that the parents were likely to experience when parting from their children:

“I could not help thinking what a terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany.”

My own research has shown that child refugees were adversely affected by this separation. For example, Kindertransport refugee Eva Mosbacher was a well-adjusted 12-year-old from Nuremberg, Germany, who settled in successfully with her foster family in Cambridge. Nevertheless, she continuously expressed her longing to be reunited with her birth parents in her letters. In 1942, her parents were deported with 1,000 other Jews and murdered in the Belzyce ghetto in Poland. After the war, Eva stayed in the U.K. and worked as a nurse, but took her own life in 1963.

Some MPs expressed the view that only children who would be of benefit to the U.K. should be admitted. This was reflected in the selection criteria of the Refugee Children’s Committee, an interdenominational umbrella organisation based in the U.K. and tasked with overseeing the Kindertransport. Largely staffed by volunteers, it tried to only admit children who did not have any special needs or health issues. This seems especially cruel when one considers that by 1938 many of the youngsters had lived under the stressful conditions of discrimination and persecution for years.

In addition to rejecting applications if any illnesses or special needs were mentioned, children whose parents had a history of mental health problems were also rejected. Born on April 26, 1926, Herta Baumfeld was not accepted for the Kindertransport because her mother was in a psychiatric institution. Herta was subsequently murdered at the Maly Trostinec concentration camp in Belarus on Sept. 18, 1942.

Financing the escape of the child refugees and their resettlement in the U.K. was especially difficult without the help of the U.K. government. In fact, the government demanded that a “guarantee” of £50 per child was raised by volunteers to indemnify against any expense. This rule limited the number of children that could be given refuge.

What ultimately made the Kindertransport possible? It was the generosity and commitment of private citizens, charities and voluntary organizations in the U.K. 

The majority of refugees were fostered by individual families who volunteered for the task. The financial burden was shouldered by private sources. Former Prime minister Lord Baldwin had launched a public appeal, raising more than £500,000 and the Anglo-Jewish community raised more than £5 million for refugees. Some foster carers also managed to raise the £50 guarantee themselves. Lia Blum from Czechoslovakia was fostered by a teacher from Ynys M?n, north Wales, who put up the guarantee. Others helped within their means. For example, the guarantee for Anneliese Adler was raised by members of the Woodcraft Folk, a youth-led organisation for children and young people in Tooting, London. Anneliese was fostered by a woman near Bristol. The young Thomas Beerman’s guarantee was raised by the Jewish Weekly Appeal Fund in London, but he was fostered by a Mrs. S.K. Miller in Glasgow.

It appears that limited funds, rather than a lack of volunteers ready to accept the children, restricted the number of children that could be rescued. Even then, sometimes there was a limit to what volunteers could accomplish. 

Often, the foster parents were not well-prepared for their task. The way that foster placements were approved and allocated was not in accordance with established criteria, nor was the process overseen by trained professionals. Additionally, most foster families were not Jewish, as the Jewish population in the U.K. was small. These factors and more led to inevitable misunderstandings due to the different cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds of Kindertransport refugees and foster families. For instance, some families expected frequent expressions of gratitude from the child refugee, which in many cases was not forthcoming from the traumatised child. A volunteer acting for the local Birmingham Refugee Committee wrote in her report about potential foster family that “Mr. Phillips is a civil servant. They have no children of their own and want a companion for Mrs. Phillips,” a well-bred child that “would fit in with our lives.” This, of course, would set alarm bells ringing in modern ears: fostering a child should not be motivated by the need to alleviate an adult’s lack of companionship, and it was unlikely that a child would seamlessly fit in with the lives of a middle-aged couple. It is clear that such an assessment of the suitability of a foster placement is inadequate, and it does not take too much imagination how such placements could go very wrong.

It is important to learn from the mistakes of the past. In the U.K., the Kindertransport is often seen in an overwhelmingly positive way which does not correspond to its historical reality. It is celebrated by the U.K. government but, as we have seen, the government’s part in the organisation and executive of the program was limited. Volunteers are essential for the integration of refugees, but trained professionals and stable policies are also needed.

It is important to acknowledge the complex legacy of the Kindertransport, to honor those who were affected but also to learn lessons for the future. 

Andrea Hammel is the author of The Kindertransport and Finding Refuge. She is a German language professor and the director of the Centre for the Movement of People at Aberystwyth University in Wales.