Presented to the Multicultural Council of South Australia
The Kindertransport: The story of how tolerance and compassion saved 10.000 children.
Kindertransport means ‘Children’s Transport’ but needs no translation, as it became a beacon for humanity, at the time of the greatest inhumanity in the history of the modern world.
I would like you to put yourself into the shoes of a very frightened 14 year old boy. The time is November 1938, the place is Germany. I am this boy.
“Things haven’t been so good for some time now. All the adults are very sad because of the many restrictions imposed on Jews by the Nazi Regime.
I used to like going to the movies or play in the parks or go ice-skating in the winter. I am forbidden to do this at the risk of my parents’ being punished. There are lots of grand parades with flags flying. I hide myself in doorways so I do not have to give the dreaded Nazi salute, the alternative to being beaten up by Hitler Youths mobs. My father’s business has long been taken away and he is now spending all his time at home worrying about the future. I can not go to school anymore.
My school, as well as the Synagogue has been burned down on “Kristall Nacht”. I have to go out because I am the only one in the family who can go shopping without being arrested. Mother cut off my first long trousers to make me look younger than my 14 years.”
Oh yes, I was very frightened.
All we talked about at home was how we could get out of Germany. But where, but how? I did not know it then, but borders were sealed everywhere against the influx of refugees.
In July 1938 President Roosevelt proposed a meeting of government representatives of all the countries of America and Europe, except Germany. Recognising the predicament of German and Austrian Jews, the conference would manifest before the non-European world, the urgency of emigrations, chiefly to Palestine.
The representatives of thirty-one countries assembled in the ‘Hotel Royal’ at Evian on the 6th July 1938. One representative pointed out that ‘Evian’ was spelled ‘Naive’ backwards. Nothing was resolved. Vague resolutions were passed. Ever more fanciful proposals were raised and discussed at enormous length before being dispatched to the waste paper baskets.
Among those were the creation of a Jewish State in Abyssinia; the Russians offered the Amur Basin, as long as the new nation did not exceed 100.000 and several South American countries would only accept farmers with a start capital of $500. (Few refugees qualified either by occupation or savings.) Much praised was the offer by the Dominican Republic to take 100.000 refugees, but the list was closed after 2000 names and by November 1938 was shortened to just 20.
You will all remember the sad voyage of the S. S. St. Louis who sailed the high seas to Cuba and back to Europe trying to off-load 936 Jewish refugees.
Against this background one proposal stood out. At the request of several prominent British Jews the House of Commons agreed to accept 10.000 refugee children under the age of 17 as temporary residents. On the 25th November 1938 Viscount Samuel broadcast on the BBC Home Service an appeal for foster homes. Soon there were 500 offers. Baron James de Rothchild offered his large country house for 26 boys. Director John Schlesinger organised a hostel for 13 children. The parents of Lord Richard Attenborough took two little girls into their home. Many wonderful stories of generosity can be told.
In Germany, Jewish families were frantically trying to get their children on the transports now leaving for England. The greatest urgency was for the older children who were disadvantaged or homeless, who would have been prey to Nazi incarceration. Parents went to desperate lengths to save their children. Everyone pushed and shoved to be one of the lucky ones.
Finally I was accepted and I left on the 30th March 1939 for England. There was never any question of parents being allowed to go with their children. What must my parents have felt? Of course we not even considered the possibility of never seeing each other again. We were all going to meet in the US. ‘very soon’. If they had known that this would be the last time they would see me, would they have let me go? Would I have wanted to go? How much more heart wrenching would the parting have been. As we waved our last ‘Good Byes’ from the train window my childhood had come to an end. I was just 15 years old.
Had it not been for the compassion and generosity of a handful of public spirited people it would have been the beginning of the end of my life.
There are 10.000 such stories and every one is different.
Many of these children made great contribution to their new country and proved that compassion in giving refuge to those in need pays dividends. Those old enough volunteered for the British Forces and fought and died for the freedom their new country had given them. Many distinguished themselves in later life, two of them, Arno Penzias & Walter Kohn became Nobel Prize winners.
I spent the first six months in a hostel with 60 boys at Westgate-on-Sea before joining the work force and later joining the British Army. Almost exactly 6 years to the day on the 24th March 1945 I crossed the Rhine into Germany with the 1st Royal Tank Regt. I had returned, but to a very different Germany. A few weeks later my Regiment entered the Concentration Camp of Bergen-Belson. I saw with my own eyes the fate I had escaped due to the sacrifice of my parents and the resolution of the government of Great Britain to display its humanity in allowing 10 000 refugee children to find a home amongst compassionate people.
By the time war broke out on the 3rd September 1939, 9350 refugee children had been brought out. Of these, 7482 were Jewish. A fraction of the children who were left behind survived the war, but perished in extermination camps, together with One-and-a half Million other Jewish Children.
Recently, in the Oscar winning documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers” some of the Kinder tell of their emotions when they left Germany.
“I ceased to be a child when I boarded the train in Prague. It’s strange that it’s only six years out of your life – and those six years will affect you the rest of your life”. Said one Kind.
“We had about a fortnight before we left.” Said another ” And into that fortnight, both mother and father were trying to give the instructions, the guidance that they hoped to have their whole life to give”.
“Every parent promised their child, “we will soon come and follow”. How otherwise did the parents get the little children onto the trains?”
“The children went with the hope that the parents would follow, or that one day they could come back and they would see them again. I did not realise that only a year-and-a-half later, from the same railway station, trains would go in the other direction to Hitler’s slaughterhouses.”
“My parents ran along the train on the platform . And I watched their faces, and tears were streaming down their cheeks. And I knew then – these people really love me. This is why they are sending me away.”
That is how we remember.
How different was our immigration to Australia, from England, 25 years later. This time we were a family of six, grown up in freedom and tolerance and welcomed with open arms in our new country. When we arrived in South Australia in 1964 as $20 Migrants we were the catalyst for at least another six families , who following our advice and settled in South Australia. With their dependants we feel responsible for over one hundred new Australians.
I hope that we can all learn from this historic event and find it in our heart to extend our hand to those in need, regardless of race, creed or culture.