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The Kindertransport was a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.
World Jewish Relief (then called The Central British Fund for German Jewry) was established in 1933 as a direct result and to support in whatever way possible the needs of Jews both in Germany and Austria. Records for many of the children who arrived in the UK through the Kindertransports are maintained by World Jewish Relief.
On 15 November 1938, 5 days after the devastation of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in Germany and Austria, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed in person to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain. Among other measures, they requested that the British government permit the temporary admission of unaccompanied Jewish children, without their parents.
The British Cabinet debated the issue the next day and subsequently prepared a Bill to present to Parliament. That bill stated that the Government would waive certain immigration requirements so as to allow the entry into Great Britain of unaccompanied children ranging from infants up to the age of 17, under conditions as outlined in the next paragraph. No limit upon the permitted number of refugees was ever publicly announced. Initially the Jewish refugee Agencies considered 5,000 as a realistic target goal. However, after the British Colonial Office turned down the Jewish Agencies' separate request to allow the admission of 10,000 children to British-controlled Palestine, the Jewish Agencies then increased their planned target number to 15,000 unaccompanied children to enter Great Britain in this way.
On the eve of a major House of Commons of the United Kingdom debate on refugees on 21 November 1938, Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare met a large delegation representing various Jewish, Quaker and other non-Jewish groups working on behalf of refugees. The groups were allied under a non-denominational organisation called the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. The Home Secretary agreed that, to speed up the immigration process, travel documents would be issued on the basis of group lists rather than individual applications. The Agencies promised to find homes for all the children. They also promised to fund the operation and to ensure that none of the refugees would become a financial burden on the public. Every child would have a guarantee of £50 sterling to finance his or her eventual re-emigration, as it was expected the children would stay in the country only temporarily.
Within a very short time, the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later known as the Refugee Children's Movement (RCM), sent representatives to Germany and Austria to establish the systems for choosing, organising, and transporting the children. World Jewish Relief (formerly the Central British Fund for Germany Jewry) were involved in the rescue operation.
On 25 November, British citizens heard an appeal for foster homes on the BBC Home Service radio station from Viscount Samuel. Soon there were 500 offers, and RCM volunteers started visiting possible foster homes and reporting on conditions. They did not insist that prospective homes for Jewish children should be Jewish homes. Nor did they probe too carefully into the motives and character of the families: it was sufficient for the houses to look clean and the families to seem respectable.
In Germany, a network of organisers was established, and these volunteers worked around the clock to make priority lists of those most in peril: teenagers who were in concentration camps or in danger of arrest, Polish children or teenagers threatened with deportation, children in Jewish orphanages, children whose parents were too impoverished to keep them, or children with a parent in a concentration camp. Once the children were identified or grouped by list, their guardians or parents were issued a travel date and departure details. They could only take a small sealed suitcase with no valuables and only ten marks or less in money. Some children had nothing but a manilla tag with a number on the front and their name on the back, others were issued with a numbered identity card with photo: "This document of identity is issued with the approval of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom to young persons to be admitted to the United Kingdom for educational purposes under the care of the Inter-Aid Committee for children. / This Document requires no Visa. / Personal Particulars. / (Name; Sex; Date of Birth; Place; Full Names and Address of Parents)"
The first party of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on 2 December, three weeks after Kristallnacht. In the following nine months, 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children traveled to England. Initially the children came mainly from Germany and Austria (by then part of the Greater Reich). In March 1939, after the German army invaded Czechoslovakia, transports from Prague were hastily organised. In February and August 1939 trains from Poland were arranged. Transports out of Nazi-occupied Europe continued until the declaration of war on 1 September 1939. One very last transport left on the passenger-freighter Bodegraven on May 14, 1940, from IJmuiden, Netherlands, organized by Mrs Wijsmuller, who could have joined the children but chose to remain behind.
During the war years many Kinder served in the British armed forces, the nursing professions, in food production and in war related industries. Several thousand remained in Britain when the war ended, and as adults made considerable contributions to Britain's services, industries, commerce, education, science and the arts, for the defence, welfare and development of their country of adoption. No fewer than four Kinder were Nobel Prize winners; two of whom had gone from Britain to America.
The Nazis had decreed that the evacuations must not block ports in Germany, so most Transport parties went by train to the Netherlands; then to a British port, generally Harwich, by cross-channel ferry from the Hook of Holland near Rotterdam. From the port, a train took some of the children to Liverpool Street Station in London, where they were met by their volunteer foster parents. Children without prearranged foster families were sheltered at temporary holding centres located at summer holiday camps such as Dovercourt near Harwich and Pakefield. There was at least one Transport direct from Germany: the Transport of 13 June 1939 from Bremen, Germany on the transatlantic liner SS Europa which sailed to New York via Southampton.
The first Kindertransport left Berlin on 1 December 1938 and arrived in Harwich on 2 December with 196 children. Most were from a Berlin Jewish orphanage burned by the Nazis during the night of 9 November, and the others were from Hamburg.
The first train from Vienna left on 10 December 1938 with 600 children. This was the result of the work of Mrs. Gertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a Dutch organizer of Kindertransporte, who had been active in this field since 1937. She went to Vienna with the purpose of negotiating with Adolf Eichmann himself, but was turned away in the first instance. She persevered, and finally Eichmann would see her for five minutes. As Mrs. Wijsmuller wrote in her biography, Eichmann suddenly 'gave' her 600 children with the clear intent of overloading her and making a transport on short notice impossible. She managed. The main group of 500 went to Harwich and were accommodated at a holiday camp at Dovercourt Bay near Harwich, while 100 stayed temporarily in Holland.
Many Quaker representatives went with the parties from Germany to Holland, or met the parties at Liverpool Street Station in London ensured that there was someone there to receive and care for each child. Between 1939 and 1941, 160 children without foster families were sent to the Whittingehame Farm School in East Lothian, Scotland. Whittingehame was the family estate and home of the late British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration.
The RCM ran out of money at the end of August 1939 and decided it could not take more children. The last group of children left Germany on 1 September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, and two days later Britain, France and other countries declared war on Germany. A party left Prague on 3 September 1939 but was sent back. Because of the outbreak of war, the border with Holland was closed for some time, although Holland remained neutral and was not invaded until the 10 May 1940.
Separately, the last known boat transport of 40 children  left the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to Germany after Rotterdam was bombed also on that day. It was on the last ship to leave the port of IJmuiden near Amsterdam, also the work of Mrs. Wijsmuller. She collected the children from the Amsterdam municipal orphanage, but on the way to the harbour she picked up 34 more children. (The same ship, the SS 'Bodegraven', carried the famous Dutch-Jewish art-dealer Jacques Goudstikker and his family; Goudstikker died on board as the result of an accident.) Many children were still in the Netherlands and Belgium when Germany occupied those countries, resulting ultimately in their murder at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
In the UK a number of members of Habonim, a Jewish youth movement inclined to socialism and Zionism, were instrumental in running the country hostels of South West England, where some of the Kindertransport children were placed. These members of Habonim were held back from going to live on kibbutz by the effects of the Second World War. Other Jewish youth movements in the UK including Bnei Akiva also subsequently participated in this work by running additional hostels.
These hostels were turned into centres for study of secular and Jewish subjects as well as temporary homes for the children. They were run on communal lines. About 120 of the Kindertransport children grew up during the war years at these hostels at Exmouth, Dawlish, and South Devon. Bnei Akiva ran a number of hostels including at Gwrych Castle in North Wales, Bromsgrove and Farnham. The hostels themselves were large family mansions that were made available by their owners and helped by both the British government and the Jewish social and charitable organizations. Some of the Habonim members also participated with the older children in helping to farm and to grow agricultural produce to aid the war effort. The languages used were a mixture of German, Polish, Czech, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.
Records for many of the children who arrived in the UK through the Kindertransports are maintained by World Jewish Relief through its Jewish Refugees Committee. On the supply of authorised documentation, copies of these documents can be supplied to family members at a small fee to cover administration costs.
At the end of the war, there were great difficulties in Britain as children from the Kindertransport tried to reunite with their families. Agencies were flooded with claims of children seeking to find their parents, or any surviving member of their family. Some of the children were able to reunite with their families, often travelling to far off countries in order to do so. Other times, they were not so lucky and discovered that their parents had not survived the war. In her novel about the Kindertransport titled The Children of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek describes how often the children who had no families left were forced to leave the homes that they had gained during the war in boarding houses in order to make room for younger children flooding the country.
Before Christmas 1938, a 29-year-old British stockbroker of German-Jewish origin named  Nicholas Winton planned to fly to Switzerland for a ski vacation when he decided to travel to Prague instead to help a friend who was involved in Jewish refugee work. Thereafter, he established an organisation to aid Jewish children from Czechoslovakia separated from their families by the Nazis, setting up an office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He ultimately found homes for 669 children. Winton's mother also worked with him to place the children in homes, and later hostels, with a team of sponsors from groups like Maidenhead Rotary Club and Rugby Refugee Committee. Throughout the summer, he placed advertisements seeking British families to take them in. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland, marking the start of the Second World War.
Wilfrid Israel (1899–1943) may have been involved in the rescue of Jews from Germany and occupied Europe. Through a British agent, Frank Foley, passport officer at the Berlin consulate, he kept British intelligence informed of Nazi activities. He spoke for the Reichsvertretung, (the German Jewish communal organisation) and the Hilfsverein (the self-help body), urged a plan of rescue on the Foreign Office and helped British Quakers to visit Jewish communities all over Germany to prove to the British government that Jewish parents were indeed prepared to part with their children.
It is remarkable what one dedicated person was able to do to save children. Another example is that of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who also individually brought in 300 Kinder. These were all Orthodox, and he was very insistent they went to Orthodox foster-homes and followed Orthodox Judaism. See the entry Solomon Schonfeld, and the book Holocaust Hero: Solomon Schonfeld, by Dr. Kranzler (Ktav Publishing House, New Jersey, 2004)
In 1940, the British government ordered the internment of all male 16- to 70-year-old refugees from enemy countries — so-called friendly enemy aliens. Many of the kinder who had arrived in earlier years were now young men, and so they were also interned. Approximately 1,000 of these prior-kinder were interned in these makeshift internment camps, many on The Isle of Man. Around 400 were transported overseas to Canada and Australia (and see HMT Dunera.) As the camp internees reached the age of 18, they were offered the chance to do war work or to enter the Army Auxiliary Pioneer Corps. About 1,000 German and Austrian prior-kinder who reached adulthood went on to serve in the British armed forces, including in combat units. Several dozen joined elite formations such as the Special Forces, where their language skills were put to good use during the D-Day Invasion and afterwards as the Allies progressed into Germany.
British internment of friendly enemy aliens lasted only for short period, generally a few months, until they were processed by the government and released.
A number of children saved by the Kindertransports went on to become prominent figures in public life. These include:
A similar but much less organised effort to bring unaccompanied children, mostly Jewish, to the United States was known as the One Thousand Children (OTC). The program brought about 1400 children aged between 14 months and 16 years to the United States between November 1934 and May 1945. Like the kinder, these OTC children were forced to leave their parents behind in Europe, who were later murdered by the Nazis.
In contrast to the Kindertransport where the British Government waived immigration visa requirements, these OTC children received no United States Government visa immigration assistance. Furthermore, it is documented that the State Department deliberately made it very difficult for any Jewish refugee to get an entrance visa. And it was even harder to secure the appropriate papers for their parents, hence why most had to remain in Europe.
In 1939 Sen. Robert F. Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) proposed the Wagner-Rogers Bill in the United States Congress. This bill was to admit 20,000 Jewish children refugees under the age of 14 into the United States from Nazi Germany, who were unaccompanied, leaving their parents behind. However, in February 1939, this Bill failed to get Congressional approval.
The first documentary film made on the subject of the Kindertransport was My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports which was shown, and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996 and released theatrically in 1998. The director, Melissa Hacker, is the daughter of the costume designer Ruth Morley who was a Kindertransport child. The film is narrated by Joanne Woodward
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, narrated by Judi Dench and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, won the Academy Award in 2001 for best documentary feature. There is also a companion book by the same name. The film's producer, Deborah Oppenheimer, is the daughter of a Kindertransport survivor. The director, Mark Jonathan Harris, is a three-time Oscar winner.
The Children Who Cheated the Nazis, narrated by Richard Attenborough is a British documentary film by Sue Read and Jim Goulding, first shown on Channel 4 in 2000. Attenborough's parents were among those who responded to the appeal for families to foster the refugee children; they took in two girls.
Kindertransport: The Play, is the name of a play by Diane Samuels, which examines the life, during World War II and afterwards, of a Kindertransport child. Among other things, it presents the confusions and traumas that arose for many kinder before, and after, they were fully integrated into their English foster-homes; and, as importantly, when their real parents reappeared in their life, or more likely and tragically, when they learned that their real parents were dead.
In the novel The Remains of the Day and subsequent film adaptation, two teenage refugee sisters fleeing Germany are employed in Lord Darlington's household, only to be dismissed soon afterwards when Darlington, a Nazi sympathiser, reads the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain.
Austerlitz, by the Anglo-German novelist W G Sebald, is an odyssey of a kindertransport boy brought up in a Welsh manse who later traces his origins to Prague and then goes back there. He finds someone who knew his mother, and he retraces his journey by train
Sisterland, a young adult novel by Linda Newbery, concerns a Kindertransport child, Sarah Reubens, who is now a grandmother; sixteen-year-old Hilly uncovers the secret her grandmother has kept hidden for years. This novel was shortlisted for the 2003 Carnegie Medal.
Far to Go, a novel by Alison Pick, a Canadian writer and descendant of European Jews, is the fictional account of a Sudetenland Jewish family who after fleeing to Prague use bribery to secure a place for their six-year old son aboard one of Nicholas Winton's transports.
The English German Girl, a novel published in 2011 by Jake Wallis Simons, a British writer, is the fictional account of a 15-year-old Jewish girl from Berlin who is brought to England via the kindertransport operation.
In BBC1's The Kindertransport Story, three rescued children, now in their eighties, tell their moving stories. Also taking part in the programme was Lord Attenborough, whose own parents took in two girls after responding to the urgent appeal for foster families.
On 1 September 2009, a special Winton train set off from the Prague Main railway station. The train, consisting of an original locomotive and carriages used in the 1930s, headed to London via the original Kindertransport route. On board the train were several surviving Winton children and their descendants, who were to be welcomed by the now hundred-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton in London. The occasion marked the 70th anniversary of the intended last Kindertransport which was due to set off on 3 September 1939 but did not because of the outbreak of the Second World War. At the train's departure, Sir Nicholas Winton's statue was unveiled at the railway station.
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