Saved by a beacon of kindness

 

HISTORY: CARLA KINGreviews Children’s Exodus: A History of the KindertransportBy Vera K Fast IB Taurus, 270pp. £25

IN THE GRIM years before the second World War one beacon of courage and kindness was the Kindertransport, a voluntary effort that saw the movement of more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to the relative safety of Britain. They were brought mainly by train and boat for settlement with British families, their desperate parents parting with them in the hope of saving their lives. This book, which draws effectively on memoirs, records of the assisting organisations and historical studies, examines two waves of migration. The first arrived between December 1938 (in the aftermath of Kristallnacht) and August 31st, 1939, when transports were brought to an end by the outbreak of the war. The second took place in 1946-7, bringing those children who had survived the concentration camps, along with several hundred hidden during the war by brave people who had risked torture and death in doing so.

The project was beset with difficulties. Some of the children were very young – a few only one or two years old – they were traumatised by the forced separation from their families (and by what they had witnessed) and they had to cope with adaptation to new conditions, language and culture, and integration into host families. Bitter rivalries broke out between Jewish organisations, Orthodox and Liberal, over aspects of the project, and there were misgivings about placing Jewish children in Christian homes where they might be subjected to proselytism or in other ways lose touch with their religion.

On the outbreak of war many Kindertransportchildren were among those evacuated from London and coastal areas to the countryside, uprooted once more from homes where they were just beginning to settle. Worse still was the fact that, with the introduction of internment of enemy aliens, 1,000 of the older children were held, mostly on the Isle of Man, sometimes detained alongside Nazi sympathisers who taunted them; more than 200 were deported to Canada or Australia. Given the problems it is not surprising that the project was faced at times with organisational breakdown and financial crisis. Nevertheless, the generosity and commitment of so many individuals to these refugee children make an inspiring story.

VERA FAST, AN archivist and historian, provides a balanced and sensitive treatment of the Kindertransport, from the viewpoints of both children and organisers. She contrasts Britain’s impressive effort with the refusal of Canada and the United States to accept any Kinderapart from those already on quota lists. What of Ireland? In 1946 Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, director of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, persuaded the owners of Clonyn Castle, in Co Westmeath, to make it available as a hostel for 100 Jewish refugee children. He asked the Department of Justice to admit them on the basis that the council would provide for their emigration after a specified period.

Characteristically, the department refused, with the minister, Gerry Boland, arguing that “any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem”. Eventually, however, Éamon de Valera overruled his minister, and the children were permitted to enter this country on condition that their stay would be short. This can only be described as a miserable response from a country that had largely escaped the devastation of war.

In 1990 the European Court of Justice decided that the Kindertransportchildren should be compensated by the German government as Holocaust survivors. This was initially resisted, and the successful campaign of Hermann Hirschberger, himself one of the surviving Kinder, to secure compensation was recognised in this year’s British new year’s honours list – too late for acknowledgment in Fast’s book. While nothing can undo the trauma suffered by the children, it must be recognised that without the efforts of many generous people who opened their homes and purses, most would have perished with their parents in the Holocaust.


Carla King is a lecturer in modern history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin