In the film Schindler’s List, towards the end of the film, Oscar Schindler is fleeing to evade capture for war profiteering. The workers of his factory present him with a letter, they have all signed in case he is captured, it tries to explain how he saved their lives. On behalf of each one of them, his assistant Itzhak Stern, presents him with a ring inscribed “whoever saves one life saves the world entire”. It’s a simple yet powerful phrase from the Talmud, to me it means that if you save one life, you are saving generations. You not only saved that one person, but you saved the future generations of that family and anyone else touched by that life.
How to Save a Life- The Build Up and Background
December 1, 2018 marks the 80th Anniversary of what have come to be known as the Kindertransports (German meaning “children transports”). In March of 1938 Austria was annexed by Germany, within that same month Czechoslovakia fell to them as well. By the end of September 1938, Poland had fallen as well. Within these countries were hundreds of thousands of Jews, gypsies, communist, socialist and more, who’s lives were now threatened by the Third Reich.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, life as a Jew became more and more restricted. They lost their jobs, their homes, their businesses and overnight, friends. They were barred from public places, such as parks and theaters, and not allowed to walk on the sidewalk but in the gutter like an animal.
Those who were lucky enough to get a visa to another country left. Getting a visa to another country then was not much different than today. They had to have money, they had to have someone on the other end to sponsor them or they had to have a job waiting for them. Between 1933-1938 150,000 Jews emigrated to the United States and Britain. So, if you were poor, had no family or friends elsewhere, you really had nowhere to go.
President Roosevelt called a meeting of world leaders on July 6-15, 1938 in Evian, France to try and find a solution to help those fleeing the Hitler regime. Thirty-two countries were represented and the only thing that they could agree on was to meet again.
How to Save a Life- The Catalyst
The event that finally created an outcry by the people of Britain is known as Kristallnacht (German for “the night of broken glass”). It happened on the night and early morning hours of November 9/10, 1938 simultaneously in Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Jewish businesses and homes were attacked and ransacked, a thousand synagogues burned to the ground, over ninety people killed and 300,000, mostly Jewish men, arrested and sent to concentration camps.
It is thought by most historians that the assassination of Ernst vom Rath by seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, was used by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to rile up Hitlers anti-Semitic followers into a hate filled frenzy. Herschel had killed vom Rath for sending his parents to a concentration camp.
It took two weeks of public out cry and the work of many private and public organizations to put enough pressure on the British government too finally debate the solution in Parliament on November 21, 1938. They reached the decision to allow in an unspecified number of children, if they can meet certain criteria:
- A bond of 50 British pounds was to be paid for each child, to “assure their ultimate resettlement”. It was assumed that they would go home to their parents.
- They were to be under the age of seventeen.
- They were to be from countries occupied by the Germans (Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia).
With these conditions met, the children were allowed in on temporary travel visas. Most of the families didn’t have the money to secure the bond for the children, and that is where individuals, private and public organizations stepped in. (We’ll talk more about them later.) On November 25, 1938 the BBC radio made an appeal for volunteer foster homes for the soon to be arriving children.
How to Save a Life- The Transports
The most difficult thing for any parent is to trust someone with your child. Parents all over the Third Reich now faced the harrowing decision of sending their child on the transports or keeping them with them and possibly dying in a concentration camp. Thousands of parents made the decision to send their child with total strangers. They said goodbye on a train platform, most not really knowing that that would be the last time they would see their child.
Children of all ages were sent on the transports, even infants. Teen agers now suddenly became responsible for younger children, sibling or not, suddenly faced with caring for these children until they got to Britain.
The first transport left Berlin on December 1, 1938 and arrived in Harwich, Britain December 2, 1938. It is not known if the ship sailed from Belgium or the Netherlands, as children were gathered in the large cities of Berlin, Vienna and Prague and then sent by train to either Belgium or the Netherlands to catch a ship for Britain. The first transport carried 196 Jewish orphans. Their orphanage had been burned down on the night of Kristallnacht.
The last transport left Amsterdam on May 14, 1940. It carried the last children that so many people and organizations had worked tirelessly to get out of the Third Reich. The children had faced running through Amsterdam, while it was on fire from German attack to reach the freighter that would carry them to safety in Britain.
Close to 10,000 children from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria arrived in Britain between 1938 and 1940. Approximately 7,500 were Jewish children. Most of them would never see their parents again, as they would perish in concentration camps.
How to Save a Life- The Children
Once the children arrived in Britain, their foster parents met them in London. Those who did not have foster parents or sponsors went to a summer camp in Dovercourt Bay or similar facilities until foster parents could be found for them. And once again, people from all faiths came to take in children. It was a challenge for both child and foster family, as so few of the children could speak English.
Children that were over 14 years of age and a foster family was unable to be secured for them, would take short training courses on domestic service and agriculture and became part of Britain’s wartime work force. When some of the children turned 18, they joined the British or Australian military to fight Nazi Germany.
Overall, in the years of the transport and those that followed most of the children were well treated and formed lasting and loving bonds with the families they lived with. Unfortunately, they were cases of children being abused or maltreated by the host family.
In 1940 Enemy Alien hysteria gripped Britain and suddenly the older children found themselves being thought of as possible spies. Over 1,000 children from the transports were interned in camps on the Isle of Man and other places. Some of the them were sent to Canada on ships with German prisoners of war. Some sent on ships to Australia that were often overcrowded and poorly administered by the British escort troops.
It was until July 1940 when the ship Arandora Star was sunk by a U-boat that this policy changed. The ship had left Britain with 1,200 on board, 800 perished at sea. The survivors were sent back to Britain, where they stayed until the end of the war.
After the war, many of the children became British citizens. Some of them emigrated to different countries, mostly Israel, Canada, Australia and the United States. So many had lost their families, that they had no one to go home to, so they started a new life in a new country.
How to Save a Life- The Saviors
So many everyday people stepped up to answer the call. Two of the most notable organizations were the British Committee for the Jews of Germany and the Movement for the Care of the Children of Germany. People from all different religions stepped up to help, Quakers, Christians from all denominations and Jews risked their lives to save the lives of children.
Lola Hahn-Warburg was a wealthy Jewish woman from a prominent banking family. She fled to Britain in 1933, however before she left, she had laid the ground work in Berlin to help get children out.
Wilfrid Israel was a wealthy Jewish businessman and philanthropists who used his personal connections to obtain passage out of the Third Reich for an untold number of Jews.
Stanley Baldwin was a former British Prime Minister who went on BBC radio in December 1938 to appeal for funds for the Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees.
Viscount Walter Horace Samuel, Sir Wyndham Deedes, Rebecca Sieff and Rabbi Solomon Schoenfeld worked together to save almost one thousand Jewish children.
Nicholas Winton, later to be Sir Nicholas, worked with Trevor Chadwick, Doreen Warriner and Bill Barazetti and saved nearly 669 Czechoslovakian children.
Quakers Bertha Bracey and Jean Hoare escorted children out of Prague via airplane. Enough children to fill that plane.
Franzi Danneberg-Low was a social worker in a Jewish neighborhood in Vienna. She helped children get out of Vienna, but became a guardian to many when they became trapped after the transports stopped.
Norbert Wollheim was a Jewish accountant in Berlin. He accompanied many transports to Britain. He was offered passage on the last transport, but refused as he did not want to leave his wife and child alone in Berlin. He was sent to Auschwitz in 1943.
Geertruda (Trous) Wijsmuller-Meijer was a Dutch Christian woman who was brave enough to appeal directly to Adolf Eichmann (architect of the final solution) for the safe transport of children out of the Netherlands. She escorted smuggled children from Marseille, France onto a boat bound for Palestine. Heroically she guided children through a burning Amsterdam to the freighter Bodegraven, on May 14, 1940. The freighter was bound for Dover, Britain. As it left port it was strafed by German Luftwaffe planes to keep it from reaching Britain. It did reach Britain and it was the last transport.
How to Save a Life- The Legacy
On November 15, 2018 Alf Dubs took to a podium on a stage with lined with refugees from all over the world, different ages, religions and backgrounds. He spoke of how the world had 68 million refugees in 2017, and how he hoped that governments and people remembered the Kindertransports, because Alf Dubs was a child of those transports.
Alf is 86 years old, when he was six he boarded a train that eventually led him to Britain. He never saw his parents again. His parents made, probably, the hardest decision they had ever made and it was to save his life. Because of that, Alf became a British Lawmaker.
Another Kindertransport child was there with Alf, Leslie Brent. Leslie’s parents made the same decision as Alf’s. Leslie in now 93 years old. She became an immunologist and her research was part of the 1960 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
If everyday people and organizations had not pushed to get these children out of Europe, we would not have them today, nor would we have the generations of people here because of them. It should never matter what religion, color of skin, or place in the world a refugee comes from. They are fleeing for their life and they deserve a chance at it. Who knows where the next future Nobel Prize winner will come from? In 2014 it was Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Prize for Peace winner, an immigrant from Pakistan who just wanted to go to school.
I hope that you have enjoyed the blog and that it spurs you to learn more on the subject. I hope that it also creates a desire to share the stories with others, so that they are never forgotten.
Hello everyone, to give people the opportunity to read each posting, I will be moving it from weekly postings to biweekly postings. And, for major holidays- Christmas and New Years, I’ll be taking those weeks off. Archives contain my past postings, I hope you enjoy them.