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Redefining the Kindertransport 85 years on

Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport memorial in Berlin; a point of departure. Credit: Andrew King

Since the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport to Britain in 2018, scholars, refugee organisations, and politicians have called for a “rethinking” of the Kindertransport so that we see beyond “the big Kindertransport myth”. But the British use of the term Kindertransport continues to be misleading: it implies that there were no Kindertransports before 1938 and none after 1940 when the last transport left the Netherlands for British shores. The very definition and symbolism of the Kindertransport in Britain remain narrow. As we are approaching the 85th anniversary (December 2023) it seems timely to reassess our understanding of the term.

The Kindertransport is a label which has been typically applied to one movement (to Britain) at one particular time (following Reichspogromnacht and before the start of the war). But in the context of the Nazi persecution of Jews, the term “Kinder-Transport” was in fact first used in November 1934 when 53 German-Jewish children were sent to America because their families were concerned about their education and futures in Germany. The American refugee committees had initially planned to bring several hundred children to the States. In 1938, however, they were told that the quota was nearly full. The American Kindertransports have been overshadowed by the fact that the 1939 Wagner-Rogers Bill, which proposed bringing in 20,000 children, did not pass Congress. Despite this, Kindertransports to America did continue to take place, as they had done before the bill’s failure. Ironically, while the term was used in American-German documentation in 1934 and 1935, it was not typically used in Britain when Kinder came to this country in 1938-1940, but attributed retrospectively.

The story of the British scheme has dominated popular understandings of the term Kindertransport. Yet after Reichspogromnacht, Jewish children also escaped on Kindertransports to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden, among other European countries. The stipulations of the Kindertransports to other European countries from Germany were different to those to Britain. The children coming to the Netherlands, for instance, if they were not traveling on to Britain, had to be quarantined for two weeks before they were moved to their new homes. Children coming to Belgium had to have an invitation from someone living there. But the fact remains that, given these transports to a range of countries, it would be wrong to speak of THE Kindertransport – as if the British one was unique. The pre-history of the 1938-1940 Kindertransports is one of a smaller movement of refugee children, in some cases via Britain, often to America and New Zealand through individuals or refugee organisations working within the immigration restrictions of a particular country. And the Kindertransport to Britain after Reich Pogrom Night was accompanied by transports to other countries.

It was also not the only term used by those organising the transports on the German and Austrian side. Between 1934 and 1940, the term Kindertransport was used alongside other terms such as, for example, “England-Transport”, “Frankreichtransport”, “Kinderauswanderung”, and “Kinderverschickung”. The 1938-1940 Kindertransports are something that we might see as in excess of the quotas, or as specific to a large-scale scheme to rescue children. After Reich Pogrom Night, the transport process was speeded up and there was a greater collaboration between refugee groups around the world. Focussing on the British understanding of the Kindertransport, we think of sheltering German, Austrian, Czech, and Polish children who came directly to Britain, but we also helped children who went via Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland.

We also like to think that there was no limit on how many children could come to Britain on the British Kindertransport scheme, and that it ended when war was declared. But the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany imposed upon itself a ceiling figure of 10,000. That all the children remained in Britain is also not true. By the summer of 1939, quite a number of children had already left Britain for America, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Cuba, and Uruguay. It was also reported that other children would be moving to Shanghai, Palestine, Columbia, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, India, Canada, Argentina, and Greece. The children’s time in Britain was only ever meant to be temporary, unlike the Kindertransports to America where the children had permanent residency. Many of the Kinder who remained in Britain due to the war had or were waiting for their affidavits. Britain, in some cases, was only ever meant to be a place of transit – a first stop on a longer journey to safety.

We also need to extend our understanding of the term Kindertransport beyond 1940. It still means rescue, as transports continued to America, but also comes to mean transports to death. Deportations of Jewish children from France began after the Vél‘ d’Hiv roundup in July 1942. In that month, Nazi officials Adolf Eichmann, Frank Novak and Theodor Dannecker discussed the “Kinderabschub” – literally the “shoving” of children out of France towards occupied Poland. In the course of that discussion, Eichmann decided that “Kindertransports should roll” as soon as possible. The ambivalence of the term is even more shocking if we consider the case of 71 children in Danzig who were unable to board a Kindertransport to safety. Many of these children were later murdered in the Holocaust. Some of the children who had found refuge in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France would also share the same tragic fates as these children. Today, organisations such as Oorlogsbronnen, National Monument Kamp Vught, and Yad Vashem DE (Twitter account) also use the term to remember the children who did not survive.

It is assumed that the term Kindertransport was lost to postwar history and not taken up again until the late 1980/1990s, when the Kinder themselves started to collectively use the word. However, it was used in the postwar period to refer to groups of German children being rehabilitated from the bombings to countries such as Switzerland. Moreover, as historian Vera K. Fast has argued, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld extended the term to describe the evacuation of children who had survived the Holocaust in hiding or even in concentration camps. In suggesting that this second wave of child refugees was in many respects connected to the 1938-40 transports, Fast traces the continuous uprooting of Jewish émigré children right into the postwar period. The term was used another time before the 1980/1990s – that was during the Eichmann trial in 1961. Here, it was directly used to describe the deportation of children to the East.

Nearly 85 years after the first Kindertransport reached Britain, we need a broader historical understanding of the concept, one which takes into account earlier transports of Jewish children, concurrent transports to other countries, and transports which happened subsequent to the outbreak of war. We also need to be aware of the deep ambivalence of the term, given its use by Nazi officials to refer to the deportation of Jewish children to their deaths. It is rather ironic that this message has been staring us in the face for so long. Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport memorial in Berlin is called “Trains to Life – Trains to Death”.

Kindertransport memorial in London; a point of arrival. Credit – Andrew King

I would like to thank Bill Niven for discussing with me the ideas featured in this article.

Written by Dr Amy Williams – December 2023

Dr Amy Willams is currently a fellow at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School, New York. For the past two years she was the module leader of the undergraduate module “Holocaust and Genocide” at Nottingham Trent University. Her new co-authored book with Prof. Bill Niven “Memory of the Kindertransport in National and Transnational Memories: Exhibitions, Memorials, and Commemorations” has recently been published by Camden House. She is working on her next co-authored book with Bill for Yale University Press on the transnational history of the Kindertransport, due to be published in 2026. Her third book for Mitteldeutscher Verlag entitled “Kindertransport: Eine Spurensuche” or “In Search of the Kindertransport” is a testimony book based on 150 interviews.

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