The 'no-parent' kindertransport

The kindertransport showed that the Germans were ready to let Jews out. The fate of the Jews was sealed by both Nazi brutality and the absence of sheltering countries.

holocaust 88 (photo credit: )
holocaust 88
(photo credit: )
Seventy years ago this week, the first of the kindertransport left Germany for safety in Britain. The first one arrived at Harwich on December 2 bringing 200 children from Berlin's Jewish orphanage, torched the month before during the pogrom named Kristallnacht. This event is rightly celebrated in Britain. Here was an act of generosity and kindness which stood out in singular isolation. Following the Kristallnacht pogrom, the British Parliament and government decided to give shelter to refugee children, mostly Jewish, menaced by the Nazi regime. Indeed, Britain's exceptional humanity and generosity contrast dramatically with the universal indifference to the unfolding Jewish tragedy in Germany of 1938. Moreover the children were generally well received: One of them - now 81 - told London's Evening Standard (November 20) how he was elected vice captain in a Margate school although he hardly knew any English. Britain's act of humanity contrasts sharply with the American failure. A similar effort in the US failed to pass the congressional committees. Eventually, 1,000 mostly Jewish children were allowed into America between 1934 and 1945 in a semi-clandestine operation which has come to be known as the "One Thousand Children." Britain was different. The YEAR 1938 was a watershed: In July, the Evian conference ended in a fiasco. Thirty-two countries deliberated the refugee question - without mentioning the word Jew - and decided to do nothing. Almost all of the participating countries openly refused to take in Jewish refugees. Hitler rightly saw in that refusal a green light to unleash his hordes in the November pogrom. Then came the quick action of the British government which managed - with the brave help of Quakers - to save almost 10,000 children. Having said that, there are other aspects to the kindertransport. The British government did not allow them to immigrate to Britain. They were given only temporary shelter, and a condition was attached: They had to come without their parents. Thus the children - ranging from infants to 17-year-olds - had to leave their parents in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia amid tragic scenes in which, by Nazi orders, no emotion was allowed to be shown. They made their way to Britain via Holland as de facto orphans. Infants were carried by their older siblings and the absence of their mothers and fathers was, naturally, traumatic. THIS IS significant. Here were parents ready to send their unaccompanied offspring to a foreign land. The Evian participants could have conceivably deluded themselves into believing that no mortal danger awaited the Jews. But now, in December 1938, after the pogrom, the readiness of the parents testified to their realization that they had to save the lives of their children. The mortal danger was palpable. From now on the failure of the West to take in Jewish refugees acquired a new dimension: indifference in the face of death. At the same time, the kindertransport showed that the Nazis were ready to let Jews out. The fate of the Jews was sealed by both the Nazis' brutality and the absence of sheltering countries. But why were the parents not allowed to enter Britain? After all, here was the crème-de-la-crème of European society - leading citizens who would have enriched the economy, science and arts of the British isles. And there was not even an issue of immigration. The parents, like their children, could have been granted temporary shelter, thus avoiding a cruel separation. But the children arrived ohne eltern, without parents; they were elternlose kinder - parentless children. In other words: the kindertransport is both testament to British generosity and to the then-prevailing prejudice against Jews. Most parents, needless to say, did not survive to see their children. Why is this important nowadays? Because the events of the Holocaust are remembered by Jews as characterized by two types of responsibility - for the actual murder and for the failure to save the menaced Jews. Of course, there is no comparison between the actual butchers and the indifferent onlookers, but anybody who wants to understand the Israeli psyche must realize that even Britain's unique act of humanity delivers a double message - a double sense of horror at the actual slaughter as well as a sense of being betrayed by the Western democracies. Israelis live with these double traumas. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.