Journey with us to World War II to discover the lives - and heartbreak - of the Kindertransport. Full script included below.
Today we will be looking at the Girls who travelled with the Kindertransport of WWII.
So firstly what was the Kindertransport? Kindertransport means “Children’s transport” in German and it was the mass movement of young children, mainly Jewish, out of Germany and occupied or threatened lands to safer countries, primarily Great Britain. After “Kristallnacht” or “night of the broken glass” in 1938, many people and some governments realized that the situation in Germany had become dangerous for Jewish people. With some persuasion the British government, who at the time governed the safest place in Europe, decided to let a small amount of unaccompanied minors, to be fostered in to British families. Through this and mass support from Quaker groups and the Refugee Children Movement group, nearly 10,000 children were rehoused in Britain. But how did it feel for these girls of diverse backgrounds, to leave their life behind? For many only the thing they had in common was being Jewish. Let's take a look shall we?
First things first, what actually was happening in Germany to make parents want or need to willingly give their children to people not knowing whether or not they would ever see them again? Many of these girls either lived in Germany, or a bordering country like Czechoslovakia or Austria, and this was happening just before the Second World War, when Hitler and the Nazi party were in power in Germany. From 1934 onwards, Hitler put in place more and more anti-semitic laws which limited Jewish people's lives drastically. This culminated in the “Kristallnacht” or “night of the broken glass” in Germany and Austria on 9-10th November 1938. Civilians turned on the Jewish community, and Police forces turned a blind eye. Mass looting, arson, theft, destruction and murder were committed and it displayed clearly to the Jewish communities that they were not safe anymore. Many parents therefore wanted to get out of these areas, but due to harsh restrictions on what Jews could and could not do, they were left with little breathing space.
Next, how did these children get a place on these trains and then boats out of the danger zone?
By a lot of hard work from their parents. For most Jewish parents the idea of getting their child out of the threatened zones was a “Tremendous drive” and something that nearly everyone would have wanted, to give their child a better chance of survival. However, it was very difficult to do so, both logistically and emotionally. As Dame Stephanie Shirley recounts, it was “made so difficult” that her mother had to put her and her sister in a children's home temporarily. As the parent would have to be in one place in Vienna getting one form approved, and shortly after be somewhere else on the other side of Vienna getting another form accounted for, which she simply couldn’t have done with her children in toe.
Each child needed an individual donor. A donor was a British person who would put £50 upfront to pay for the child's later re-emigration and was a way of trying to making sure that these children would not remain in Britain for the rest of their lives, although this was often not the case. Many stayed in Britain or moved to another country, but almost none went ‘home’. These girls were often advertised in the British paper, not just for fostering, but for this payment. Once a foster family, a loan and all the papers were in order all the parents had to was actually get their child on the train. While for a good cause, it does seem to be a bit unseemly to be advertising children in this way.
Once all the money and paperwork were in order, the next step was preparing the children to leave, which would have happened quite quickly.
So what would you pack? Well the guideline were strict as can be seen in this statement released on December 10, 1938. "We remind again that the luggage must contain nothing but the children's personal items. Any forbidden additions will result in the child not being taken along." The child also had to be a able to carry the bag, with the child in question ranging from a five year to a sixteen year old, so did this size of the bag. Most parents packed practical items clothes, hair brushes or other items which would help look after their child. But these young girls most prized possession were often there doll or favourite toy, which was for many a great source of comfort, as Dame Shirley knew all but to well. Whilst on the Kindertransport she lost her doll on the train over to England. This was what caused her the most amount of stress, despite having left her family, it was not having her doll to hold which she remembers stressing over. Luckily however the doll turned up by the time they got to England!
So how did it feel to wave goodbye to their families? Not knowing if they would see each other again would have been difficult for those old enough to understand, but for the younger ones, all they knew was that they were leaving their mummy and daddy.
For Leisl, her whole family came to say goodbye to her, at 12 she was the only one who was young enough to go on the train. She remembers her dad's parting words to her “see you soon, be my brave little girl”. For Leisl she could at least make sense of what was happening.
For younger girls like Stephanie, memories of leaving are much more blurred but nonetheless traumatic. What she does remember however, is a young boy named Peter who kept understandably being sick. In her memory the train stopped every time he wanted to be sick, her older sister, and her adult minds of course contradicts this, as how could a whole train stop for one young boys illness? She also remembered sleeping in the luggage rack, which she now thinks seems quite unlikely! Some children even became hysterical as this was the first time they had been away from their parents, with no guarantee they would see them again. There were only two adults per train to calm these hundreds of distraught children, so not an ideal situation at all. There were also some young girls who had agreed to carry babies for families aboard the Kindertransport a temporary nanny, on the understanding that they would return to their country, to almost certainly meet their end. However, a lot of babies and young toddlers were looked after by their older siblings or cousins. Here many girls undertook the role of a parent for their infant siblings. Firstly on the train by comforting the baby even if they were frightened themselves, but also later when they were settling into their new homes. Often they were their only connection to the younger childs own old home left.
For their own safety, the doors remained shut on all trains as the crossed through Europe. However, it was very difficult because they had no food until they got to Holland where finally some ladies came on board offering them something to eat.
The next step in the journey was on the big ferry ride from the Hook of Holland to Harwick in England. For some girls, like Stephanie, this was the first time they had ever seen the sea let alone been on a boat. The murky water and salty smell would of been frightening things! One girl, Ruth, was so distraught by this point, she didn’t want to go any further, however, a boisterous teenage managed to scoop her up onto his back and distract her enough to get her onto the boat. By this point, many of the children were too tired and confused to continue on with any hysterics, the great unknown of their position stared at them like the dark sea. After their time on the boat, they took a short train ride typically to London.
Many children arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London and it was here many met their foster parents. However some met their future families at a receiving centre, which was a local hall where it was easier to assign children to their correct foster parents then at the station. All of the children had tags with their names and numbers on, and hopefully still had their suitcases with them. The adults in charge would then pair up the children with their pre assigned foster parents.
For some, they were matches made in heaven. Stephanie Shirley referred to her foster parents as “Auntie” and “Uncle”, and she had a great relationship with her uncle, and a stable one with her Auntie. For others, the language barrier was an an ongoing boundary. For Ruth, she was scared at the receiving centre, and due to the language barrier she thought she was being handed over to Hitler. She did not believe she was safe until she was able to see her cousin who had already settled in the UK.
For some, like Ruth, she could not forget the trauma of leaving her parents. During the Blitz when children were evacuated out of London, Ruth was taken away again from her foster family, and she moved around several different families before moving to America. These experiences were severely traumatizing and she was haunted in the form of mental breakdowns throughout her life.
Some girls parents did survive the war and the Holocaust. Whilst Leizls father died in Auschwitz, her mother was discovered alive in Czechoslovakia by Leizl’s Czech friend. Her mother then came over to live with her, as the rest of the family had been killed. Her mother would often say “You are the only one left to make my life worthwhile”. Which Leizl rarely felt she did. But the magnitude of loss in her home country is truly astounding, out 60,000 young Jews in her hometown, she was the only one under 19 who survived.
Others girls delved into work, like Dame Stephanie Shirley, who worked incredibly hard to earn a maths degree by attending six years of night school, and went onto be a leading business women in software. Later she became a philanthropist, helping support causes to do with asperger's syndrome. She speaks of her disjointed childhood as teaching her that “Tomorrow is nothing like today”, so you must work positively onwards.
And whilst I think Dame Stephanie has a point, you could also say that “Today is frequently like yesterday”. In today’s world 19.5 million people have been displaced due a variety of reasons which are frequently underlined by war. Many of these people are children fleeing for their lives with no other choice but to become refugees purely for being in the wrong country at the wrong time. Sound familiar?
Much like in the Second World war, the media and popular opinion have gotten the culprits and the victims muddled up. It was the Nazis and not the Germans who were attacking the rest of the world. Like now it is the “So called Islamic state” who are violently attacking the world, not Muslims. In fact more Muslims have been killed by a far greater extent than any other group of people.
So where is our modern day Kindertransport?
Maybe we are looking at this through rose tinted glasses. After the Kindertransport, the refugee children were not always warmly accepted by their foster families or the wider society. Older male refugees were often deported, either to work in the army or sent to Australia as prisoners. But perhaps this time we could get it right.
So what can we do? Well the British government have pledged to take on 3,000 unaccompanied children. But could Britain house more? And what about other countries? The cost of a train then would be no more than a flight now. Other developed and wealthy countries could also house these children. There are negative aspects to rehousing young children and taking them from their parents, but surely giving them an education and a chance at life is worth it? There may be many other issues at play as well. Politics and religion are still at the forefront of why children need to leave their homelands to begin with. Germany has opened its doors to 1 million refugees and has become a desirable country for those escaping oppressive and dangerous regimes.
Whilst the idea of brown paper tags and trains across europe may seem like an old timey idea, maybe it is what we need right now to save a generation of people. Or have we traded our sense of humanity for suspicions and fear?
We have looked at three very different girls go through an extraordinary circumstance, but there were more girls on the train, and many more who sadly were not. Some girls, now women, are still dealing with the past today. Like Ruth, who despite a scarring experience after the kindertransport and mental health issues as a result, still says “Life is hard but I’m going to make it”, and this shows us exactly what she is made of. Or Leizls, how whilst still having her mother with her after the war, found it hard to live up to her expectation, but nonetheless spends her retirement telling school children of her experience on the kindertransport as ”kids prefer to have a human tell them their experience then read about it in a book”. Or Stephanie, who remembers frequently being told told how lucky she was to of be a refugee in Britain. And whilst this made her uncomfortable, it also made her think “Her life had to be worth saving” which made her live each day as if was her last and make a positive change in the world around her, which is safe to say she and these other girls did, because they had a chance. Like Margit Goodman, a kindertransport girl and a lobbyist for refugee children being welcomed to the UK, said “I wouldn’t be here now. They saved our lives, didn’t they?”