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Apr 2014 Journal

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An ambitious study

by Frances Williams
London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014 (www.bloomsbury.com), hardback 312 pp., illustrations, £65.00 (online £58.50), ISBN 9781 780 938 035
Any book dealing with the Scottish experience of Kindertransportees should be welcomed, especially by Scottish AJR members, who may sometimes feel they are far from the centre of events in London. In her preface to this book, a former PhD thesis from the University of Edinburgh, Frances Williams, who was provided by the AJR with a grant to undertake her studies, emphasises her desire to highlight the story of Scotland’s ‘forgotten’ Kindertransportees. She stresses the impossibility of providing simplistic generalisations regarding characteristics of the Kinder and their treatment in wartime Scotland. Indeed, this is Williams’s central argument, as she makes clear in the introduction to the book, where she refutes the arguments of Judith Tydor Baumel and Claudio Curio, both of whom, she emphasises, exemplify the ‘tendency to treat the minors across Britain as one collective group’. In the words of the author, ‘The Kindertransportees represented a kaleidoscope of different types of people’ and ‘their experience lacked uniformity or predictability as a group’.
Of particular interest is her research into the lives of Kinder who were placed in residential care. Williams was able to draw on private collections ‘located around the world’. These include the recently discovered Challis family’s private collection of over 400 negatives and the private papers of the late William Fanton Drew, a teacher at Whittingehame Farm School in East Lothian.
Williams gives an enlightening picture of the reception of the young people she calls ‘trans-migrants’ – described thus as they were not expected to remain in Britain. Relying on both her own research and that of eminent historians such as Tony Kushner and David Cesarani, she has been able to expose the limitations of the rose-coloured picture of British philanthropy, ‘publicly celebrated as an example of the nation’s humanitarian spirit’. Her own response is a well-balanced one, pointing out that ‘Neither the celebratory nor the critical narrative offers a representative evaluation of the event and experience.’
Williams shows diagrammatically the complex philanthropic welfare network existing in the late 1930s on national, regional and local levels. This, as she makes clear, meant a confusion of messages and the lack of an obvious chain of command. The dominance of the London-based Central Council for German Jewry and the Refugee Children’s Movement created particular problems for Scotland. Williams notes that the Glasgow Jewish community could have ‘provided handsomely for the reception of the Kindertransportees in Glasgow had it [their pledge of £25,000 for the children] not been siphoned off to London.’ She does her best to provide a nuanced picture of the problems facing the host community especially when wartime made resources scarce and the need to care for British citizens was more pressing than sympathy with the ‘trans-migrants’.
Williams frequently cites the survey undertaken by the AJR/ Kindertransport Association (KT), ‘Making New Lives in Britain’, which is based on replies to a questionnaire sent out to former Kindertransportees. The database includes 87 surviving Kindertransportees who spent some time in Scotland. Referring to this, she illustrates a number of aspects of the Scottish experience, ranging from the age when Kinder were first employed to their current religious affiliation.
She also makes interesting use of oral testimony, though making clear in her preface that the ‘fluidity of memory is particularly relevant as Kindertransportees become older’. Many of her examples are drawn from the interviews in her private collection. In Appendix 3 of the book she provides a selection of biographies of these interviewees, whom, as she points out in a footnote in her preface, she chose to provide with pseudonyms. Having interviewed a number of Scottish survivors for the educational project ‘Gatheringthevoices’ (www.gatheringthevoices.com), I was able to identify some of these people from the biographies and found that Williams’s practice was not entirely consistent, as she sometimes referred to them by their real names.
My one significant concern with Williams’s work, however, is its factual inaccuracies. Williams includes an impressive array of footnotes but these are occasionally unreliable. One example is her reference on page 7 to Aspects of Scottish Jewry, edited by Kenneth Collins, where she misleadingly refers to Collins’s research when in fact the author of the comment on ‘an ongoing level of tension between the Ostjuden and Westjuden communities’ was Rynor Kölmel. She later states that the Talmud Torah in Glasgow used Yiddish for instruction in the 1930s – though in fact Collins does mention that this ceased before the First World War. Spelling errors abound: Mary Hills instead of Maryhill, Dr Crossgrove rather than Cosgrove, Jew’s College rather than Jews’ College. Williams also seems unsure of key Hebrew words, using Bnei Keive instead of Bnei Akiva, Evrit for Ivrit, Yishvo for Yishuv.
Ms Williams, nevertheless, deserves to be commended for an ambitious book, which provides challenging responses to a number of thought-provoking issues regarding Scottish Kindertransportees, ranging from ‘Scottish Care for the Jewish Minor’ to the ‘Limitations of a Zionist Endeavour’.

Claire Singerman

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