For many of the children who came to Britain on Kindertransports in 1938-39, the most distressing and traumatic aspect of the experience was the loss of one or both parents who remained behind and died in the Holocaust. The AJR’s archive of filmed interviews with former refugees, Refugee Voices, contains a number of profoundly moving accounts of the departure of such children from railway stations in Berlin, Vienna or Prague, where they bade their parents farewell for what would be the last time. In many cases, the pain of that separation remained with them for life.
Most academic studies of the Kindertransports have given little detailed consideration to the fate of the parents. Those critical of the British government sometimes include a section in which the Home Office, which was responsible for drawing up the regulations under which refugees from the Third Reich were admitted to Britain, is also held responsible for the fate of those parents who tried but failed to secure entry to this country. For example, Bill Williams, in Jews and Other Foreigners, his recently published study of refugees from Fascism in Manchester, cites a former Kindertransportee, Harry Jacobi, who considers the Home Office and its regulations responsible for the death of his parents.
There can be little doubt that the Home Office was reluctant to admit large numbers of refugees from the Third Reich, however desperate, without delay. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Britain could and should have acted more swiftly to save the lives of Jews under Nazi rule generally, and of the Kindertransport parents in particular. That said, a considered examination of the factors at play in the admission of Jews like the Kindertransport parents shows that simplistic and one-sided judgments on Home Office policy are misplaced.
The parents of the Kindertransport children were not excluded from entry to Britain: there was no regulation promulgated by the Home Office or any other government department that specifically denied entry to the parents of Kindertransport children. They, like any other adult Jews, could apply for an entry visa to Britain. It was never easy for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution to gain entry to Britain but it was not impossible, as the numbers of parents who survived show. For many years, conventional wisdom had it that 90 per cent of the parents of Kindertransport children had died in the Holocaust. Only when the survey undertaken in 2007-08 by AJR/KT produced very different results was the figure of 90 per cent definitively discredited. That survey, Making New Lives in Britain, based on over 1,000 replies to a questionnaire sent out to former Kindertransportees, revealed that some 54 per cent of Kindertransport parents had died; about 60 per cent of the children had lost one parent, and about 40 per cent both. As the survey says, ‘certainly bad enough, but not what was feared’. By far the largest contingent of those surviving parents consisted of those who came to Britain.
Even these figures need careful handling. Among the parents who were never to be seen again were a number who had already died before the departure of their children to Britain. This was the case with the father of Richard Grunberger, Editor-in-Chief of this journal from 1988 to 2005, and of the father of a close relative of mine, Colin Anson (Claus Ascher), the protagonist of Helen Fry’s study German Schoolboy, British Commando (2010), whose father was murdered in Dachau in 1937. It is also the case that some parents were not at immediate risk of extermination: Colin Anson’s mother, a non-Jew, survived the war in Germany.
It is sometimes argued that Britain should have admitted the Kindertransport parents along with their children. But it is far from certain that the Nazis would have agreed to the immediate emigration of adults without the customary formalities or that British public opinion would have accepted adults as (relatively) readily as children. The admission of the parents would also have entailed the admission of other relatives dependent on them, especially children too young to travel alone to Britain. In a moving passage in his interview in the Refugee Voices collection, Fred Barschak, who came on a Kindertransport from Vienna, recalled how his parents decided against letting their younger son Kurt, aged two, accompany him; all three were later deported. A number of adult Jews who were looking after elderly relatives would also not have left without them. How could these extra people have been admitted to Britain without seriously encumbering the entire Kindertransport initiative?
It was not only the Home Office that insisted on the completion of bureaucratic procedures before Jews like the Kindertransport parents could emigrate from Germany to Britain. The Nazi authorities also created a host of bureaucratic requirements, a regular obstacle course of barriers to emigration that desperate Jews had to surmount before they were able to leave. Apart from an exit permit, a refugee had to have a certificate of good conduct (Führungszeugnis), a document certifying that all tax payments had been made (steuerliche Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung), and a certificate of good health, as well as the documents necessary for admission abroad. Jews had to queue for hours at Nazi offices, where they were subject to the whims of hostile officials.
By 1938, the Nazis had also introduced measures, the Reichsfluchtsteuer and the Judenvermögensabgabe, that stripped Jews of their wealth. This pauperisation of the Jews had the predictable consequence that other countries, conscious of the potential charge on their exchequers, became even more reluctant to admit them as refugees. Though it was plainly Nazi policy to remove Jews from German society, the implementation of that policy before 1939 was beset by contradictions: the objective of forcing Jews to emigrate ran counter to the Nazis’ desire to seize their victims’ assets and the sheer malice with which they invested the procedures preceding emigration. The Nazis’ own measures hindered the emigration of many Jews.
Furthermore, it was the outbreak of war, not British immigration regulations, that sealed the fate of the Kindertransport parents who remained behind. In 1938-39, Britain admitted refugees from Hitler at the rate of about 3,000 a month, over 50,000 in total during the last 18 months before September 1939. Though Home Office procedures slowed down the process of immigration and delayed the departure of Jews like the Kindertransport parents, they did not stop the emigration of Jews definitively. It was the war that did that – and no one familiar with the Chamberlain government’s desperate efforts to avoid war with Germany can hold Britain responsible. Had war not broken out, there is no reason to suppose that Britain would not have continued to admit refugees at much the same rate; if Hitler had followed the advice of his generals, war might well have been delayed for another two years, doubling the number of Kindertransport parents saved.
In this instance, time was truly of the essence. Every scholar who has worked on the emigration of Jews from Germany will have encountered refugees one or more of whose relatives had secured entry visas for Britain but were prevented from leaving Germany by the outbreak of war. Gina Gerson, née Bauer, who left Vienna by train on 10 January 1939, aged 14, recounts in her interview for Refugee Voices how her half-sister obtained visas for their parents, who booked their flight to London for 6 September 1939; but war broke out on 3 September and they never arrived. It was Hitler’s invasion of Poland that trapped these parents as it trapped the children on board the last ‘Winton train’ that was prevented by the outbreak of war from leaving the station in Prague, and the second contingent of children from the Yawne School in Cologne, who were due to follow the first trainload of their fellow pupils on the journey to safety.
It is instructive to compare the experiences of Jewish children like Gina Bauer who came to Britain unaccompanied on ordinary trains with those who came on Kindertransport trains. Regrettably, very little attention has been paid to the former group. Their parents, like those of the Kindertransportees, had some chance of reaching Britain though, given the shortage of time before September 1939, many were unable to do so. The Home Office may have been a secondary, delaying factor in their failure to reach safety but, as the case of Gina Bauer’s parents shows, it was Hitler’s war that was decisive. A considerable number of the parents of such children did, however, succeed in reaching Britain. An example is Colin Anson’s wife, Alice Anson, née Gross. She left Vienna alone, as did her elder brother, and both were taken in by British families. Their parents followed on, their mother on a domestic service permit and their father on an entry visa secured through the generosity of a sponsor. Alice Anson kindly provided me with her account of her arrival in Britain, succinctly entitled ‘I Was My Own Kindertransport!’ - an invitation to historians to commence research into a hitherto neglected group of refugees.