Oct 2013 Journal
Letters to the Editor
Sir - Anshel Pfeffer (‘On 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport, British Jews finding it hard to ask questions’, September) bases his criticism of British Jewry in the late thirties on selective sources. It is a general truth applying to wide issues that, in retrospect, more could have been done. But, quite apart from the fact that it is difficult to see any point in raising this issue now, Mr Pfeffer is, in my opinion, guilty of a few tendentious and misleading statements.
He asks: ‘Why did it take a particularly violent outbreak of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism to get the British government to change its policies and allow the victims of Nazism into Britain?’ and ‘Why were the children of the Kindertransport allowed in but their parents consigned to extermination?’ Both questions can be answered by a study of the House of Commons debates during that time. Fears of adding to unemployment and a basic opposition to immigration, including some latent (and some open) anti-Semitism, was the prevailing mood. Some leading members of the British establishment even believed that Hitler was a bulwark against Russia and internal communism.
Mr Pfeffer quotes Professor Tony Kushner: ‘“I raised … the fundamental question of was it the right thing to separate them from their parents and why were they alone …”’ This is particularly misleading. Who separated the children from their parents? From my knowledge, the truth is that parents wanted to make sure that their children at least were safe. It was the parents who registered their children with the Kindertransports.
It is all too easy to condemn in retrospect and, if it had any influence on present-day decisions and actions, it would even be a useful exercise - if correct. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Attitudes to immigration have not changed.
Sir - Anshel Pfeffer’s article is a timely reminder of the realities behind the rescue of the Kinder. An even larger elephant in the room was the difference in attitudes towards the German and Polish Jews. As flawed as the Kindertransports were, the response was in total contrast to that of the children of Polish-born Jews trapped in France. Despite appeals from no less a person than Albert Einstein to give visas for these children in 1941, nothing happened until after the fall of Vichy and the majority of these children were deported to their deaths in the summer of 1943.
Unfortunately these attitudes appear to continue. We are told that Kristallnacht was the turning point and defining event of the Holocaust. What about the ‘stateless’ Polish-born Jews deported from Germany weeks earlier on 18 October and left without any means of survival? To misquote the famous poem of Pastor Martin Niemöller: ‘First they came for the Polish Jews and I didn’t speak out because I was a German Jew. Then they came for me and suddenly I realised they meant me too!’
Sir - Anshel Pfeffer’s article reminds me of a Jewish salesman driving home to Golders Green who generously gave me a hitchhiker’s lift from outside the camp where I was doing some of my Army National Service in 1958-59.
When, in reply to his question, I said that two of my elder sisters had come over on a child transport - no such word as Kindertransport in his vocabulary - from Berlin in 1939, he replied: ‘I've never met anyone like you before!’ This was a whole 19 years later at least.
There was never any family secret about the rotten treatment my sisters got from an Anglican clergyman’s wife in Liverpool. Or how they were rescued by my eldest sister, then still a teenager. But, to bear out Anshel Pfeffer, I only realised what the worst part of this treatment consisted of when my sister finally told me a few months ago. I had never asked, for fear of upsetting her.
Sir - As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransports, we should remind ourselves of the 10,000 or so German refugees who reached Britain before 1938 and who, for reasons of religious faith or political conviction, had decided that Nazi Germany was no longer a country in which they could live in peace and safety and that abandoning house and home, and in many cases wealth and business, was for them the only option.
Some were fortunate enough to be able to salvage parts of their possessions, and in some cases money, during the emigration process. My parents were not among these. For them, their flight from Germany in 1933 meant exchanging a comfortable middle-class existence for a life of profound impoverishment in countries (Britain and France) which were often unwelcoming - and at times hostile - to penniless refugees. What they did of course salvage was their lives - something which too many of the Kindertransport parents had to forfeit as they became victims of the murderous practices of Nazi Germany.
While we should rejoice in the rescue of 10,000 children in 1938-39, we might also wish to remember that 80 years ago marked the beginning of a new diaspora of German Jews and democrats.
Sir - Eric Elias wrote in your July issue ‘I welcome all the commemorative events on behalf of Kinder … Nevertheless, why is no one organising an event for those who travelled the same route at the same time but with no support and on their own?’
Hear, hear!, I say. The answer to his question, probably, is that our journeys were just not so newsworthy and were, I suppose, dull in comparison.
The Kindertransport was horrendously awful for the Kinder and their parents but it has today been turned into an adventure journey. This, of course, is in no way the fault of the Kinder. To the British press, the Kindertransport showed the kindness of the British people to homeless Jewish children - and the press were, and still are, milking it for all its worth. Even the September issue of the AJR Journal devoted no less than four pages to the Kinder plus a couple of letters. Is this not gilding the lily? Sorry to be cynical but don’t all these Kindertransport stories tend to hide the fact that the British government turned its back on the Kinder’s parents, as did Anglo-Jewry?
Unlike Eric Elias, I was not on my own when I came to England. I had support because I was with my parents. However, I was only three years old and my parents were obviously traumatised and grief-stricken by what had happened to them in Vienna. They survived Kristallnacht but didn’t for many years get over the fact that they were refugees in a country where they were penniless and couldn’t speak the language. My father, a Viennese-trained doctor, was not allowed to work as a medical practitioner here till 1942. We lived on what we had brought with us, which was hardly anything.
No, we were not interned. No, my mother did not have to work as a domestic servant. No, my father was not one of the professional men who, like so many, ended up washing plates in restaurants. A lot of refugees had it much tougher. But, agreeing with Eric Elias, should not our survival too be celebrated like those of the Kinder?
We came to England in February 1939. My parents are dead but next year, if I’m ‘spared’, it will be my turn to celebrate 75 years of being here. How about all of us non-Kinder refugees joining up for a big, big party on 3 September 2014? Perhaps the AJR will organise it? If they do, I would be more than delighted if the Kinder came too!
Sir - Ruth David should choose her words more carefully. In her report on the KT Reunion, she arrogantly makes the ridiculous statement that ‘we Kindertransportees were the group of immigrants that had done more for Britain than any other immigrant group ever in the UK.’ No doubt her own award has given her the grand illusion that the bunch of Kindertransport children grew up to be different or better than the rest of us refugees.
Sir - May I thank the AJR for organising the Kindertransport Reunion and the reception at St James’s Palace, and also the stimulating Journal that maintains my sense of belonging - although it seems rather odd to call ourselves refugees when most of our lives have been lived happily as British citizens!
TWO WISE, WITTY PEOPLE
Sir - Even though I have lived in Dublin for over 18 years now, I still receive my monthly copy of the AJR Journal. In the September edition I was saddened to see that both Katia Gould and David Maier have died. I worked at the AJR with Katia for seven years, and met David many times when he would drop into the offices for a chat.
The then editor, Richard Grunberger, and David had a warm relationship. It was a privilege for me to be allowed to share the office as they chatted and laughed. Their humour was always gentle, always clever and, most importantly, always funny.
As I have said before, Katia worked hard during my period of employment at the AJR to turn me from a trainee into a professional. Whether she succeeded or not is not for me to say. However, she never once gave up. I still very much appreciate her efforts.
I would like to send my condolences and respects to the families and friends of these two wise, witty people.
WHEN IS A POGROM NOT A POGROM?
Sir - Why do we continue to honour Hermann Göring by using his catchphrase ‘Kristallnacht’ when referring to the November pogrom of 1938?
At the time, it was the Nazis who derisively called their pogrom ‘Reichskristallnacht’ (Night of Broken Glass), which later became known as Kristallnacht for short.
Since then, and unwittingly, the Jewish community worldwide has adopted and perpetuated this Nazi monicker which gleefully celebrated the Nazis’ breaking millions of windows in Jewish-owned business premises and homes throughout the expanded German Reich and triggered the arrest and incarceration of thousands of Jewish men and the death of many of them. It also led to the nationwide Jewish community being fined one billion Reichsmarks as a punishment for their ‘hostile attitude towards Germany and their abominable crimes’.
Surely it would be better to call a pogrom what it is - a pogrom - and to stop romanticising this terrifying atrocity with the dramatically attractive title of Kristallnacht - Crystal Night.
Political correctness has got itself a bad name, but in this instance it should be harnessed in support of a just cause. Let us campaign to stop glorifying the November 1938 pogrom with the Nazis’ chosen title of Kristallnacht and call it what it really was - ‘the November 1938 Pogrom’.
WHY RETURN TO GERMANY?
Sir – I have for some time been curious as to the motivation of individuals in returning to Germany after the 39-45 war. Some cases are known to me which are logical, such as intermarriages in which the partner has retained the property.
Sir – I would like to take issue with Dorothea Shefer-Vanson’s myopic, ill-informed and hugely biased article ‘The campaign against Israel in Britain’ (‘Letter from Israel’, August). Ms Shefer-Vanson is evidently one of those who regard every criticism of their country’s policies as anti-Semitic and/or pro-Palestinian. I am frequently critical of my government’s policies - not least the Blair government’s disastrous attack on Iraq - but does that make me anti-British? I would claim the very opposite.
I read The Guardian (the bête noire of the more ardent Zionists in this country) daily and I listen frequently to the BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme as well as to the BBC’s news bulletins (radio and TV). Both institutions have at times been attacked as biased against Israel. In my view, nothing is further from the truth. Indeed, the BBC and its Trustees have not infrequently been accused by pro-Palestinian organisations of what they perceive as a bias in favour of Israel. That suggests, does it not, that the BBC reporting must be about right?
In my view, we should be grateful to both institutions for their independent and courageous reporting - even when it does give an unflattering picture of the way the Israeli (or, for that matter, any) government and its army conduct their business. Sadly, Israeli actions towards the Palestinians, and indeed their own Arab citizens, often leave them wide open to criticism. For example, should the fact that 1,000 new settlement homes, some provocatively in East Jerusalem, were approved at the beginning of the so-called peace talks --- thus virtually scuttling any hope of real progress – be left unreported?
Happily there are Israelis - a minority it is true but one that is all the more important for that - who have the courage to be fiercely critical of some of their government’s policies. One of these is Uri Avnery, a veteran liberation soldier, former member of the Knesset and untiring peace campaigner, whose well-informed and often highly critical weekly analyses of Israeli politics would no doubt make Ms Shefer-Vanson blanch. I regard him as a true Israeli patriot whose steadfast advocacy of an equitable two-state solution to the conflict will, I hope, one day prevail.
As I don’t read the tabloids (except at the hairdresser’s), I wouldn’t presume to judge whether or not they are part of this ‘campaign against Israel’, but I doubt it very much.
Before any reader accuses me of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ - whatever that may mean - let me assure you that I like to think of myself as a tolerably normal person, who, as a scientist, likes to view our sad world as objectively as possible.
Sir – Lorenz Beckhardt’s letter in the August Journal had me turn to the AJR’s own Kindertransport research results (free to download and so available for all to analyse, from the AJR website at http://www.ajr.org.uk/kindersurvey). He had given enough data about his father, Kurt, to find other Kinder who indicated in their survey response that they too arrived on 13 June 1939 on the Europa and were taken to Barham House boys’ camp, near Ipswich.
In fact, 25 Kinder who had completed the survey had been at Barham House as their first reception camp. Aged between 7 and 15, none of them unfortunately mentioned their ship’s name, but 2 (a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old) said they departed from Bremerhaven on 12 and 13 June. One of these came from Berlin and completed the survey in California; the other was from Hamburg and lived in Stroud, England, when he filled in the survey form.
Over 1,000 Kinder from around the world responded to this survey and provided searchable data that allow anyone with an interest in the Kindertransport to find people and facts in this unique and publicly accessible databank.
LAST ‘WINTON TRAIN’ DOCUMENTARY
Sir - We are researching a documentary for the German public TV channel ZDF about the last ‘Winton train’ that never left Prague on 1 September 1939. Of special interest are the children who were due to leave on that train but were unable to do so. We would be grateful for any documents that could identify these children and those who tried to get them out.
A GOOD HOME FOR GERMAN-LANGUAGE BOOKS
Sir - The Wiener Library and the Department of German at the University of London are grateful recipients as long as one can arrange for volunteers to transport the books to them.