'We had to get out': 80 years since the Kindertransport
Eighty years ago on the 2nd December 1938 nearly 200 German Jewish refugee children arrived at Harwich in Essex; they were the first arrivals of what became known as the Kindertransport (children's transport).
The Kindertransport scheme emerged in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht Pogrom of 9th November 1938 in Germany when it became apparent that Nazi antisemitism was a national and structural phenomenon and that Jewish life in the Third Reich was untenable. Led by The Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief) the scheme allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children and children of other Nazi victims into Great Britain and placed them in British foster homes.
Many countries had strict quotas and, although many Jews escaped before the start of the war, some Jews were sent back to Nazi Europe. The Kindertransport provided a means for families to save their loved ones but it involved a terrible choice: whether to send their children abroad to safety or to keep the family together. Most of the 9,354 Kindertransport children never saw their parents again.
At the British Library we hold multiple Oral histories of Jewish experience and Holocaust testimonies and within this are many testimonies of the Kindertransport. Through these oral histories we can begin to understand the human impact of the scheme and how it was experienced by those children who were saved by it.
In this clip Milena Roth, interviewed for the Living Memory of the Jewish Community project, describes how at the age of seven her mother made the decision to send her on a Kindertransport train but had to keep it a secret from her grandmother:
In the above clip Milena speaks of how she didn’t fully understand why she had to leave, but just knew she did. The magnitude of this comes into play when Milena looks back at a photograph from the Sunday before she left and describes the fate of her family who had to stay:
Testimonies of the Kindertransport are not just found in oral history collections that look specifically at Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors. Dame Stephanie Shirley completed a life story interview for An Oral History of British Science about her work in computer science and philanthropy, but also discussed her early life and her escape from Germany. This clip is especially powerful in conveying Stephanie’s immediate experience of the Kindertransport train , as well the impact it had upon her later life:
These clips are just a small selection of the oral histories we hold related to the Kindertransport. Of specific note are the Central British Fund Kindertransport Interviews, a project run by World Jewish Relief and recently digitised as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Extracts from the interview in this collection with Frank Henley will be part of the A Thousand Kisses exhibition at Harwich International Terminal.
Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust described the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht as “probably the last landmark anniversary where there are still living witnesses to what happened” and the same might be said of the Kindertransport. Yet when there are no longer any living survivors to the events themselves, we hope that through oral histories their recorded voices with stand as testimony to a moment in history when Britain warmly welcomed child refugees.
Blog by Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist. The clips with Milena Roth can be heard on the web resource Voices of the Holocaust, the clip with Stephanie Shirley can be heard on the web resource Voices of Science. For more information consult the collection guide Oral histories of Jewish experience and Holocaust testimonies.