The Kindertransport was a unique humanitarian programme which ran between November 1938 and September 1939. Approximately 10,000 children, the majority of whom were Jewish, were sent from their homes and families in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain.
Immediately after the Nazis came to power in 1933 the persecution of Jews began – this reached a pre-war peak with Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) on 9/10 November 1938. 267 synagogues were destroyed, 100 people were killed, all remaining Jewish stores in the Reich were destroyed and almost 30,000 people were taken to concentration camps.
Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, agreed to speed up the immigration process by issuing travel documents on the basis of group lists rather than individual applications. Strict conditions were placed upon the entry of the children. Jewish and non-Jewish agencies promised to fund the operation and to ensure that none of the refugees would become a financial burden on the public. Every child would have a guarantee of £50 to finance his or her eventual re-emigration.
The Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later known as the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), sent representatives to Germany and Austria to establish the systems for choosing, organising, and transporting the children. On 25 November, after discussion in the House of Commons British citizens heard an appeal for foster homes on the BBC Home Service. Soon there were 500 offers, and RCM volunteers started visiting these possible foster homes and reporting on conditions. They did not insist that prospective homes for Jewish children should be Jewish homes.
The first Kindertransport from Berlin departed on 1 December, and the first from Vienna on 10 December. In March 1939, after the German army entered Czechoslovakia, transports from Prague were hastily organised. Trains of expelled German Jewish children in Poland were also arranged in February and August 1939.
The last group of children from Germany departed on 1 September 1939, the day the German army invaded Poland and provoked Great Britain, France, and other countries to declare war. The last known Kindertransport from the Netherlands left on 14 May 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to Germany.
After the war ended many of the children stayed in Britain or emigrated to the newly formed state of Israel, America, Canada or Australia. Most of the children had been orphaned since leaving their homes, losing their families in the ghettos or camps they had escaped.
The Jewish refugees who fled to Britain before the outbreak of war in 1939 to escape Hitler came from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. They were the first sizable group of refugees in the successive waves of immigration that flowed into Britain from the middle decades of the last century. By 1939, Britain was playing host to over 60,000 refugees, some 50,000 of whom settled permanently. They were joined after 1945 by a smaller group of Jews who had survived the Holocaust in Europe.
These refugees sought asylum from racial, religious and political persecution; even though Nazi measures against the Jews had not by 1939 escalated into the attempt at total extermination witnessed during the wartime Holocaust. The vicious and systematic discrimination to which Jews were subjected made life intolerable for them even before 1939.
The admission of Jewish refugees from Central Europe was opposed by sections of the press, by right-wing political forces, by groups like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and by those arguing for the preservation of ‘British jobs’ at a time of high unemployment against the perceived threat of imported foreign labour. The refugees had their supporters in liberal circles and among those whose compassion was aroused by their plight. Only after the intensification of Nazi persecution of the Jews that took place in 1938/39 did Britain accept larger numbers of refugees, admitting some 50,000 in the last eighteen months before the outbreak of war, including some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children who came on the Kindertransport.
The pre-war refugees from Germany were drawn largely from the Jewish middle classes. Well educated, cultured and often with professional qualifications or experience, they had mostly been well integrated into the societies of their native lands, and they continued on the path of assimilation in Britain. After the war most took British nationality and settled down to build new lives for themselves and their families.
They largely preserved their German-language culture and their ‘Continental’ identity, while integrating broadly successfully into British society. The skills, enterprise and education that they brought with them ensured that they contributed significantly to British life.