Epistemic status: I’ve spent probably around 5 hours researching and writing this. I’m not a historian or researcher, and I may have misquoted or misinterpreted sources. The majority of sources come from reading the book ‘Into the arms of strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport’, wikipedia, and online sources credited by wikipedia. I think this is a really interesting example of a historical altruistic movement that seems poorly known about in the UK. I think this topic could benefit from being written about further for ‘trying to understand the successes and failures of altruistic movements’ reasons (like Open Pen philanthropy’s history of philanthropy series), although I don’t have the time myself to write about this further.
The Kindertransport (German: children-transport) was a rescue operation to evacuate children at risk from Nazis persecution from mainland Europe to the United Kingdom, between 1938 and 1940. 90 - 92% of the children rescued were Jewish, with the rest being children of communists, writers or those on Hitler’s blacklist. In total, around 10,000 Kinder (children) were moved to the UK as part of this scheme, meaning the number of lives saved was probably a little over 6000. The policy of the British Government to admit the children was born out of the successful campaigning of a variety of altruistic groups.
These groups came together to form the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCP), and they also helped fund, organise, and find homes for the Kinder in the UK. The RCP was founded in 1933 as the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, but it was the events of Kirstellnacht (German: crystal-night. A night were thousands of Jews were attacked and the bussiness sacked by Nazi paramilitary forces) that kick-started the Kindertransport. In a space of less than a month the RCP was able to organise hundreds of volunteers, dispatch them to mainland Europe and identify children at risk, pressure the British government to allow them in, provide financial guarantees for the children, arrange transport and find families willing to house them. The speed at which the RCP mobilised was critical - the Kindertransport left Holland on 14 May 1940, after which there was no more opportunity for evacuation due to the invading Nazi forces closing the borders. I find the speed and urgency with which the RCP moved to evacuate these children incredibly inspiring. In this sense, the Kindertransport can be seen as a successful example of a successful historical altruistic movement that counterfactually saved the lives of thousands of children.
However, there were also downsides to the effort, not least the fact that only children up to the age of 18 were admitted. This meant that the Kinder had the incredible trauma of being separated from their parents, most of them would later learn that their parents had died at the hands of the Nazis in mainland Europe. While researching this topic, the only reason I’ve found that explains why the policy was not extended beyond 18 was the fear of the British that adult migrants would take jobs from the British. It’s not clear to me how whether this fear was widespread among the public, or the British politicians, or whether the politicians merely thought the public feared this. In any sense, it’s tragic that this belief caused the policy of separating children from their parents. There were other missed opportunities as well, such as an American Kindertransport bill that died in Congress, and earlier lobbying for the British to accept refugees earlier. In both cases I believe fear of migrants played a large part.
I think a number of lessons can be learnt from the Kindertransport:
Be grounded to reality
Kindertransport began in response to the Kristelnacht events of November 9th 1938. Some things strike me about those who responded to this by arranging the Kindertransport ( The Refugee Children’s Movement):
- They were aware of what was happening. They read the newspapers and saw stories
- They believed worse was to come for the Jews, if they did nothing
- They believed the Nazis would not spare children
It’s unclear to me exactly how much knowledge the British public had of the treatment of Jews at the time, and what the general public opinion of the Nazis was. It’s worth pointing out that only one month prior to the Kristelnacht, The British prime minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a meeting with Hitler and famously declared that he had negotiated ‘Peace for our time!’. The Refugee Children’s Movement was not so blinded by optimism about Hitler’s intentions.
In some situations, speed is necessary to do good. The Kindertransport was one of these. Nicolas Winton, who rescued 669 children as part of the Kindertransport, was aware that urgency required tradeoffs to be made. Due to the need to find enough families to adopt a child, families were not well vetted. Nicolas Winton wrote that experienced an angry response from Orthodox Jews when one of the organisations that took in Jewish Kinder (the Barbican Mission), was intending to convert Jews to Christianity. “I remember saying ‘You prefer a dead Jew to a living Jew converted to a Christian?’ I thought the most important thing was to save the children rather than save the religion. Anyone who would fulfil the conditions laid down by the Home Office to bring a child over and save its life was OK by me”. The urgent need to take in children required a relaxation of the normal checks and procedures, far, far beyond what would be acceptable today. The lack of vetting was probably justified by the extreme urgency of the situation. But there may have been instances where the children were placed with abusive families. Which leads me to…
Take seriously the idea that you may be doing harm
I find it hard to know how to judge the negative aspects of the Kindertransport. On the one hand the counterfactual outcome for the Kinder- staying in mainland Europe to persecution and probable torture and death at the hands of the Nazis - that a lot of the hardships endured by the Kinder in the UK can seem justified in comparison. Nevertheless I do think it’s worth pointing out the pain endured by taking them away from their parents, and that this could have been prevented had the policy been extended to include their parents. It’s possible the full extent of the trauma this caused was not clear to those at the time - I have a vague idea the psychology around separating trauma was not properly researched until after WW2. I think it’s a warning - we should take seriously the idea that the altruistic actions you are taking may have serious negative unintended effects.
One of the most obvious lessons from the Kindertransport is the case for open borders. Simply put, thousands of lives were saved because the British Government was willing to relax visa requirements for at-risk children. Thousands more may have been saved if the visa relaxation had been extended to adults. Throughout the world today, many people are at risk of persecution or death, and yet are still blocked from entering Western democracies. With few legal options for migrating, many attempt dangerous journeys overseas or in the back of trucks, with many losing their lives in the process. The attitudes of Western countries towards them on arrival is sometimes shameful. Only last month, a last minute intervention from the European Court of Human rights prevented Britain from enacting a policy that would have flown migrants arriving in Britain to Rwanda. The USA only recently stopped the Trump-era policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Australia continues to detain migrants in offshore camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The Kindertransport is an example of the good that can be done by welcoming refugees fleeing persecution.
Fight discrimination, beware authoritarian backsliding
The ideas of fascism are not dead and it’s entirely possible that the liberal democracies can backslide into fasicms. discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion and sexuality still exists throughout the world. The Holocaust shows what can happen if those ideas are allowed to continue unchecked. The Kindertransport is an (imperfect) example of what humans organising to help others beyond the boundaries of family, race, nationality and religion.
Acknowledgments: thanks to Nick Lowry (EA Bristol) for the lend of Into the Arms of Strangers, and the chat that inspired me to write this.
Estimate provided by Nicolas Winton, who rescued 669 children as part of the Kindertransport. Into the arms of strangers: stories of the Kindertransport pg. 148
Given that of 63% of the total European population of Jews was killed in the Holocaust. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/estimated-number-of-jews-killed-in-the-final-solution
David Ceserani, Into the arms of strangers: stories of the Kindertransport pg.11
Nicolas Winton, quoted in Into the arms of strangers: stories of the Kindertransport pg.149