By John Newsinger
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The Kindertransport myth: the British government didn’t want to save Jewish refugees

The British government separated Jewish children from their parents—and left the parents to die in Nazi Germany, writes historian John Newsinger
Issue 2896
Kindertransportees arriving in London, February 1939 (courtesy Das Bundesarchiv CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Jewish refugee children arriving in London as part of the Kindertransport plan in 1939 (Picture: Das Bundesarchiv on Creative Commons)

Whenever any British government faces criticism for its treatment of refugees, they wheel out the story of the “Kindertransport” to show Britain has always been “humanitarian” and “welcoming”. After all, didn’t the British government save some 10,000 Jewish children from the Holocaust back in 1939?

The truth is rather different. Firstly, what happened to the Jewish children’s parents? The assumption is that the Nazi regime in Germany would not let them leave. In fact, Nazi policy at the time was to expel German Jews from the country and it was the British government that would not let them into Britain. 

The decision to keep Jewish refugees out of Britain dated back to the 1905 Aliens Act. It was introduced to keep Jewish refugees fleeing the murderous pogroms being carried out in Tsarist Russia. The prime minister at the time was Arthur Balfour—yes, the same Arthur Balfour who would issue the declaration in 1917 supporting Zionist settlement in Palestine. He was an antisemite who didn’t want Jewish refugees in Britain 

When the Nazis took power in 1933, they immediately began their persecution of German Jews, determined to confiscate their possessions and to drive them out of the country. This pre-war persecution climaxed in the great Kristallnacht pogrom of 9 and 10 November 1938. It saw Nazi thugs murder over 90 Jewish men and women, destroy synagogues throughout the country, and wreck Jewish owned shops and businesses. Some 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, which many of them did not survive even before the Holocaust began. 

There were many people in Britain determined to help the Jewish refugees, but they got no help from the British government. The door was kept closed except for a few notable individuals, such as Sigmund Freud, and for some businessmen who were prepared to invest in Britain. At this time, there was also a shortage of domestic servants in Britain because wages and conditions were so bad. So the government took the opportunity to let some 20,000 Jewish refugees into the country to become maids, cooks and man servants. And that was it. 

After the Kristallnacht pogrom, however, the popular pressure to help German Jews escape persecution grew. The government agreed to allow Jewish children into Britain, but not their parents. It was far from being a great humanitarian gesture. The separating of children from their parents, and in very many cases leaving those parents to be murdered by the Nazis, was an exercise in cruelty. 

The children were saved, but their parents were abandoned. It was a British government decision. 

The scheme was incredibly limited. The government agreed that charities could, after going through an elaborate bureaucratic procedure, bring in Jewish children who met strict criteria. And this was only on condition that the charities met all their travel and settlement expenses. 

The government would contribute nothing—indeed the charities had to hand over to the government a £50 surety for every child they brought in. In today’s money, this would amount to over £4,000 per child. And those children allowed in had to be in good health, without any learning difficulties or disabilities. One child was actually refused a visa because of bed-wetting. 

From December 1938 up until September 1939, some 10,000 children made it to Britain as part of this Kindertransport rescue. Perhaps as many as a thousand of them had not been brought up as Jews, but under Nazi racial laws they were classified as Jewish whether they knew it or not. 

The heroic efforts of the charities and individuals involved in getting them out deserves to be celebrated. 

But the British government’s role was absolutely shameful. And things did not get better. In 1940, Winston Churchill’s government began the mass internment of German refugees. Staunch anti-Nazis and Jews who had fled for their lives were rounded up and interned, some shipped to camps in Canada and Australia. Among those interned were a thousand of the older Kindertransport refugees. 

At this time, it was still possible for Jewish refugees to escape from Nazi occupied Europe, but the government was even now determined to keep them out. 

In late 1940, Herbert Morrison—Labour home secretary in Churchill’s war-time government—came under pressure to rescue 300 Jewish children from the Nazi puppet regime of Vichy France. 

He did nothing—and inevitably they fell into the hands of the Nazis.

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