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The History of the Kindertransport

Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury

The first major UK tour of Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport is coming to Richmond Theatre from Monday 3 February. It’s an uplifting play about Mother/Daughter relationships but set against the background of the historical event known as the Kindertransport. In this short series of articles we look at the historical context of the play, and hear from the playwright and director about their thoughts on the production.

10,000 children were rescued from Nazi Europe between December 1938 and August 1939 and brought to Britain as refugees before World War II. This rescue mission was called the Kindertransport. Many of the children never saw their parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters again. The families they left behind were taken to concentration camps and death camps and in most cases murdered by the Nazis. The rescue of these children is a multifaceted story of courage and kindness but also one of loss of identity and trauma. As refugees far from home, the children had to face the difficult task of adjusting to a new life in Britain. It is estimated that between 20-40% of Kindertransport Refugees were reunited with a parent, but as the play explores this was a complex reunion and for some remained unresolved.

The Kindertransport
Some Jews left Germany within weeks of Hitler coming to power. Others stayed, hoping that the problems might pass. However, for many who wanted to go there were many countries who refused to take them in. An editorial in the Daily Express newspaper (19 June 1939) voiced these concerns: In November 1938, a group of campaigners called on the British Prime Minister to plead for help – at least for the children. The government gave permission for Jewish and non-Aryan children up to the age of 17 years to come to Britain. Both Jewish and Christian groups, in particular the Quakers, set up refugee committees all over the country to help with the rescue of the children. A deposit of £50 had to be paid as a guarantee for each child so that there was no cost to the state. This rescue mission became known as the Kindertransport and from the beginning of December 1938 to the end of August 1939 nearly 10,000 Jewish and non-Aryan children were given refuge in Britain. More children could have been rescued, but in September 1939 war broke out and the transports had to stop. It was an agonising decision for parents to part with their children. They hoped their children would be saved, but it meant separation from their loved ones and a journey into the unknown.

The Children
The children travelled by train across Germany and Austria to Holland and then by boat to Harwich in the south of England. The children wore labels around their necks, identifying them by name and number. They were each allowed to take one suitcase and a small amount of money.

Parents faced a terrible moment when saying goodbye to their children. They did not know when or if they would be reunited or how the children would manage on the long journey to a foreign and very different country. The journey to Britain was frightening and confusing for many of the children.

A New Life in Britain
The Dovercourt holiday camp near Harwich was rented to the Refugee Children's Movement as the main reception centre for children arriving on the Kindertransport. The policy of the Jewish Refugees Committee was to place younger children in private foster homes, where possible. However, children who could not find foster parents or were too old to fit easily into a new family were housed in hostels or training centres.

The Families They Left Behind
After the war ended in 1945 the shocking reality of the fate of the Jews of Europe became known. Between 1939 and 1945, six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, many in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, in what became known as the Holocaust. Among those killed by the Nazis were one and a half million children. Most of the refugee children now learned that they would never see their parents again. For the few who were reunited with their families, the experiences of war, loss and separation were to have long-lasting effects. After the war, refugees who had lost their families had to resolve the question of who they were and what their future would be.

Those Who Made A Difference
The rescue of children on the Kindertransport was organised by the Refugee Children’s movement, with financial support from the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief. Behind the scenes, it was made possible by the individual actions of many different people who contributed funds and took the refugee children into their homes. In addition, the following individuals played an outstanding role in rescuing the children:

Nicholas Winton
A 29-year-old stockbroker, rescued 669 children from Czechoslovakia on eight separate trains. On the day war broke out in September 1939 the ninth train, packed with 250 children was stopped. It is believed that none of these children survived.

Trevor Chadwick
A teacher, accompanied the transports from Prague. He provided false travel documents for the children, at considerable personal risk, and persuaded the German authorities to allow the children to continue on to Britain.

Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld
He organised several transports and risked his own life to help thousands of children escape from Nazi Europe. Not only did he bring children on the Kindertransport he also continued to rescue hidden children after 1939.

Otto Schiff
Founder of the Jewish Refugees Committee, pressed the British government to offer refuge to the Jews of Nazi Europe and personally guaranteed that the rescue of children would use no public funds. However it was the kindness of individuals, like Lil in the play that welcomed children into their homes that was the final piece in the jigsaw.

Kindertransport is at Richmond Theatre from Mon 3 - Sat 8 Feb.

Article by Hall & Childs Ltd