Adolf Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 resulted in one of the darkest periods in human history: the Holocaust era. During Hitler's reign, he managed to kill over 17.5 million people, amongst those at least 1.5 million children. Thanks to the sacrifices and tenacity of all involved in the organization of the World War II Kindertransports, 10,000 young souls survived. While these children were most certainly victims of the Holocaust, their very survival makes them victors, and every child born to a kinder survivor represents another generation saved by one of the most extraordinary rescues of the 20th century.
The Nazi Ideology
Hitler and his Nazi regime governed under a totalitarian and autocratic ideology, and believing that Germans were racially superior to Jews, and many others (Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, Russians, the handicapped and many minority groups), they attempted to exterminate the people they deemed a threat to the purity of the German racial commonwealth, including the children of these so-called “inferiors.”
The Holocaust and Children
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the fates of the majority of Jewish and non-Jewish children during the Holocaust era generally fell into five disturbing categories:
- Children killed, generally by mass shootings or in the gas chambers, when they arrived in concentration camps, also called killing centers, such as Auschwitz.- the largest of its kind.
- Children in institutions that were killed (orphanages, homes for the physically or mentally handicapped) or babies killed after birth.
- Children who survived because they were born in ghettos or concentration camps and were hidden by other prisoners.
- Older children (usually over 12 years) who became the victims of medical experimentation at the hands of Nazi doctors, especially twins, or who were used as laborers.
- Children of individuals in partisan movements that were killed in "alleged" retaliation.
The World’s Pre-War Reaction (The Evian Conference)
As Hitler’s Nazi government and their campaign of persecution against the Jews was launched so soon after their rise to power, tens of thousands of Jews fled Germany immediately, but as the new Nazi laws were established and enacted, the emigration process ground to a halt as Visas became harder and harder to obtain. As millions were trapped and suffering terribly with no countries to take them in, July 6th, 1938, saw the start of the Evian Conference in France lasting eight days, initiated by President Roosevelt and attended by 31 countries. This conference was somewhat of a disgrace as most countries refused to take in the refugees, and the only decision made was to meet at a later date.
Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass)
The pogrom (organized massacre) initiated on Nov 9th and 10th, 1938, by the German and Austrian Nazis marked the peak of pre-war persecution of the Jews.
In November of 1938, when a Polish student by the name of Herschel Grynszpan killed Ernst von Rath, a German diplomat, the Nazis used the event to catalyze their long-planned vicious attacks against the Jews.
In the middle of the night, thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were attacked and destroyed. In addition to the property destruction, over 100 Jews were killed, and thousands were subjected to unspeakable violence, and some 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.
The violence of this event gave the world a terrifying glimpse into what Hitler had in mind; a month later, the appeals of Britain’s prime minister Lord Baldwin, and many others, frantically set in motion the massive efforts needed to carry out what would become the largest and most victorious liberation of endangered children from Nazi territory during the outbreak of World War II, known as the Kindertransport.
The British Rescue Movement
The interim between Kristallnacht and the start of World War II marked a sliver of opportunity in which refugees could be rescued prior to borders closing and the escalation of full-scale war. In this nine-month period, 10,000 children, without their parents, were rescued from Nazi Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia and transported by train and boat to safety in Great Britain.
In response to the events of Kristallnacht, Lord Baldwin’s public plea to provide solace for the young souls raised 550,000 pounds (approx. $1,100,000 2007 U.S. dollars), an impressive amount of money for the time.
With the money raised and the appeals made by the delegation of British Jewish leaders to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain, came the ruling that the UK would accept an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 as the refugee aid committees shifted their focus from emigration to rescue, and December of 1938 saw the launch of the first kindertransport from Berlin.
The acceptance of the children was based on every child having secured a 50-pound bond (about $1,500 U.S.) to care for their education, housing and their post-war journey back home. The children ranged in age from three months to 17 years, and some babies were carried by children.
Sir Samuel Hoare, the secretary of "The Movement for the Care of Children from Germany" sped up the immigration process by distributing passports for groups of children, rather than one by one.
The Transports Begin
After the first transport of 196 Jewish children whose orphanage had been burned during Kristallnacht, nine days later, another train left carrying hundreds of children to safety. After several months, the rescue movement’s focus moved from Germany to Austria. In March of 1939, when the army attacked Czechoslovakia, a quick plan of action to transport children out of Prague was set in motion, and by February, Jewish children from Poland had been rescued. Most of the transports left by sealed trains from Vienna, Berlin and Prague (children from rural areas having to travel to the big cities to meet the trains), crossed Dutch and Belgian borders and continued the journey to England by boat.
Approximately two times a week for a nine-month period, these haggard children arrived by sea to the safety of the British shores; some were clutching teddy bears or their baby siblings in their arms, and others were clutching memories of their home and loved ones. Many of these children thought they were embarking on an exciting journey, one that would end in a tearful reunion with their parents.
Life in Britain
Just two days before Britain’s entry into the war in 1939, the last kindertransport arrived, marking the end of the program as Britain and France were now officially at war with Germany, and by that time, approximately 10,000 children had made the trip, and it is thought that all survived the journey.
Tragically, of those 10,000 children, 90 percent of their parents were dead by the end of the war (most sent to the gas chambers or killed in mass shootings), which meant for most, there was no happy reunion or return trip home.
The children were adrift in a foreign country with a different language, culture and customs, and without the love and support of their parents and loved ones, they struggled to comprehend the events they had witnessed and that were continuing to unravel around them.
Mrs. Dorothy Hardisty, the executive director of "The Movement for the Care of Children" described the children: “The mental and emotional sufferings the children had endured was appalling. It was not only that at short notice, they were torn from the places they knew: it was not only that suddenly they were bereft of all sense of security – these blows had been preceded by long periods of unhappiness and fear.”
Once Britain entered the war, the refugee children had to pack once again to be transported to the safety of the countryside. Children who had prearranged sponsors waiting for them were sent to London, and the many unsponsored children waited in various transit camps until individual families came forward to take them in. Hostels were rapidly readied to accept large numbers of children.
The children of the kindertransports were scattered throughout the British Isles; about half lived in foster homes, others in hostels and group homes, and many were sent to farms throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Children older than 14 who were not fortunate enough to be sponsored were sent to boarding schools, put into foster care, or were often simply absorbed into the country’s labor force in agricultural or domestic service after training. When many of the children turned 18, they joined the British and Australian armed forces to fight the Nazis, and of course, most never saw their parents or loved ones again.
The End of World War II
Europe was elated with the end of the war, but for the children of the holocaust, this victory was bitter-sweet as most had lost their entire families. While most of the kindertransport children were treated well developing life-long bonds with their hosts, some were mistreated and used as servants, and most certainly, all who lost parents, friends and loved ones suffered excruciatingly with unjust survival guilt.
Approximately one quarter of the children emigrated to Canada or the U.S., and others went to Israel or became British citizens living out their lives in the country that opened up its arms and hearts to them.
The Success of the Kindertransport
The kindertransport was a unique movement in that its success can be attributed to numerous individuals, organizations and religious groups that faced the horror of the Holocaust head on, while many turned their backs. Jews, Christians, Quakers and many others worked together tirelessly to rescue the refugee children, but as suggested by Paul Kohn, one of the kindertransport children, the true unsung heroes were the parents who made the unfathomable choice to send their children into the unknown in the hopes that they would survive in their place: “For us children, it was an adventure, but how was it for the parents to let their children go to a faraway country, not knowing what would be their fate?”
So hold your little ones tighter, and give them an extra kiss good night. Just for a moment, ask yourself if you could make this choice, and thank God, the universe, whatever it is you believe in, that when your child reaches out their arms in search of comfort, you are there to soothe them.
- "Children during the Holocaust." Accessed April 4, 2011, from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- Deutsch, Gloria. "Veterans: From the Kindertransport." Accessed April 1, 2011, from The Jerusalem Post.
- "History of The Kindertransport." Accessed April 1, 2011, from Holocaust Kindertransport.
- "Introduction to the Holocaust." Accessed April 4, 2011, from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- "Kindertransport History." Accessed April 2, 2011, from Kindertransport Association.