Nearly 10,000 children fleeing persecution were brought to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1938 and 1939.

Lord Alf Dubs and Sir Eric Reich were two of those children. They joined Kindertransport researcher Dr Andrea Hammel and Barbara Winton, the daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton - the man who organised the rescue of hundreds of children- at a special event at IWM London.

The session was hosted by James Bulgin, content leader for the Holocaust Galleries at IWM. 

'It was almost a forgotten thing for a long time'

James Bulgin: “IWM’S new Holocaust Galleries seek to place the events that led to the world-changing catastrophe that we now know by this singular name, the Holocaust, into a meaningful historical context. Engaging with the complex areas that popular understanding has perhaps neglected to consider. A narrative to the Kindertransport, have tended to concentrate on the experiences of their kinder after their arrival in the UK, engaging less, for example, with their parents. This discussion and the galleries approach is based, in part, on redressing that balance. So, before I begin, I thought it would be a, a nice idea for the panellists to just introduce themselves. So, maybe if we start at the far end with Sir Eric.”

Sir Eric Reich: “My name is Eric Reich, as you can see. I came as a four-year-old, I don't remember my parents, and I arrived here on the end of August, 29th of August 1939, couldn't be much later. Since then, I've done a number of things, but at the moment I'm a trustee of the AJR, the Association of Jewish Refugees and, um, I'm very grateful that the government of the time allowed us in, just under 10,000 of us.”

Dr Andrea Hammel: “I'm Andrea Hammel, I'm an academic and I've been researching the Kindertransport since about the year 2000, maybe 1999. I've published on the Kindertransport, and really my aim, I suppose, is two-fold; it is A to tell the complex story of the Kindertransport, to, to tell people that there's not one singular narrative that, that they're sort of phenomenon of the Kindertransport is actually quite complex. And also, to, to, I suppose make the Kindertransport more known within a discussion about refugees today, refugees in 2017.”

Lord Alfred Dubs: “My name, my name’s Alfred Dubs and I've been in the House of Commons, I’m in the House of Lords, I’m basically a politician; basically, a politician. I came, I came from Prague on the Kindertransport in July 1939. Barbara's father, Nicky Winton, was the person who organised it and he became a personal friend and, of course, he died about two years ago at the age of 106. But I owe my life to him, so it's lovely being friendly with his daughter because to say your father saved my life. I've been involved in in a, in a campaign on behalf of child refugees, can I just make one point? People say I'm only doing it because I came as a child refugee. Well, the answer is, possibly I'm more emotionally involved, but the argument for child refugees should not depend upon the background experience of the person putting it forward. However, it’s made it harder for the government to shoot me down because the government say, “we don't want any more child refugees,” then I can say, “you don't want me either?” So, it's, politically, it's turned out to be advantageous. It was put about by the media and never, I never talked about it, it's been put about by the media, but it's been politically helpful.”

Barbara Winton: “Hi, I’m Barbara Winton, as Alf said, I’m the daughter of Nicholas Winton, who in his long life spent nine months of it, organising the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia, bringing 669 children to this country. Um, rather late in my life I became quite interested in my father's story and wrote his biography, which got me very interested in that aspect of his life and in meeting a whole load of the Kinder who came across on the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia, and their descendants, and slowly I became involved in the current refugee crisis in the sense that, why is it different today? Why should we not do today what we did before?”

James Bulgin: “What we’re going to do is use some of the items within the collections here, which, as Antoinette says, we've been very lucky to receive from individuals to, as a kind of a prompt for conversation about different aspects of, of kinder. So, perhaps if we could start with the first of those. This is a coat that belonged to a chap called Otto Hutter that came to this country before the war. He chose the coat personally with his father, his father bought the coat for him, but his father bought the coat a few sizes too big. It clearly, in anticipation of the fact that, that it was something he'd have to grow into and, and potentially his father wouldn't be there with him for, for that experience. You see the next image. This is a, a wedding myrtle belonging to a girl called Ruth Hirsch. And similar story, Ruth, Ruth's mother gave her this in case Ruth had to get married without her mother being there. 

I think this really gives us quite a powerful example of what these individuals as parents must have been forced to contemplate in this experience. And I suppose I, I, feel and, and I know I'm not alone in this, that perhaps the parents have been quite a forgotten part of the Holocaust narrative. And of course, this maybe gives us cause to reflect on two things, as it may, it gives us cause to think about who they were and what they were doing, what they were thinking, what they were experiencing, but also, of course, and perhaps we'll start with this, the big problem, the kind of the elephant in the room with this narrative, which is that whilst the, the children were, were able to come here, their parents weren't. British immigration policy was prepared to let children in, unaccompanied minors, but not their parents. And of course, history has, has shown that to be a really catastrophic decision. We actually have some slides to follow here as well, which gives some sort of insight to some of the, the commentary in the press at the time. So, this is the letters page of the Picture Post. The Picture Post ran a story about to check refugee children coming to the UK and they offered, they asked for, for people willing to take them in. This page is people from all over the country willing to, to offer homes to these children. But if we go into the subsequent letters pages, we can see the kind of counter-narrative to that. And here we see one of these letters says, “For months now, hordes of Jews and suchlike have swarmed into this country through the gateway of sentiment. Here I am finding more and more people daily who are getting incensed at the Jewish element in this country. “

These are letters written to a publication with, with no kind of fear or shame of, of what they're saying. If we want to move on to the next page here. This one always really strikes me, “It's bad enough that the Government should let 40,000 ‘refujews’ into the country and give 4,000,000 pounds to one of the funds.” 

Interestingly, within the same letters page, we do see the counter to this, so we have another contributor saying, “To say to our refugees, “This is our boat, keep out, and drown,” will only result in refugee conditions for Britain.” And someone else in a, in a kind of reassuringly enlightened way, mocking the Nazi conception of race, saying, “The only race is the human race.”

So it’s quite interesting to engage with the fact that in 1938/1939, these are very active conversations. Alf, as you said from the start, you you've been very actively involved in issues to do with contemporary refugees. I suppose I'd be interested to know in the first instance, looking back on, on this period now, do you think Britain could have been expected to do more and if so, what, what would that have been?”

Lord Alfred Dubs: “Well, it's interesting, somebody put in front of me copies of Hansard; that's the sort of parliamentary debates that took place in the House of Commons in 1938 about whether Britain should take any Kindertransport children, and some of the voices were a bit reminiscent of the hostility that one gets from some, some quarters today. But having said that, I believe and before they were founded, it was easier, I believe that the majority of people in this country are supportive of child refugees coming here, whatever else they think about migration and so on, a different debate, but I think this would, and I still believe, despite the referendum, that the majority, not all are supportive of child refugees. That is an interesting phenomenon. And of course, when I say so, when people say “We don't agree with you,” of course, some people don't agree, but I think, I think the majority do, and it's an interesting comment that if one says to people, “These are the circumstances in which children are sleeping in the jungle, or it's no longer there now, in Calais or in Greece and so on, surely we can take some of them and they will say “Yes.”

And the support from local communities and a lot of the voices then, I think on the whole, the refugee issue wasn't, wasn't so prominent then as it's been in recent years. But nonetheless, though although there are voices then I think on the whole, it went OK for children. Now why the British Government didn't take adults also, why the policy was not to take adults also, I don't know, you know, I'm not a historian, I've never actually thought about that very much, puzzles me though. But it's the same now, though. The policies to take child refugees are there because some families from Syria, but the policy is to take child refugees and not let them be followed by their parents. So, we haven’t moved on that far.”

Dr Andrea Hammel: “I mean, I think that there is a problem if we focus very much on child refugees. Now, most of us, like children, I have three children, I love children but and, and children have this sort of, you know, there's more, they're innocent, but we are then slightly buying into a narrative of desirable and undesirable refugees and really, human beings, whatever their age, have the right to live safely, whether they're old or young. And so that, that's a slight problem, and then the sort of debates about, sort of, undefined debates really about are these children who came from the Calais Camp, are they really looking a bit too old? Can they really be children? Are they maybe not adults, really? And that is really, was really, I mean, a terrible moment, I think. But it did happen in the, in the 30s as well. I have read memories where people said that first the families were disappointed because they weren't small, when they were like a teenager.”

James Bulgin: “So this is an English German dictionary, and this is something which Eric alluded to before. If we move on, within our collections here, we have letters from this family here, this is the Koniec family, lived in Bratislava. Carolina and Sigmund and two children, Herbie and Dory. They came to this country in, in 1938 and if we look through their letters, as you can see, Herbie is obviously quite young. So, we have this letter here from Dory to her parents but there's, there's quite a kind of a telling moment here, she says to her mother talking of Herbie, she says, “He'll be shifted into another class, he is a clever wee”, and then she translates into German, “Kleiner es ist Scottish lad,” and you really get the sense of this person caught between two different realities, which I find really powerful. 

And then we have a letter from Herbie himself, which, which, I think is one of the most difficult things I've read for a long time, actually. So, this is him writing to his parents in 1940. He says, “I hope you're well”, etcetera. But then he says, “I think you will understand all my letters because I've forgotten your language.” So, so to me this is a really critical part of this dimension, these children come to this country, then they lose the ability to speak to their own children. So, thinking again, as the parents, we’re thinking of these parents not only being with their children but no longer even able to meaningfully communicate with their children.”

Sir Eric Reich: “When the monument went up in Liverpool Street Station, the Evening Standard, somebody at the Evening Standard, interviewed me. And um, it was fascinating because he, the Evening Standard wrote about it and then I get a letter from a guy who lived in God knows where, and he said, “You know, I was an evacuee from South London, and I sat next to you in Dorking.” He was such an awful specimen. “You couldn't speak the language, your skin was rotting, so I decided to share my Horlicks tablets with you in the playground.” So, obviously it's something I don't remember, I'm very good at blocking things out, obviously. But the fact is that Kinder who was slightly older found it far more difficult because a, they either didn't want to, or didn't need to, or couldn't block anything out, and they remembered their language and their culture very well. But it is an awful problem. 

Now, while I was in Israel on the kibbutz, I was about 14/15, a young boy came, and it turned out he was about the same age as me, maybe a few months later, younger, that his parents were Czech. He came out the same as Alf Dubbs, but his parents survived. Now he was brought up in Scotland, but he wouldn’t go with his parents because he couldn't understand them. They were elderly, they were different, their culture was different, so they didn’t know what to do with him because he simply didn't want to be with them. So, the parents sent him off to the kibbutz because there was a school there and he spoke with me in English, but he obviously, it happened to a lot of people, to a lot of Kinder.”

Lord Alfred Dubs: “Well, first of all, I should say that I was luckier than most Kindertransport children because my father was Jewish, my mother wasn't. And my father said to his cousins, “If the Nazis come, I'm leaving immediately,” and they said they'd take their chance in Prague and in 1942 they were taken to Auschwitz.

But my, my father, who was not political, and it's a puzzle to me even now, although Bettelheim has written a book about it, as to why the Jews essentially waited, waited for fate to hit them. Anyway, my father was not political, he left, and he got here, he died soon afterwards, um, got here and then he died, so in, in one sense it's more complicated in a different way. And my mother was refused permission to leave, and eventually she got out somehow, so, again she arrived in London on the 31st of August, a day later it wouldn’t have happened. But during the war I went to school ran by the Czech Government, a boarding school ran by the Czech Government in Wales. There were 250 Czechs, not all Kindertransport, but all refugees. And so, we had a dose of being Czech again. So, it was quite complicated, having gone to a school that was English and then gone to this Czech school, and then having to this, having to come back to being English. So, I had a certain confusion of identities as I’ve, as I've gone along.”

Dr Andrea Hammel: “I mean, about 20% of the 10,000 children came from families that certainly did not identify as Jewish. They, they were classified as Jewish under the Nazi race laws, but they were, didn't identify as Jewish, and some of them were helped by the Society of Friends by the Quakers. So it's quite a, a large percentage, but of course, as you said, some families generally matching process of refugee child and foster family we would nowadays certainly consider extremely inadequate, there basically wasn't really one. Anyone who was willing to take in a child was basically allocated a child, and, and as you would think now, you know, cultural background, religious background, you try to match it up, that just didn't happen.”

James Bulgin: “Barbara, I wonder is, is, have you thought about this, with some of your work on the subject, this idea that this is a slightly provocative question, I suppose, it's not intended to be, but, but should more consideration have been given to the preservation of, of the culture and or religious identity or, or would you consider that to be a kind of a secondary concern in the circumstances? I suppose there's a contemporary parallel with that as well.”

Barbara Winton: “Well, I mean the reason we know so much about the Czech Kindertransport was that my father was given a scrapbook at the end of the project, which was done by a volunteer in his office who put together lots of information, lots of papers, letters, photographs from that project and put it all together, and my father, being a hoarder, had kept it all this time luckily for everybody. Um, so we can see in there what was going on at the time and one of the things was that there were a lot of Orthodox Jewish children, particularly in Slovakia, and they would only be allowed to leave by their parents if the parents knew they were going to Orthodox homes or hostels, which there were some. And of course, there weren't nearly enough Orthodox Jewish homes and hostels for the number of children, so their parents wouldn't let them go. Now, those parents who said I, you know, I will accept any home you have to offer were able to get their children to come. And in fact, while my father was in Prague, the first thing he witnessed was a, a transport flight out of Prague, organised by the Barbican Mission, bringing 20 Jewish children to the Barbican Mission hostel in London. And the Barbican Mission has one aim, and that is to convert Jews to Christianity. And now, the parents all knew this, they had agreed that their children would come to London knowing that they were going to be baptised and converted. And to me, that's a strong example of how desperate some parents were that that consideration didn't stop them.”

James Bulgin: “If we move on to the next slide, this is, as you can see, a pair of ice skates. Ice skates are not an uncommon object to find within Kindertransport narratives, particularly for children from Czechoslovakia and from Austria. What they say to me is that this is a, uh, quite a different sense to the reality of what life in the UK will be like. Clearly, if one is living in Czechoslovakia and, and Austria there is, there is more scope to use objects such as these than, than there is in the UK. But I suppose this really got me thinking about some of the things which we were, we were talking about before of this, this idea of the kind of the before and after, and this idea of, of a sense of, of a childhood anticipated and of a childhood lived. And, and so I wondered if, if it is accurate, actually then, to describe Kinder as having, in some respects, lost childhoods, if that's, if that’s a helpful or an accurate way of describing it. Alf, I wondered if you have any thoughts?”

Lord Alfred Dubs: “Well, I was thinking all these objects, I don't think I was able to bring very much with me at all. I didn't have any objects or virtually nothing from, from, from my childhood. So, I don't know what I did bring with me; some sandwiches in a knapsack when I got to Liverpool Street. But I think so, I, I think, I think looking back and one has to be careful not to give oneself an insight which one didn't have, you know,  it's easy to make me, make myself out to being a very wise and far-seeing when I was six-years-old, of course, I wasn’t, and all things passed me by and I was quite, quite bewildered. But, but I think, there were, sort of, stages in my life and one was Prague up to 1939 and the next was, was here, and then here it divided into stages as well. But there was a sharp divide at, at the age of 6 and I don't know what to make of that divide, it just was a divide. But can I just say something? I don’t want to jump ahead. Somebody asked me some time ago; how did I identify myself? And I said, “I don't know. I don't think I have a sense of identity.” I said, “Well, English, British, yes,” but he was quite puzzled at this, and I wasn't able to give him anything, maybe it's to do with the fact that I, I wasn't in one place long enough to, to decide who I was.”

James Bulgin: “Eric, is that, is that something?...”

Sir Eric Reich: “I just want to go back for a minute because I was actually taken in by a non-Jewish couple. They were refugees, they came from Sudetenland, the German-speaking Czechoslovakia. Now I went to church, I went to Sunday school and as far as I was concerned they were my parents…until my brother found me, that's another story, I'll leave that out.

It's very important to understand that the way I look at it, I have two religions, Christianity on the one, Judaism on the other, which means I'm not religious at all. But it is important, very important, to understand that my childhood was with my foster parents, it wasn't with my parents because I don't remember them. So, I I've never felt that I've lost my childhood. I played with their grandchildren, I played with the people at school, whatever school I went to, so I don't believe that I actually personally lost the childhood. If anybody asks me, what do I feel, I feel British, I feel a bit Israeli as well, but we're talking about here, not Israel.”

James Bulgin: “If we move on to the, the next slide. This is the final image, and this is, uh, tragically not unusual. This is a photo of a young girl called Ruth Neumeyer and her, and her mother Vera. The reason we have this or I'm showing you this is because this is the last photo that she was aware of, of the two of them together before she came to this country. Now, Ruth came to this country and stayed in this country because unfortunately, her parents didn't survive; we have some of their objects within the collections here, and, and she had three kids and the three kids now are, are to varying degrees engaged with this subject, but it really got me thinking about this idea of former Kinder becoming British. And we've, we've, we've discussed this a bit, but just to close the discussion, I suppose I thought it would be really interesting to hear from all of you what you think we should do with the Kindertransport narrative? How, how should we remember the Kindertransport? And I know that kind of sums up some of the things we've been discussing, but that simple, complicated question, how, how should we remember the, the Kindertransport in the 21st century? And Barbara, I wonder if we could start with you?”

Barbara Winton: “Well, I suppose what I said earlier is what I feel about it, I mean, it wasn't a smooth, clean acting narrative of, of tolerance and noble behaviour; it was a messy, confused, scrambling around trying to find help, trying to find resources, trying to persuade people that this was the right thing to do. And when we engage in a project today, when we, you know, people like Alf are talking to the government, going around trying to convince people that bringing in unaccompanied children is the right thing to do today, it's messy, you know? It's not, it's not a straight arrow to the goal, it's all over the place. And I think if, if that narrative of from the past reminds us that getting things done isn't just one smooth road where we know all the stops ahead but is actually, it's an unknown path and we may go in all kinds of directions to get there, and it's only hindsight that gives us this view of the Kindertransport as this smooth acting machine that did what it needed to do in nine months, which was amazing when you think about it, but it involved thousands of people helping. So, I think if, if it gives us that information then it will enable people to engage in these huge issues today which seem too big for us to even contemplate getting involved in.”

Lord Alfred Dubs: “What you said about being done here about promoting Kindertransport I think is important because recently people have talked a bit more about it, but it was almost a forgotten thing for a long, for a long time and then gradually came to life when people learned about the, the part that Nicky, Nicky, Nicky had done, had played in this and, and so on. And I think it represents a significant, even if in numbers aren’t very large, bit of our history here, and it, it, we need to remember what happened and we need to know more about it, process unanswered questions, you refer to some of them and we need to know more about it because there aren’t many of us left who came on the Kindertransport and soon it's, the memories would have gone in terms of the people who were actually there. So, I think it's important we do remember it, we put it down as a, commemorated it as something significant that happened in our history, I mean, wider European history. And we need to set that alongside other migrations and other movements of children and adults, so we have a proper picture of things, of things that have been happening, otherwise they will get forgotten, and for long time there's danger the Kindertransport would be forgotten. Now you're reviving it and, and good for you. But I think we have to remember it for what it was and try and understand a bit more deeply, the significance and the mood and the sense of identity and the lost child, all the things that happened, went along with it, so that should be displayed, well, I'm not telling you how to do it but, but, but that should be there so we have the memory, we have those memories and we have them there in such a way that future generations can see what happened, as they should be able to remember what's happening now.”

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