Jerusalem – 70 years later
Kindertransport –was one of the greatest rescue actions. Who helped to make it happen? A glimpse behind the scenes points to individual people and organizations, clubbing together for fundraising and overcoming mountains of bureaucracy in Germany and England, all in order to rescue, often in the last minute, as many children as possible.
I asked myself what concern and what relevance is it to the present growing up generation of what happened 70 years ago?
Rescue operations initiated by a handful of Jewish people have for a long time been taken for grante
d. But who were these people and how did they band together to achieve the rescue of thousands of children. Dr. Paula Hill did a research of that for her Doctoral Thesis “Anglo-Jewry and the Refugee Children 1938-45 Royal Holloway University London 2001”.
Volumes of history books on the subject have been written, but much more is engraved in the memories of those that experienced those fateful days back in November 1938. A question that I have long asked myself, how and by whom was I rescued? Combined with what I remember as well as based on what I read about of those complicated rescue operations I shall try to shed some light on it.
To start with, a few words about what happened to my family?
We had lived for generations in Glogau / Schlesien. We were well off until the economic depression in 1929 when we lost everything.
My mother Else Dobkowsky, a school friend of Recha Freier, was an ardent Zionist from her youth. When Hitler came to power, I was ten years old, my brother 8, my sister 4, and my grandmother who lived with us over 70, my father was unemployed. We had no means at our disposal and so were not able to find a country that we could immigrate too as a family. My parents clutched at every straw for each one of us to leave Germany.
1935 my mother registered me, aged 12, with the Child Immigration Department in Berlin for the scheme: “Adoption to American families”.
The picture we send in was returned, saying that for such an ugly girl they could not find a family that would want to adopt her. All told in period 1935 –39 only some 865 children were adopted to America, known today as “One Thousand Children – OTC”. They could pick and choose whom they wanted.
1937 our family moved to Berlin.
1937 my brother aged 16 left with Youth Aliya to Palestine.
Some 5-6000 youngsters were thus saved by Recha Freier who initiated and founded Youth Aliya .
My grandmother immigrated to Portugal to live with her son who 1933 was in a KZ and had found refuge in O’ Porto/ Portugal.
October 1938 I applied for Youth Aliya and went to Ruednitz for a month of preparation. Two weeks after Kristallnacht I was turned down by the reception committee because of underweight. There simply were not enough Certificates.
My parents had spent their last penny to try and reach Palestine via Antwerp, but the project fell through early in 1939.
The situation was more than desperate.
In April 1939 with the help of Recha Freier, under the auspices of Youth Aliya, and as part of a Kindertransport, I was able to go to Scotland and join what was known a MI HA– Middle Hachshara at Whittingehame Farmschool, the Estate of the late Lord Balfour.
In August 1939 my sister was send with a Kindertransport to a family in London.
We were just two of the 10 000 refugee children thus saved, each one a story in itself.
My parents stayed behind in Berlin. When they applied in April 1939 for Aliya “B” they were turned down, because my father, aged 52, was considered to be to old for that. Finally in 1940 they were accepted for “Sonder Hachshara” but never made it to get on the list for a transport. In October 1942 they were sent to Theresienstadt and on to Auschwitz where they perished.
1938 The turning point. General Development in Germany and Austria.
What ever happened to Jews in Germany until 1938 was mild compared to what happened in the years that were to follow.
The world did not seem to be able to comprehend the developments.
First the annexation in March 1938 of Austria to Germany, with Eichmann, who was extremely cruel, being put in charge to make the Jews leave quicker than was happening in Germany.
The Evian Conference in July 1938 without any results as to where one could emigrate too, every country having its own immigration laws and border after border closed. The first Transport October 1938 of Stateless Jews to the East, toZbaboshin, not allowed into Poland nor allowed to return to Germany, the shooting by Grynspan of the German diplomat Von Rath in Paris, was soon to be followed by the “Kristallnacht”. Auswandern, Auswandern, Auswandern, but where too?
Using the book by Amy Zahl Gottlieb “Men of vision” 1998 and other books as reference, allows us to get a glimpse behind the scene.
In the opening chapter she mentions the Jewish Refugees Committee and the fact that as early as 1933 Otto Schieff called on the leaders of British Jewry to discuss how help could be extended to Jewish Refugees from Germany.
Together with Neville Laski he approached the Home Office officials. But at that time anti-refugee and anti-Semitic statements were published in the national press, as well as in the House of Commons in order to seek protection for the multitude of unemployed in Britain after the economic depression.
British -Jewry pledged to support refugees, as it was expected, that no one who was allowed to enter Britain as refugee, should became dependent on the State.
When in 1935 the Nuremberg laws had deprived Jews in Germany of citizenship, excluded them from economic, social and political life, British Jewry got organized for rescue work. In the beginning funds were raised for philanthropic endeavors.
Soon the Central British Fund for German Jewry was organized.
People like Navill Laski, Leonard Montefiore, Lionel Cohen, Lord Reading, Sir Herbert Samuel, Lionel de Rothschild, Simon Marks, Lady Rebecca Sieff, Lola Hahn Warburg, as well as the Chief Rabbi Hertz, Rabbi Schonfeld and many others got involved, seeking ways to help.
Jews like Sir Herbert Samuel in high government positions approached the home office and together with other official refugee organizations pledged the necessary guaranties and took upon themselves to look after and care for refugees from Germany so that they would not become a burden to the State, neither need medical care or housing from the State, nor take up employment or places in public schools or universities. It was only after “Kristallnacht” that Britain eased the entry restriction to allow refugees from Germany to enter with a Transit Visa, but with the guaranty for the duration of their stay and with the understanding to immigrate within a given period to a third country.
In Woburn House, the seat of the central inter-aid committee, departments expanded, several hundred volunteers were recruited to handle onslaught of requests for help.
Helen Bentwich, the nice of Lord Samuel, was asked to plan the evacuation of German children. Joined by Dennis Cohen and Rebecca Sieff a “Rescue Plan” was worked out. The Rothschild Bank provided loans for the operation.
In the wake of the havoc of Kristallnacht it became paramount to bring children to safety.
On the 15th of November Lord Bearstead, the Chief Rabbi, Neville Laski Rothchild and Weizman met with Chamberlain and asked to allow children into England.
British Jewry would give a collective guaranty of support for children to be trained with the view of ultimate re-emigration.
Lord Samuel asked to add staff to the Home Office and Consulate to speed up visa facilities.
Chajim Weizman reminded that the request for 10 000 certificates for children to immigrate to Palestine had been refused by the Mandatory Government.
Allowing only temporary refuge, the Home Secretary agreed to allow guarantied children, unaccompanied refugee children to enter England to be taken care of by the Refugee Children Movement headed by Elaine Laski and Lola Hahn Warburgand helped by inexperienced volunteer staff.
Preparations in Germany and Austria
The “Reichsvertretung” in Berlin and the “Kultusgemeinde” in Austria set up appropriate offices to handle the thousands of requests by anxious parents, mainly the mothers, as many fathers had been taken to one of the many KZ that had been readied for them before “Kristallnacht”.
The staff of the Reichsvertretung was charged with selecting the children and getting the necessary travel and emigration documentation for them.
Lists were forwarded from Jewish communities, Paulus-bund, and Friends committee.
The children were chosen according to urgency, orphans, teenage boys released from KZ , boys in danger, appeals from Breslau and Hamburg and many other places.
It was necessary to find a suitable route, as Hamburg to Hull would have landed to far from the collecting center in England.
Traveling by train Via Holland and by boat on to Harwich needed extra permission for passage through Holland, which was granted.
Dennis Cohen and his wife traveled to Berlin to help with the arrangement of travel documents, railway carriages had to be reserved, assembling the children for departure, directions for boarding on route to Dutch border, Jewish and Christian Committees to meet trains at the border and see to the departure by boat to England.
Joined Efforts in England and in Germany
….it was a mere three weeks following the pogroms of Kristalllnacht in November 1938 that the committee in London had organized reception facilities and secured placement for a large number of refugee children.
In Germany, with only 24 hours notice of the date and time of their departure, the Reichsvertretung assembled 200 children, a number of them had been living in the children home in Fehrbeliner Str. and other orphanages in Berlin that were destroyed, plus some from Hamburg and from Breslau. They left Berlin for Hook van Holland on December 1rst 1938.
The teachers, the same as were future escorts who accompanied the children, were compelled by the German government, to return to Germany. Among them were Rudolf Melitz, Martha Wertheim, Norbert Wollheim and several others. At a later date Wollheim was sent to Auschwitz, he survived and helped to set up KT reunion in America. Recha Freier stayed on in Berlin as long as there was a possibility to rescue children. In 1941, when her passport was confiscated by the Gestapo she managed in the last minute to escape together with a group of refugees children via Austria to Yugoslavian, some of whom she had to leave behind there, as she could not receive certificates for them, to join her on the last leg of her trip to Erez Israel. That group, with Josef Indig as a Madrich, arrived only after the war.
The beginning of one of the greatest “Rescue Actions” followed
Norman Bentwich before returning to London from Amsterdam on 26th of November was introduced to Gertrude Wijsmuller-Meijer, the wife of a Dutch banker, a Christian member of the Netherlands Children’s Refugee Committee who spoke fluent German. Betwich told her of the dire situation of Jewish children in Vienna. He asked her if she would be willing to travel to Austria to meet with Eichmann, head of the Jewish office of the Gestapo and attempt to secure permission for children to leave Vienna. After lengthy negotiations, he ordered that the first group of 600 children travel on December 10th on Sabbath.
On leaving his office she phoned Lola Hahn-Warburg in London, who assured her that the Committee would receive the children. All, but 100 of them were helped to embark on the ferry to Harwich. Of the 100 left behind, some joined the next group, while others remained behind in Holland, some being helped by Gertrud Wijsmuller onto the last boat to leave for England when Holland was invaded.
Gertrud Wijsmuller has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile and there is a tree planted in her name. Thus the foundations were laid for Kindertransport as this vast rescue action was called.
Nicholas Winton, an English Stockbroker who happened to be in Prague, managed to save 664 children from there, by locating families for them in England. Group after group left. The last one he put on a plane without having received all the necessary papers in time. The group after that never made it to safety.
In London the Refugee committee received these children and passed them on to their sponsors.
On December 8th the former Prime Minister Lord Baldwin made an appeal to the general public in Britain for fund raising and established the Baldwin Fund with Lord Rothschild as the trustee, in order to get as many children out of Germany and Austria as possible.
Placement of the children
Children who were sponsored went straight to their foster parents. Those that had not been sponsored or guarantied by a specific person were taken to a summer camp in Dovercourt, which had hastily been turned into a reception center.
Every Sunday additional tentative foster families would come and pick a child, preferably a young one under the age of 10, to take home with them.
It was difficult to place the bigger children including those released from a KZ.
A solution for the older children was, to put them up in hostels.
Youth Aliya and Kindertransport
Recha Freier who had long been active in seeking Hachshara places outside of Germany set out to find places also in England for “Mittleren Hachshara” for Youth Aliya candidates aged 12 –15.
With the help of Rebecca Sieff and others the Balfour family was contacted. They were willing to put Whittingehame Estate in Scotland, the home of the late Lord Balfour at the disposal of Youth Aliya. In addition on August 29th 1939 a contract was signed for an old castle in North Wales, Grych Castle, where 200 religious and orthodox Youth Aliya groups, many from Austria were billeted.
Arye Haendler, a refugee from Germany, was the representative of the religious Hachalutz –Bachad in England and in charge of all the religious Hachsharot.
Grych Castle and Whittingehame were looked after by Eva Michaelis-Stern, who as the representative of Youth Aliya in England, was responsible for the refugee children under the auspices of Youth Aliya. Whittingehame Farm School Ltd. was founded and funds were raised for it. It was run with English staff until “Madrichim” from the different Youth Movements in Germany and “Schlichim” from Erez Israel were added to the staff. 180 children aged 12-15 from Shomer Hazair, Werkleute Habonim and Bachad (Bne Akiba) lived and worked under one roof.
Under the auspices of Youth Aliya the first group left Berlin in April 1939 went straight to Whittingehame as part of the general Kindertransport.
Myself, having been turned down by Youth Aliya because of underweight in November 1938, two weeks after “Kristallnacht”, my mother managed with the help of Recha Freier to get me unto the list of that first Youth Aliya group that left for Whittingehame.
War, Internment and Evacuation
When War broke out refugee children were considered Enemy Aliens and had to appear before a tribunal. The Madrichim and all those over the age of 16 were interned, some send to Canada others to Australia. Some were later released and came back, a few even joining the army. As enemy aliens we were only allowed to work in agriculture or as household help and were not allowed to reside near the coast.
Without being able to go into detail about the fate of the close to 10 000 refugee children who came with Kindertransport from Germany, Austria, Danzig and Czechoslovakia to England, only a few had brief Red Cross Letter 25 word contact, the vast majority were soon orphaned and never saw their parents again who perished in the Shoa.
Although the original idea was that the refugee children should re–emigrate, because of the war that was no longer visible. Many problems as well as the matter of guardianship came up. Some struck it lucky and had nice foster parents, while others were exploited. No two stories are alike. They all suffered.
See Karen Gershom’s book “They came as Children”.
One of the great difficulties was the cultural difference between German and British Jewry, especially for children from Orthodox families, placed with any family that was found and willing to take in a child. Rabbi Schonfeld tried his best to relocate them, but that was not always possible, but he did keep in contact with them.
When war broke out British children from big towns, including the refugee children were evacuated and billeted in small towns and villages. Some, that lived with Christian families and had no contact to Jewish communities, often converted to Christianity and were lost to Judaism.
The evacuation of the refugee children caused many new problems of supervision that needed to be sorted out by the Jewish Refugee committee whose seat was in Bloomsberry House.
Hechalutz and Hachsharot
When the funds for Whittingehame run out the older ones had to leave. Aged 17 they had to stand on their own feet and find their way through life. There was nobody to guide or show the way to them. They had to rely on their own wits. I was one of them. To overcome my loneliness, before I was 18 I got married. Others joint hastily arranged Hachshara places throughout England, which I also joined later on.
Perez Leshem (Fritz Lichtenstein) in his book “Die Strasse zur Rettung. 1933 -1939 Aus Deutschland vertreiben – bereitet sich juedische Jugend auf Palaestina vor, tells the story of Hachalutz.
Throughout the war Hechalutz looked after young Chaluzim, 17 and above, on Hachshara in England, were responsible for their training in agriculture and for their spiritual well being. Regular seminars were often held. They also looked after Bate Chalutz in towns, one of which got a direct hit by a V2 and several Haverim were killed others injured. Several “Garine Aliya” were formed, hoping for a speedy Aliya. Doing all sorts of odd jobs in a strange country, just to survive, it helped to have a goal in view. Having moved from one place to another 15 times in six years, I was lucky to be among the 100 Chaluzim who receive a certificate within a month of the end of the war.
On July 2nd 1945 the first boat, the “Mataroa”, left England and sailed once more through the Mediterranean. After having taken on in Napels some 1200 survivors without certificates from Bergen Belsen and Buchenwald, including Rav Lau, when the boat docked in Haifa all of us were straight away put unto railway wagons and carted off by the British soldiers to the detention camp in Athlit.
That was the reception I received, when at long last I had arrived in the land that my mother had dreamed off to live in. It was now up to me to make the best of it.
The majority of Haluzim that came in the pre war period from Germany and Austria to England under auspices of Youth Aliya with Kindertransport, arrived sooner or later in Israel, some via Cyprus. They are to be found in Kibbuzim like Lavi, Kfar Hansi, Gal Ed, Yasur and others, as well as in towns and helped with the building up of the country. Much has happened in the 70 years that have passed since the infamous night of what was to become known as the “Kristallnacht”, and its consequences. Much has also happened to all those that were rescued with Kindertransport thanks to a handful ofJewish people and their constant devotion. Let us here with pay our respect to them.
Gottlieb Amy Zahl, Men of Vision Anglo-Jewry’s aid to victims of the
Nazi Regime 1933-1945 Weidenfeld & Nicolson London 1998
Michaelis-Stern Eva, Emmissaries in Wartime London 1838-1945 Hamaatik 1989
Goepfert Rebekka, Der Juedische Kindertransport von Deutschland nach England 1938/39 Campus 1997
Leschem Perez (Fritz Lichtenstein) Strasse zur Rettung 1933-1939 Aus Deutschland vertrieben – bereitet sich Juedische Jugend auf Palaestina vor. Histadrut 1973