Kinder urge
modern kindness

Britain was at its humanitarian best when it rescued children from Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Can it rediscover those values for Syrian refugees?

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Refugees who escaped Nazi Germany and found sanctuary in Britain via the famous Kindertransport are rallying to step up government support for the thousands of Syrian children flooding into Europe as the humanitarian crisis intensifies.

Sir Eric Reich, chairman of Kindertransport: Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) has already written to the prime minister calling for similar refuge for more of the infants fleeing their beleaguered homeland as winter bites.

The former child refugee told David Cameron: “I urge you to commit the United Kingdom to once again demonstrate its humanitarian compassion by providing a safe haven to the children fleeing persecution in war-torn Syria.

“Without the intervention and determination of many people who are of many faiths, I – along with some 10,000 others – would have perished. I strongly believe that we must not stand by while the oppressed need our help.

“We cannot ignore the sight of desperate people and in such a crisis we must act to save the most vulnerable refugees – the children – and provide them with the same sanctuary I, along with others, was fortunate to receive.”

The Kindertransport shuttled thousands of children to safety between 1938 and 1940 after the Kristallnacht – “night of broken glass” – when Nazi authorities staged a violent pogrom against Jews in Germany and the British government stepped in.

Most of the remaining Kinder – German for children – are now in their eighties. They include four Nobel Prize winners, the artist Franck Auerbach, Sir Rudolf Bing – the opera impressario who organised the Edinburgh Festival, and the Labour peer Alf Dubs.

Ruth Barnett, an octogenarian survivor of the Holocaust whose life was also spared by evacuation to Britain with the Kindertransport, called on other wartime refugees and their families to unite and relate their “survive and thrive” stories.

Urging calm after the Paris bombings the psychotherapist, rescued with the 10,000 other unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, identified with the needs of migrants then and now and the importance of safe harbour.

“We would be able to take great pride in taking the lead to perform our moral duty.”

As a four-year-old infant, Barnett was welcomed into foster homes, educated in a British school and brought up in comfort and relative safety.

Many other children aged between three and 17 found support and nurture in UK schools and on farms and, whilst most were repatriated after the war, some went on to take up citizenship, contributing socially and economically to British life.

The majority never saw their parents again, their lives lost to the Holocaust. They suffered huge trauma, which Barnett says was cushioned in part by the often – though not always – warm reception in the UK.

Barnett was evacuated with her brother and placed with three foster families and in a hostel. “It is vital just now that we remember the warm reception most of the Kindertransport refugees received more than seven decades ago in this country,” she said.

“This is in contrast to the treatment currently faced by the millions of people migrating from home countries where their lives are in danger.”

Arriving alone and frightened in a strange land can be overwhelming, she added.  “I came to England from Berlin on the Kindertransport in 1939.

“I was a four-year-old refugee. Suddenly everything in my old world was gone. Nothing made sense, everything was strange and alarming. Even the London buses were red – the colour of blood.

“At 14, I was repatriated to Germany against my will; this was even worse. Once again, everything I knew had been taken from me, replaced by a fearful wartime existence. Migration can invoke terrifying feelings.

“We did not see our parents for 10 years – we were just surviving. It was only afterwards that I could start to process any of the trauma.”

Reich added that although the circumstances surrounding the current refugee crisis were different to the persecution the Jewish people of Europe endured under the Nazis, there were still striking parallels.

Although he has received a letter back from the prime minister’s office, which he says offered some encouragement, it did not adequately address the problem. The AJR now intends to step up its plea.

Ruth Barnett
Former refugee Ruth Barnett

Barnett believes stories from the German evacuees could help quell reactionary Islamophobia amplified by the attacks in Paris and ease integration of those fleeing for their lives to the west, which already number one million – three-quarters of whom are women and children.

She continued: “I doubt that any of the Kinder people would have anything but sympathy for the refugees and support their plight. They are only too willing to tell their stories.

“Most of the Kinder here already go into schools to talk to children about how it is possible to pick up the shattered pieces of lives and overcome trauma.

“We now have an opportunity to challenge people to think more widely and deeply than they have before. But if we treat refugees as less than human beings it simply re-traumatises them and makes matters worse.”

Reich added: “From humble, unfamiliar and uncertain beginnings, many of my fellow Kinder turned adversity into triumph and went on to leave a rich legacy to their adopted homeland.

“Given the same opportunity, some of the refugees we help today could equally make invaluable contributions to British society, and we would be able to take great pride in taking the lead to perform our moral duty.”

Michael Newman, chief executive of  AJR, added: “Many came from very limited circumstances but are prominent leaders in their field making an everlasting contribution to this country.

Dan Glass, who runs the campaigning group Never Again Ever! and whose four grandparents survived the Holocaust, said: “The bodies of babies and adults washed up on our shores have touched the hearts of millions in this country. And the power of protest indicates that millions would be prepared to offer homes and shelter were they given the chance.

“Now, just as in the aftermath of 9/11, belonging to a different culture in a foreign land is a harrowing experience. Islamophobia generated by a ‘them and us’ thinking is just as harmful as thinking that all those German children on the Kindertransport were guilty of Nazi atrocities.

“Changing government policy before the crisis escalates further is paramount. The rallying of refugees and their relatives who absolutely benefited from their experiences, of being welcomed to Britain during the last war and given some kind of stability in the face of trauma, can only be a positive symbol of solidarity in these frightening times.”

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