The Kindertransport

Photograph of Dorrith Oppenheim, who came to Scotland via a Kindertransport. Both of her parents died in Auschwitz.

Photograph of Dorrith Oppenheim,
who came to Scotland via a Kindertransport. Both of her parents were murdered in Auschwitz.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As the 1930s progressed and Nazi persecution intensified, it became increasingly difficult for Jews to leave Germany. Few countries were willing to admit the refugees, due to the dismal state of the world economy at the time and prevalence of antisemitic sentiments among many non-Jews. However, in 1938, British immigration policy slightly liberalized in response to the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany) and Kristallnacht. After Kristallnacht, the Jewish Refugee Committee in Great Britain lobbied Parliament to ease immigration restrictions on Jewish refugees. The government agreed and liberalized its immigration laws for certain occupational categories. The most well-known of these programs was the Kindertransport (children's transport).

This program allowed Great Britain to provide temporary asylum for an unspecified number of German Jewish children and teenagers. These children, who numbered roughly 10,000, entered Great Britain as unaccompanied minors; parents and other guardians were not allowed to come with the children. Once they reached Great Britain, the children were resettled with foster families, or in hostels, or youth farms. Before a visa could be given to the child in question, a private individual or organization had to agree to pay for the would-be immigrant's health and welfare.

Because of the dire situation in Germany, many of the Kindertransports were organized poorly and with a great deal of haste. Since the trains departed from major cities, such as Berlin, Vienna, and and Prague, children from smaller towns and villages had to travel long distances to reach the transports, sometimes with only twenty-four hours notice. The scenes at the stations were often chaotic, as the parents knew they would probably never see their children again. Youth leaders in the German Jewish community accompanied the children on the trains, and later on the ships that would take them to England. While these young adults had the opportunity to flee Germany, many opted to return to ensure that as many children could be saved as possible. More than not, this resulted in the deaths of these brave individuals.

The children's arrival in Great Britain was often as chaotic as the departure. Britain's Jewish community was not prepared to absorb the refugee children. There were not enough homes for all of the children, so many children, particularly the older ones, ended up staying in youth hostel, camps, or farms. In many instances, the children did not get along with their foster families and sometimes sought residence in communal institutions. The British Jewish community was also not accustomed to providing aid for Jews in need. Consequently, many Jews refused to provide assistance to the young refugees. In other cases, the foster family treated the refugee child like a servant. Since British Jews as a whole were poorer and less educated than their German brethren, many children from a middle or upper class background found it difficult to adapt. However, the experienes of the Kindertransport children varied greatly. Although some were ill-treated, many more developed strong relationships with their foster families and communities.

While the children were officially classified as enemy aliens, many of the boys joined the British armed forced upon reaching the age of majority. Although some were eventually reunited with their parents and other siblings, most of the Kindertransport children were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust. When the war ended, the children became naturalized citizens of Great Britain or immigrated to Australia, Canada, Israel, or the United States.

Sources cited:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Kindertransport, 1933-1940.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (accessed May 23, 2008).

The National Socialist Worker’s Party. “The 25 Points 1920: An Early Nazi Program.” Modern History Sourcebook. (accessed May 23, 2008).

The Kindertransport Association. “Kindertransport: Brief History.” The Kindertransport Association. (accessed May 23, 2008).

Laqueur, Walter. Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2001.