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Be vigilant — the message of the Kindertransport

03 December 2018

When the UK welcomed Jewish children


Ruth Barnett

Ruth Barnett

EIGHTY years after the arrival of the first Jewish children via the Kindertransport, three weeks after Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany in 1938, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned of the continuing need to be vigilant.

Speaking in Lambeth Palace at a commemoration of the two events, organised by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), and attended by former Kinder, the Archbishop said that Kristallnacht, when Nazi mobs attacked synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses, was an example of “what can happen when the watchmen of the world fail to watch adequately”. By contrast, Kindertransport showed us “what may happen when we seek the common good”.

Anti-Semitism was “the tap-root of attacks on minorities”, he warned. The commemoration was an opportunity “to say: let us be vigilant, let us not hesitate to point out where things arise that are dangerous.” The CCJ was one such watchman.

Among the speakers was Ruth Barnett, who arrived in Britain via the Kindertransport aged four, with her seven-year-old brother. She described how, during Kristallnacht, her father had walked amidst the rioting crowds with her brother: this had been the safest place to be.

Her brother had always recalled it as the end of his childhood. “That enabled him to look after me” — the final request of her parents.

The young Ruth had imagined that she had been sent away because she had behaved badly. It was ten years before mother appeared “out of nowhere”, eager to take her back to Germany.

But she felt by then that England was her home, and it was eventually agreed that she could finish her schooling here, returning to Germany for holidays. She had travelled with a “horrible bit of paper” that described her as a “person of no nationality” — the eventual title of her autobiography. Her father, meanwhile, who had escaped to Shanghai, had to fight to get back his job as a judge in Germany, where 80 per cent of the jobs in the criminal-justice system were occupied by former Nazis.

“My confidence in human beings was completely shattered,” Ms Barnett recalled. But today she was proud of her identity as “a British Jew, with German roots”. The human race was, she suggested, “part-civilised”, with much to learn.

The event was, in part, a celebration of the welcome extended to Jewish children, and to the resilience and contributions of this generation. “I would not be here today were it not for Christians who saved my father at great risk to their own lives and the lives of their families,” said Maurice Ostro, vice-chair of CCJ and the son of a Holocaust survivor. His cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents had all perished.

But his reminder that the Kinder who escaped numbered just 10,000, compared with the 1.5 million Jewish children killed during the Holocaust, was one of several observations that drew attention to the limitations of Britain’s welcome.

Sir Eric Pickles, a former Local Government Secretary, spoke of visiting a Holocaust memorial in Belarus, where many of the parents of the Kinder had been murdered, “a long way from home and an even greater distance from their children”.

These parents had not been offered sanctuary. Travelling in Eastern Europe, he observed that “the very heart of the country even now has been ripped out”. The children who had grown up in Britain had given us “a taste” of the possibilities lost in the Holocaust.

Dr Jennifer Craig-Norton, a History Fellow at the University of Southampton, spoke of her work with Professor Tony Kushner on a new book, The Kindertransport: Contesting memory. An “over-simplified narrative of rescue and salvation” had concealed more uncomfortable truths about this period in history, she suggested. The Kindertransport had not been a programme of the British Government, who had simply announced the scheme and set out its legal perimeters. The children had been expected to re-emigrate.

Contemporary press coverage had been “almost universally compassionate”, but had focused on the youngest arrivals, usually girls, with older boys deemed to be less sympathetic. Many of the children had become multiple refugees, “constantly on the move, in search of home”. Most of their parents had perished.

No safeguarding had been in place, and some children had been subject to neglect and other forms of abuse. The response to the treatment on families on the US/Mexico border had been “heartening”, she suggested, in that “people are now appalled at the idea of family separation”.

The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, recalled the shattered glass and decimated Torah scrolls of Kristallnacht as “an attempt to wipe out a faith”. The Holocaust had not been just an attack on Jews but on Judaism. He quoted from Malachi 2.10: “Have we not all one father? Did one God not create us all?”

The coming darkness

How Church Times reported events, 80 years ago

4 November, 1938: An editorial noted that: “British sentiment is outraged by the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But the British Empire is by no means eager to supply refuge for them.”

11 November, 1938. On the letters page, one H. T. E. C. expressed his frustrated attempts to “rescue two friends of mine, Christian Jews, from Austria”, who had warned that “If you cannot get us out by the 25th it will be too late”. Money had been raised to enable their emigration to South America, but no permits had been secured from the Home Office, which had said that 100,000 applications were being dealt with, and that permits were “never granted in less than a month”.

11 November 1938 An editorial marked “intensified anti-Semitic violence in Germany”: “There are a number of young men and women among the Austrian Jews, but in Germany, where the persecution has now continued for five years, a large proportion of the younger men and women have contrived to escape to Palestine and elsewhere, and the average age of those remaining is over fifty.

“It is therefore the middle-aged and the old whose property has been destroyed and confiscated, who have been herded into concentration camps, or who are wandering from place to place, homeless and helpless. Suffering and death appear to be inevitable for the harassed and persecuted.

“All Christians will wholeheartedly agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s moderately worded protest against an almost unprecedented outburst of sadistic cruelty, and must share the Bishop of Durham’s horror of brutal oppression. But all Christians must also admit the humiliating fact that the outside world is impotent to stay, or even to lessen, insensate racial rage. . .

“We repeat the conviction, made time and again in these columns during the crisis. Evil cannot be destroyed by evil. The sufferings of the German Jews certainly would not be ended by war against Germany, which would merely mean pain piled on pain, and tens of thousands added to the victims of the Angel of Death.”

18 November 1938: A report from an exhibition on “The family: today and tomorrow”, organised by the Church Union, where the Archbishop of Canterbury noted that Germany was the one country in Europe where there was an increase in the birth-rate: “In times like this, when we know the consciences of all Christian people in this country are properly shocked by this new, fierce and brutal attack upon the Jews, it is hard to obey the injunction of mutual understanding; but let us attempt to do so this evening, and not blind our eyes to the other side — the remarkable social results of the present regime.”

18 November 1938: At the Church Assembly, the Archbishop of Canterbury noted, in prayers, “the recent outbreak of a renewed and fierce persecution of the Jews in Germany”. Canon Guy Rogers of Birmingham moved a motion expressing “the feelings of indignation felt by Christian people of this country when they read of the deeds of cruelty and destruction perpetrated on Jewish people in Germany and Austria”.

25 November 1938: An editorial observed: “If there is to be any effective rescue of the German Jews, the initiative and leadership must come from Washington; and if these things are forthcoming for entirely humanitarian reasons, the world will see the beginning of co-operation for freedom and righteousness, the success of which, so far as it is humanly possible to judge, depends on a definite change of mood in the richest and most powerful of the democracies.

“It is the daily gibe of the Nazi press that, while the world sympathizes with the Jews in Germany, it is showing little inclination to take them off Germany’s hands. In their speeches in the House of Commons on Monday, neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary gave any hope of an immediate mass immigration into any part of the British Empire.”

25 November 1938: A letter from C. B. MOSS, St Boniface College: “While we are talking about settling a million Jewish refugees, let us not forget the 30,000 Assyrian refugees, for whose plight we are directly responsible, as we are not responsible for that of the Jews.”

25 November 1938: The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Albert David, spoke at a protest in the city against the treatment of the Jews in Germany: “The Bishop said it was right to feel resentment about what was happening in Germany; vile and brutish things were being done there. If silence were kept, it would be taken as acquiescence in an appalling crime against humanity.”

2 December 1938: An editorial noted “the terrifying extent of the refugee problem”, arguing that: “What is possible and what Great Britain should ensure for her credit’s sake is the immigration of 50,000 persecuted Jews a year to Palestine. There is ample evidence that this is not beyond the absorptive capacity of the country.”

2 December 1938: An advertisement in the back of Church Times: “TWO BROTHERS, young Vienna Jews, beg kind English family to take them in, au-pair, finish studies or apprenticeship. Clever Electrician, 20 years; grammar school boy, 16 years. Both fluent English; References in England.”

Several other adverts were placed by Austrian and German Jews in the coming weeks, including “DISTRESSED VIENNESE JEWESS, 40 (still in Vienna), urgently desires POST.’ Excellent Cook, needlewoman.”

30 December 1938 The news noted that, “at Wellingborough, All Hallows, over £35 being collected for Jewish refugee children.”

30 December 1938: The Bishop of Durham, Dr Hensley Henson, was honoured by a delegation of “North-Eastern Jewry”.

He said: “The horrors on the Continent are leading thoughtful people to study the difficult problem of anti-Semitism.

“I believe that the Jewish people will come through this cruel experience of the last and blackest chapter of their age-long history of horror and bring still more blessings to the world. I believe they will come through it cleansed and strengthened.

“Hitler and his satellites will have to learn the truth of the saying, ‘No man ever did an injury to another without at the same time doing greater injury to himself.’ I believe you and I are destined to see that the moral law will be vindicated in the history of the Jews and Germany as it has been wonderfully vindicated before.”

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