IDENTITÄTLOSIGKEIT: The Kindertransport Experience in World War II Britain

identitätlosigkeit: a state of being without identity

Sam Panzer, Fall 2015

 

During the fall of the Third Reich in the Spring of 1945, tens of thousands of Jewish, Romani, and political prisoners were liberated from concentration camps, but their suffering had not yet ended. Half of the prisoners found at Auschwitz died of disease and starvation within a few days of liberation, and the thousands who survived would face traumatic questions of memory and identity for the rest of their lives. A return to normalcy was largely out of the question, and reunion of prewar families were rarely realized, as two out of every three European Jews were killed by 1945. Yet some reunions did take place, between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, and brothers and sisters.01)“Jewish Population of Europe in 1945,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed November 18, 2015, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005687; “Liberation,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed November 19, 2015, http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007724.

The opportunity for eventual reunion and reclamation of a previous life may have seemed promising between concentration camp parents and the 7,500 German and Austrian Jewish children who escaped to the United Kingdom between Kristallnacht in November 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 as part of the Kindertransport program. Tragically, only a few hundred of the 7,500 Jewish Kindertransport children, many of whom bade farewell to their parents as young children, had parents left with whom to reunite. And when reunion came, either in posh English foster homes or devastated Central European hometowns, these children did not cling to the coattails of their parents in joy and love. Rather, they looked at these bedraggled survivors as strangers, human refuge of a horrific past, foreigners with baffling customs and odd accents. Describing their parents as “strange and irrelevant,” the Kindertransport children could not connect with their “harassed, tormented and nervous parents, the mere sight of whom conjured up disagreeable associations of hostile and dangerous surroundings.”02)Quoted in Marion Berghahn, German-Jewish Refugees in England: The Ambiguities of Assimilation (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984) pp. 135– 6. Kinder Inge Engelhard (who would eventually form a loving relationship with her parents) noted “they were foreigners! They didn’t speak English, my father wore a long coat and used a purse, and my mother counted the change she was given in a store.”03)Quoted in Leverton and Lowensohn, I Came Alone , p. 286; Vera Fast, Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport, 2011, Kindle locations 45554556 of 5047. Clearly, a major gap had formed between the identities of these children and their liberated parents.

This profound moment raises a number of questions about national, cultural, ethnic, and religious identity. Who w ere these children, who were ostracized in British schools, distant from the British Jewish community, and saw nothing of themselves in the weary eyes of their own parents? Why were these thousands of children taken in by British churches and families while so many of their parents were left behind to endure the horrors of Hitler’s genocidal vision? These are the central questions of this paper, which analyzes oral histories, memoirs, and secondary historical literature to trace the Kindertransport minority experience in the United Kingdom through the war years. Ultimately, the Kindertransport largely occupied an “inbetween” status that was neither British nor German/Austrian/Czech. The evidence surveyed here reflects that the Kinder were unassimilable refugees without a national, linguistic, religious, cultural, or ethnic community to which to belong or return. This essay begins by briefly discussing nationalism theory before contextualizing and describing the Kindertransport program, and concludes by framing the Kindertransport experience as a function of minority identity.

While 2,500 of the 10,000 Kindertransport children were not Jewish, this paper only assesses the experience of Jewish children refugees in Britain through and immediately after the war years, in order to introduce the most meaningful and concise analysis possible in a paper of this length. This paper will also stand by these numerical estimates most commonly used in literature on the Kindertransport, though some scholars argue the number of Kindertransport children was closer to 13,000.04)Confusion around the number of “Kindertransport” children arises from the diverse record systems of sponsoring organizations. For an overview of this statistical contention, review Vera Fast, “Epilogue” in Children’s Exodus : a History of the Kindertransport, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

The Kindertransport story is one profoundly shaped by national identity, and thus deserves a theoretical contextualization regarding the definition of a nation. In the context of mid twentieth century Western Europe, one practical framework of nationalism is one in which a shared language, ideology, faith, and history contribute to a national identity most often married to a state. In this framework of commonality, hegemony and exclusion often follow, thus placing minority groups who outwardly (or privately) express an identity incompatible with the national norm in a challenging situation. Do they converge with the hegemonic ideology executed by the state in which they live, or do they resist out of respect for their own identity? In this paper’s consideration of the Kindertransport refugees, many of the major differentiators of national identity are present, with one noteworthy addition: age. This element complexifies the concepts of nationality, particularly with these children’s unique uprooting from their parental units. This theoretical discussion will assess the value of three factors that often shape national identity: major influences on the formation of a national “culture” and its reliance on education; the dynamics of age; and the centrality of “shared experience.” This theoretical discussion will remain loosely contextualized in the Kindertransport experience in order to introduce frameworks that will then be woven into the novel analysis in the next section.

In Joseph Stalin’s forcefully concise definition of the nation, common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup result in a “common culture” that must exist for a true “nation” to exist. While this particular list had tragic repercussions in the Soviet application, this list transfers well to assessing the barriers blocking the Kinder from “belonging” within the British nation, and therefore existing as a minority group. In the Kindertransport context, “common economic life” is a particularly useful factor to consider when assessing why these children captured enough public sympathy for refuge, while their parents remained behind.05)John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1994), 20.

Marxist intellectuals have written compelling arguments about how economic development plays into national identity. Two prominent figures in this consideration are Ernest Gellner and Tom Nairn, who articulate nationalism as a construction of a fringe nation’s elite, who seek to drive industrialization for their own gain. Describing the influence of culture on ideology and its impact on nationalism, Nairn writes:

the universal folklore of nationalism is not entirely wrong. If it were, it would be unable to function as myth. On the other hand, it would be equally unable to function in this way if it were true— that is, in the sense that concerns us in this place. It is ideology… [It is] Only in the context of ‘development’ in this new sense, that nationhood acquired this systemic and abstract meaning.06)Nationalism, 71.

This powerful and valid concept is useful in studying European history, particularly in the relation of England (an industrialized core country) to other nation states.

This concept of top-down national awakening is again interesting in the concept of the Kindertransport children. Whether placed in a truly marxian framework, assessing national identity as an interplay between elite and mass groups can be useful. Political scientist Walker Connor, for instance, argues:

national consciousness is a mass, not an elite phenomenon, and the masses’ view of group-self has often been indiscernible. Scholars have therefore been over-reliant upon the musings of the elites whose generalizations concerning the existence of national consciousness are highly suspect.07)Nationalism, 157.

While England is not a fringe industrial nation, their brand of wartime nationalism was maintained by policymakers and wartime strategists, who constitute a political and economic elite. Thus, the Jewish German children of the Kindertransport would have been outsiders from the cultural, religious, historical, and developmental definition of English national identity, rendering them acutely distant from being “English.” The benevolent nature of the Kindertransport and the mixed experiences of the program’s children raise fascinating questions regarding how children, as a temporarily disenfranchised class in economic and political discourse, fit into definitions of nationalism.

The age identity of participants in the nation state is an underexamined issue, rendering this project’s focus on refugee youths particularly revelatory. Among scholars concerned with nation-building, education is a core focus, as it instills knowledge of the state, an awareness of civic responsibilities, and cultural literacy. Nationalisms crafted by an elite and passed down to the masses are disseminated largely through educational systems, in which the commonalities that bind a nation are passed on to younger generations and often celebrated. Thus, education becomes a vital part of the transfer of national identity from elites to the masses, and children occupy a unique transitional niche of this transfer process. Indeed, Ernest Gellner argues a major source of the very meaning of the nation is its ideal size to manage an educational system. This ability demands a cultural medium to function, thereby reinforcing the importance of a culture-to-state hypothesis when tracing national identity. However, education is often a mandatory experience, and goes along with restrictions, such as the inabilities to operate certain machinery, consume certain substances, and participate in civic life. Much of this may seem obvious and inescapable due to the physical realities of childhood, and is paired with repreival from some burdens of national membership, such as military service and taxation. Yet when considering the definition of the nation and nationalism, systematic barriers to membership based on identity are significant. By most theoretical definitions, children are not citizens, but are undergoing a significantly lengthy, normalized, and mandatory process of joining the nation in full. In the case of the Kinder , this unquestioned transitionary period subverted apprehensions of allowing refugees with a more developed national identity (namely, adults educated in German and Austrian schools) into Britain.08)Nationalism, 56-58.

This child development process can either construct or prevent connections between a culturally-unified nation state and its minority occupants, depending on whether children are permitted or excluded in public life (mainly public education systems) based on their identity. Exclusion became the case in Germany in the 1930s when Jewish children were expelled from all public schools, thereby cutting these children off of from any path towards assimilation or membership in German society.

While children form a significant demographic group in almost any country, they are a mass without much agency in society. Yet most states see children as a demographic deserving of both special state protection and services to ensure they become constructive participants in the state. Age dynamics intersect with the cultural, economic, and elite foundations of national identity in a complicated fashion, making their status particularly revelatory of the nations in which they reside.

Younger residents of a state have both directly experienced less and have less educational memory of shared historical experiences of a national body. One of the most useful definitions of a nation comes from philosopher Ernest Renan, who argues a nation is a community with shared experience, in which linguistic and racial lines can be overcome through common narratives of triumph and sorrow. This experiential definition is useful in the context of groups who come into contact through the brutality of war, as is the case of the children of the Kindertransport . Renan’s definition of shared experience in a longer view beyond one’s own life experience helps illuminate why many Jewish children remained in England after the war, maintained a high affinity for English, yet rarely thought of themselves as English. Renan’s experience-based definition of the “nation” is also curious to consider in regards to the reunions between parents and Kinder discussed in the introduction of this paper. While the root cause of the experience of these separated families is the same, the trauma and suffering that child and parent endured was different enough that their connection was strained and often severed. Thus, Renan’s definition seems most applicable for groups which perceive commonality in experiences both beyond recent memory and within an individual’s lifespan.

Comparing this framework of identity sources with the experience of both the Kinder and their host society is the central jut of this paper. The operative definition of “nationalism” here is essentially that it is typically an exclusionary ideology that is given meaning through the shared culture and experience of a larger, more proletarian body isolatable along a combination of geographic, cultural, religious or ethnic/racial lines. The Kinder examined in this paper are a group which does not mesh with the most common and concise definitions of national identity, reflecting their unique and troubled outsider status. Considering these definitions of nationalism, it is possible to perceive that the Kinder are even further outside a scope of belonging than many refugees under the common as those fleeing a home country, as even their ties to even their “home countries” was perilous and underdeveloped.

It is also important to maintain sight of the fact that the Kinder were in Britain to receive refuge as a result of their age identity. This fact hints that age is perhaps a factor as important or even more important in determining minority policy than religion, experience, or ethnicity, which were not enough for Britain to open its doors to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who attempted to evacuate Nazi territory in the buildup to war.

With the impacts of common culture, age, and shared experience on national identity in mind, this paper will now assess literature and testimonies of the Kinder to contextualize and analyze their experience. This analysis will begin with a historical overview of the Kindertransport program before incorporating personal accounts to portray the Kindertransport experience as one of both refuge and trauma.

“This madman Hitler can’t possibly last, and this is all just going to pass over and things will be all right again.”09)Harris and Oppenheimer, Into the Arms of Strangers, p. 23. So said Kinder Lorraine Allard’s father in the few months between Kristallnacht and Lorraine’s entry into the Kindertransport program, reflecting a widely held perception of German Jews that the current moment was merely a particularly passionate manifestation of centuries of antisemitism dating back to 17th century cartoons and the writings of Martin Luther. This perception had two main factors that led to many German Jews remaining in their homeland: the German Jewish community’s assimilation into German society10)Vera Fast, Children’s Exodus : a History of the Kindertransport, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011, xii-1. and a firm belief that the people of Germany would turn against “barbaric” antisemitism. As historian John Dippel explains, German Jews subordinated their “Jewishness to their Germanness,” and therefore many felt they had an enduring place (if a subjugated one) in German national life.11)Fast, Children’s Exodus, 2. In addition to these factors decreasing willingness to leave Germany, many prospective host countries for German Jews were closed to mass emigration, including the United States, British Palestine, and Canada.12)David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, New Press, 2007. Before becoming the primary haven for Jewish refugees and the hosts of the Kindertransport , England, “hermetically sealed”13)Walter Laqueur, Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees From Nazi Germany, Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, Published by University Press of New England, 2001. to immigrants, rejected significant Jewish emigration due to their own struggles with antisemitism, overcrowding, and economic strains.14)Laqueur, Generation Exodus, 189.

However, as the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws remained largely uncondemned by the public, and with Kristallnacht’s mob murders of at least 91 Jews and imprisonment of 30,000, destruction of 267 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses in November1938, the threat to German Jews became increasingly apparent.15)“Kristallnacht,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed December 18, 2015, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005201.

In response, a number of lackluster international conferences were convened by western nations and humanitarian organizations to strategize a response to the mounting crisis, always falling far short of strong condemnation. These conferences have been denounced by an array of scholars, including Vera Fast in her informative 2011 work Children’s Exodus: a History of the Kindertransport. Fast quotes ethicist, medical doctor, and Kinder Erich Loewy (1927-2011), who wrote:

Historically, the Evian Conference showed that: (1) the world was hardly unaware of the deplorable conditions in Nazi Germany and the threat hanging over the Jewish population, and (2) beyond pious platitudes, and although it could have done so, the world was not only quite unwilling to interfere but also quite unwilling to help.16)Fast, Children’s Exodus, quoting Erich Loewy, quoted in Christian Pross, Paying for the Past: The Struggle Over Reparations for Surviving Victims of the Nazi Terror, translated by Belinda Cooper (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 191.

These “window dressing”17)Fast, Children’s Exodus, 9. conferences moved the onus of responsibility to non-governmental organizations and the Jewish communities within prospective host nations. However, even Jewish leaders in Britain and the United States18)Ibid., 18. were hesitant to invite a mass refugee movement to their societies, fearing the backlash such a policy would prompt from the middle class. Jewish British Ministers of Parliament even went so far as to take a vow of silence during the debate on how best to respond to the refugee crisis in 1938.19)Ibid., 20. Eventually, through the activism of various groups of both Jewish and Christian (namely Quaker, Anglican, and Catholic) origin, Parliament agreed to a plan proposed by the Inter-Aid Committee for Children from Germany on 23 November 1938.

Jewish refugee organizations exercised incredible foresight in planning the potential evacuation of children. Immediately following Hitler’s troubling ascendancy in 1933, London stockbroker Otto Schiff began working with Berlin Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck to organize the Zentral Ausschuss der deutschen Juden fuer Hilfe und Aufbau (Central Office of German Jews for Help and Culture) in Berlin and the Jewish Refugees Committee (JRC) in London. Schiff was also instrumental in founding the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF) in the same year, which partnered with the most prominent and influential British Jews to fund prospective rescue operations. The JRC and CBF were closely linked, both occupying Woburn House in London.

The Jewish community in Britain itself was familiar with the challenges of transplantation. From their settlement in England in the middle ages and subsequent expulsion in the 13th century, to 17th century emigration from Germany, to post World War I orthodox Russo-Jewish immigrants, Anglo-Jewry had emerged as a largely orthodox, Eastern European-influenced community of mixed economic standing ready to take on the challenges of assisting Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic policy.20)Fast, Children’s Exodus, Kindle edition location 432 of 5047.

Non-Jewish refugee groups also began to take form in response to the potential Jewish refugee crisis as early as 1933. These included the Quakers’ German Emergency Committee, the Save the Children Fund, the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), the Catholic Committee for Refugees from Germany (est. 1938) which had a large subcommittee dedicated to child refugees, and the Riversmead Methodist Committee. The Christian groups came to be coordinated by the Christian Council for Refugees from Germany and Central Europe beginning October 1938.21)Ibid., 14-20.

The Kindertransport had some precedent within earlier British children’s rescue movements. The Save the Children Fund, created to rescue WWI German children refugees, was one of the first organizations to begin evacuating Jewish children.22)Ibid., 14. While the precedence and logistical experience of earlier children refugee advocacy was useful in hastily coordinating the Kindertransport, the presence of other child refugees also amplified economic and social fears of taking in more. The main example of this was the 1937 evacuation of 3,800 Spanish refugees from Bilbao, which cooled Prime Minister Chamberlain’s willingness to respond the German and Austrian Jewish crisis by allowing more child refugees into Britain.23)Ibid., 18.

References   [ + ]

01. “Jewish Population of Europe in 1945,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed November 18, 2015, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005687; “Liberation,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed November 19, 2015, http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007724.
02. Quoted in Marion Berghahn, German-Jewish Refugees in England: The Ambiguities of Assimilation (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984) pp. 135– 6.
03. Quoted in Leverton and Lowensohn, I Came Alone , p. 286; Vera Fast, Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport, 2011, Kindle locations 45554556 of 5047.
04. Confusion around the number of “Kindertransport” children arises from the diverse record systems of sponsoring organizations. For an overview of this statistical contention, review Vera Fast, “Epilogue” in Children’s Exodus : a History of the Kindertransport, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011.
05. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1994), 20.
06. Nationalism, 71.
07. Nationalism, 157.
08. Nationalism, 56-58.
09. Harris and Oppenheimer, Into the Arms of Strangers, p. 23.
10. Vera Fast, Children’s Exodus : a History of the Kindertransport, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011, xii-1.
11. Fast, Children’s Exodus, 2.
12. David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, New Press, 2007.
13. Walter Laqueur, Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees From Nazi Germany, Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, Published by University Press of New England, 2001.
14. Laqueur, Generation Exodus, 189.
15. “Kristallnacht,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed December 18, 2015, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005201.
16. Fast, Children’s Exodus, quoting Erich Loewy, quoted in Christian Pross, Paying for the Past: The Struggle Over Reparations for Surviving Victims of the Nazi Terror, translated by Belinda Cooper (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 191.
17. Fast, Children’s Exodus, 9.
18. Ibid., 18.
19. Ibid., 20.
20. Fast, Children’s Exodus, Kindle edition location 432 of 5047.
21. Ibid., 14-20.
22. Ibid., 14.
23. Ibid., 18.