During the nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, 10,000 Jewish children were transported to Britain from mainland Europe. These were known as the Kindertransports, or children transports.
A delegation of British Jewish leaders first approached British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 15 November 1938. A week later, a delegation of Jewish and non-Jewish groups appealed to Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare. The delegation was united under a non-denominational organisation called the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany.
The British government agreed to accept a limited number of unaccompanied refugee Jewish children under the age of 17. Travel documents would be issued for groups, rather than individuals, to speed the process. A £50 bond was required for each child (just over £2,000 in 2006) to finance their eventual return home.
The movement, later the Refugee Children’s Movement (R.C.M), acted quickly. It sent representatives to Germany and Austria to establish selection and transport procedures, and priority was given to those children most in danger. In Britain, a radio appeal for foster homes broadcast on the B.B.C. Home Service generated some 500 initial offers. R.C.M. volunteers began visiting these potential foster homes to report on conditions.
The first Kindertransport from Berlin departed on 1 December 1938; the first from Vienna left on 10 December. After three months, the emphasis shifted from Germany to Austria. Transports from Prague were hastily arranged after the German army entered Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Transports of Polish Jewish children were arranged in February and August 1939.
Transport trains crossed into the Netherlands and Belgium then continued to Britain by ship. The first Kindertransport ship arrived at Harwich in England on 2 December 1938. They continued to arrive twice a week until June and July 1939, when they landed daily.
The outbreak of war forced Kindertransports to end. The last train left Germany on 1 September. The last transport ship left the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, the day that the Dutch army surrendered to Germany.
On arrival in England, children with prearranged sponsors were sent to London. The many who remained unsponsored waited in Dovercourt and other transient camps. Children were eventually dispersed throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many Jewish and non-Jewish families accepted them despite the strain of wartime bombing and shortages.
Children over the age of 14 who were not sponsored, sent to boarding schools or taken into foster care, were often absorbed into Britain’s labour force. They mainly went into agriculture or domestic service after a few weeks of training.
In 1940, some 1,000 children over the age of 16 were interred as ‘enemy aliens’. Around 400 were transported overseas to Canada and Australia. However, public protest against these internments saw the return of many deportees.
Boys in particular were subsequently able to do war work or enter the Alien Pioneer Corp. About 1,000 German and Austrian teenagers served in the British armed forces, including combat units, with several dozen joining elite formations such as the Special Forces.
Some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children escaped to Britain from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Most survived the war. A few were reunited with family members who had spent the war in hiding or survived the Nazi camps.
Many children lost their homes and families forever. In the six years following the last Kindertransport, the Nazis and their collaborators killed nearly six million European Jews, including nearly 1.5 million children.
On 16 September 2003, former Kindertransport survivors who had arrived at London’s Liverpool Street Station in 1938 and 1939 returned to the station. There they unveiled a commemorative statue to remember their first arrival. On 14 June 1999, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, unveiled a plaque in the Palace of Westminster. It reads:
‘In deep gratitude to the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom for saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish and other children who fled to this country from Nazi persecution on the Kindertransport 1938–1939’