The Kindertransport: What Really Happened
"a model for good history writing . . . a welcome guide to critical thinking along with a compelling story."
Andrea Hammel set herself the task of disentangling myths from facts in the history of Jewish refugee children sent to the United Kingdom after the horrors of Kristallnacht. When Jews, their homes, businesses, and temples were violently attacked in a pogrom carried out by Nazis and their supporters in November 1938, the British public was horrified. There was pressure on the government to do something. This didn't mean a wide welcome for Jews, but a very narrow window for a chosen few. However in popular imagination and later retelling, the Kindertransport has become a symbol of English compassion and generosity. The truth, Hammel discovers, is far more nuanced.
"This book is trying to set the record straight and provide a critical history: the Kindertransport was a visa waiver scheme that helped around 10,000 persecuted children to flee to the UK. Most had to leave parents or other family members behind as these were not given permission to find refuge in the U.K. The U.K. government neither financed nor organized the scheme at the time: it was financed and organized by a large number of volunteers and NGOs."
The government, in other words, did the absolute bare minimum. It allowed entry, but only to children who were considered compatible with English values, ones who could work, ones who were attractive to foster parents. Some of these same children were interned as enemy aliens after war was declared, housed in camps on the Isle of Man.
Hammel relies on interviews with these children, now elderly, as well as their memoirs and writing. But she is just as careful to look at official documents wherever she can find them, from the organizations that helped run the program to government records. She finds an astounding lack of accountability or care in where the children were housed. Given there was no government office in charge of these refugees, it's not surprising that a good or bad placement was a matter of pure luck. Some children did well, even being eventually adopted by their foster parents. Others suffered abuse.
Once England declared war on Germany, the refugees faced bullying from other children as well as adults. They were seen as Germans, enemies, rather than Jews fleeing Nazi brutality. The lack of Jewish community for most of these children was also harmful, though this wasn't a consideration in the minds of any of the volunteers.
There is no sugar-coating in this book, no feel-good moments, though Hammel recognizes that at least these children weren't savagely murdered. She is clear about the psychological brutality of ripping children away from their parents with little consideration of their emotional needs. And she lays out the self-interested motives behind the program:
"While undoubtedly, some individual UK politicians at various times acted out of humanitarian concern for the persecuted population of the German Reich, the overall government policy was guided by a cost-benefit analysis that did not see providing sanctuary for refugees as its most important aim."
Hammel provides many individual stories to flesh out the picture she paints. She describes hardships, but also successes, in particular the Kindertransport children who became the most visible symbols of the program, two Nobel Prize winners and a girl who went on to become a hugely successful entrepreneur.
This book is slender, not even two hundred pages, but covers an enormous amount of ground. Hammel looks at all aspects of the program with a careful eye and achieves the daunting goal she set out for herself. She provides a thorough history of the Kindertransport from its start to the effects it had on the children many years later. Her use of personal memories intertwined with broader information gives a very clear picture of how the program worked. Her research pays off in presenting this history in exceptional detail.
The book not only tells a particular aspect of WWII history, it acts as a model for good history writing in general. Hammel takes nothing for granted but examines all aspects with relentless precision. She gives us a welcome guide to critical thinking along with a compelling story. She never falls for the easy, happy story, satisfied only with facts in all their thorniness.