Lessons of hope

April 25, 2017

When I consider the children rescued by the Kindertransport at the start of the Second World War, I am reminded of the word resilience. We often talk of that word these days – how to instil it in our children, how to discover it for ourselves. Yet here were a group of frightened youngsters torn from their homes, families, language and security, and given no extra support. And somehow, they came to embody resilience and inner strength.

The idea for Kindertransport came from a group of British Jewish and Quaker leaders who appealed to then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain five days after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Their request for unaccompanied Jewish children to be offered sanctuary was debated by the British cabinet and within a week a Bill had been presented to Parliament.

Such speed seems remarkable, but the Home Secretary offered a compelling reason for action; German parents had been questioned on whether they thought Kindertransport a good idea, and had almost unanimously responded in a positive way. Parents were desperate to save their children however they could.

The speed of rescue continued. The first party of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on December 2, three weeks after Kristallnacht, and within nine months almost 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to England.

They came mostly from Germany and Austria, with transports from Prague hastily organised after Czechoslovakia was annexed. Later children came from Poland, and Kindertransports carried on until the declaration of war on 1 September 1939.

We know to our horror what happened to those that were left behind. Children died in Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka. The thought of what they underwent is horrifying.

Yet, perhaps we can take comfort in what their peers survived to achieve. Austrian Andre Asriel became a composer and German-born Frank Auerbach grew up to be one of the century’s greatest artists. Rolf Decker, also from Germany, became an American Olympian and international footballer, while Alf Dubs from Czechoslovakia was created Baron Dubs for services to politics. Indeed Lord Dubs is active now in the international refugee movement, most recently sponsoring legislation to bring unaccompanied Syrian and other war-displaced minors to the UK from Calais.

Another child brought by Kindertransport was pianist Lisa Jura whose story became the basis of The Children of Willesden Lane, a best-selling memoir written by her daughter Mona Golabek, which has been used by educationalists to teach children about the Holocaust.

We can only try to imagine how it might feel to send your sons and daughters away; to trust strangers to care for them at a time of such upheaval and survival.

When all solutions to survive were exhausted, all we can do is to tap into our inner strength and to trust and have faith. Perhaps we are all more resilient than we know. Perhaps there is a kernel of strength inside all of us which can sustain anyone through the loneliest, most challenging time. And from this springs the hope for all our futures.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation