The Kindertransport: history and memory

The Kindertransport, a British scheme to bring unaccompanied mostly Jewish refugee children threatened by Nazism to Great Britain, occupies a unique place in modern British history. In the months leading up to the Second World War, it brought over 10,000 children under the age of seventeen into the United Kingdom without their parents, to be fostered by British families and re-emigrated when they turned eighteen. Mostly forgotten in the post-war period, the Kindertransport was rediscovered in the late 1980s when a fiftieth anniversary reunion was organized. Celebrated as an unprecedented act of benevolent rescue by a generous British Parliament and people, the Kindertransport has been subjected to little academic scrutiny. The salvation construct assumes that the Kinder, who were mostly silent for fifty years, experienced little hardship and that their survival more than compensated for any trauma they suffered. This study challenges the prevailing triumphant narrative and its underlying assumptions by examining the government policies that allowed the children to come to England and the effects of these policies on the children’s lives. The British government’s decision to bring only children and not their parents left a majority of them orphans after their families were murdered in the Holocaust. Exacerbating the trauma of separation was the government decree that the program be entirely privately organized and funded and that the children’s welfare be overseen by non-governmental agencies, which were ill-equipped for such a task. Relying upon Kinder testimony, the official documentation of the rescuers and parliamentary debate proceedings, this study analyzes and contests the redemptory narrative and examines how it has been shaped and reinforced by the government, the rescuers and the Kinder themselves in the seventy years since the program’s inception.

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