“KINDERTRANSPORTS” FROM VIENNA TO GREAT BRITAIN 1938/1939

Agi with her twins, Susi and Josi

Agi Katz, the younger sister of my grandmother had found refuge in England as a maid in the household of her sister Käthe’s mistress, but she could not bring her two-year-old girl twins, Susi and Josi with her. Käthe had helped to organise from across the channel to have the girls transported via a “kindertransport” to England to Quaker foster families. Unfortunately the twins had to be separated not only from their mother, but also from each other, which caused serious and long-lasting emotional damage. They were reunited with their parents after the war. The family then decided to become British citizens and remain in the UK. In 1948 the Evening Standard printed a picture of the twins then aged 12, “Flowers at Victoria Station. 12-year-old twins Susan and Josephine Katz of Isleworth (Middlesex). They were waiting for their grandparents, septuagenarians Herr and Frau Ignaz Sobotka to arrive from Vienna for a holiday here.” (see below)

The twins, Susi and Josi, still in Vienna

With the permission of the British, Dutch and Swedish governments aid organisations in “Greater Germany” (Germany and the occupied territories) organised kindertransports in 1938 and 1939 on special trains to send endangered children west to safety. The children on board these trains left their parents and other family members at the railway stations of Prague, Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, Leipzig, the free city of Danzig and the Polish city of Zbonszyn. Descriptions and eye witness reports abound of chaos, tears and the pain of the parents. The kindertransports from Austria took the train route through Germany via Cologne, over the border to the Netherlands, up to the Hook of Holland, across the North Sea by boat to dock at Harwich. Some of them were sent to London from there, others were transported to Dovercourt Bay, a holiday camp taken over to accommodate arriving youngsters. Newspaper reports describing the violence of the November pogroms prompted public sympathy and government action in the UK. The Times reported on 14 November 1938, “The position of Austria’s Jews is becoming daily more precarious… Although the more violent demonstrations have ceased the Nazis have prohibited non-Jewish stores, restaurants and cafés from selling to Jews. As no Jewish shops have been allowed to reopen the effect has been to reduce many Jews to a position dangerously near starvation.” The plight of children struck an especially resonant chord. Stories circulated in the UK about attacks against Jewish orphanages and children roaming the countryside on the verge of starvation.

So the Anglo-Jewish community marshalled its resources to mount an effort to rescue children. Helen Bentwich, member of the education committee of the London County Council and Dennis Cohn, chair of the emigration department of the Jewish Refugees Committee presented a plan to the Council for German Jewry. Their aim was to recue as many children as possible. They envisioned an initial group of 5,000 children brought to England, 200-500 at a time, and housed in holiday camps that stood empty at that season. They did not stop to consider details, e.g. whether these camps were winterised. In fact, the winter 1938/39 was one of the coldest and harshest in England in the whole century and the children suffered in the draughty summer huts that were not equipped with heating facilities. The Council adopted the Bentwich-Cohn plan and appointed a delegation to take the matter to the Prime Minister. The November pogrom was a great embarrassment for Chamberlain, who had assured the House of Commons that the surrender of the Sudetenland to Germany and the “Munich Agreement” had paved the way for a peaceful relationship with Hitler’s Germany. The Bentwich-Cohn proposed the admission of children and young people under the age of seventeen who would leave Britain again after education or training had been completed. Jewish organisations guaranteed that no public funds would be required. In short, a politically advantageous plan from every point of view. Pressure continued to build when the British press reported that most of the refugees were not eligible for visas since they were stateless due to the loss of their Austrian, Czech and German citizenships. The various Jewish training camps in which the young were taught farming and other trades in preparation for a new life abroad were devastated or closed since the November pogroms. The plan was accepted and the authorities stated that homes could be found in this country for a large number of children without any harm to the population. If the action came at a price for Britain, it was far dearer for the parents involved. They had to choose between sending their children to a foreign country or continuing to live under the terrible conditions in Nazi Germany.

Susi and Josi in England

With the policy in place and a transit route established, Jewish communities under Nazi rule and the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany started to fill the trains. Around 60,000 children in Austria and Germany sought safety and refuge in Britain and the problem was how to choose from these the limited number that could make the journey and unfortunately favouritism could not be excluded. The welfare department of the “Kultusgemeinde” in Austria had already drawn up a register of children looking to emigrate after the “Anschluß” to Germany in March 1938. Within a few weeks they had recorded 10,000 names. They now composed lists and sent them to the movement offices in London, where the names were sent on to the records department, which issued the home office permit: a simple card with particulars and a photograph replaced a passport. Stamped by the passport control office, these papers were flown to Vienna, where the Kultusgemeinde submitted them to Third Reich officials for permission to emigrate. Stamped again, the cards were given to the leaders of the transports to show upon arrival in England. Children who had not found guarantors in Britain through personal channels were so-called “unguaranteed cases”, as no one had guaranteed to maintain them until the age of eighteen or to send them to school. Touched by newspaper reports and movement appeals, guarantors sprang up across Britain. Offers of hospitality poured in from all areas and classes. The warm response by individuals all over the country shaped the guarantee system. Anyone, British citizen or foreigner, who deposited the required cash sum of fifty pounds could sponsor a particular child.

On 11 December 1938 the New York Times reported in its headline, “630 Children Quit Vienna: One Jewish Mother Dies on Seeing Child Depart for Holland.” The train departed from Hütteldorf station and carried 530 children destined for England and 100 for the Netherlands. The article continued, “Mothers and relatives were not permitted to enter the station. They held what may have been their last meeting with the children in near-by hotels…. The emotional stress of parting was too much for some of them. One mother died of a heart attack after kissing her 5-year-old child good-bye. The child was not told. Seven mothers fainted as the children marched to the train.” The decision to send the children abroad was an act of courage and also an act of great faith as the parents believed they would be reunited in a matter of months. But only a few were so fortunate as Agi and Norbert and their twins. The guarantors met their charges in Liverpool Street station, if the transport came via Harwich, or Charing Cross station, if via Folkestone. Siblings were often separated. Perhaps war rationing and transport difficulties influenced the decision to also keep them apart later on. Possibly the notion that the children would adjust more easily unencumbered by family ties played a role or nobody had ever thought about the problems arising. For the first few months, while refugee aid workers focused on “unguaranteed urgent cases”, children went directly to the summer holiday camps the Bentwich-Cohn plan had identified. Conveniently located near Harwich, Dovercourt Bay opened first and housed the greatest number of youngsters. Anna Essinger, founder and director of Bunce Court School, was asked to run the camp with some of her staff and older students. She wrote some years later, “Thousands of children were saved, but these were necessarily hurried arrangements, and perhaps it was only natural that serious mistakes could not be avoided.” The system was nick-named the “cattle market” because people who wanted to take children in their homes were sent along the camp and a number of children were called into the office to be shown to those people to choose one.

The twins of Agi, Susi and Josi, were taken in by Quakers and cared for until they were handed over to their parents after the war. The Quaker’s “Society of Friends’ German Emergency Committee” (GEC) was founded in 1933 by the “Executive Committee of the Society of Friends in Great Britain” after news about violence against Jews in Germany reached the UK. On 1 April 1933 the British representative of the “Quaker International Centre” in Berlin was arrested by the Gestapo. Yet despite some efforts the number of refugees rescued by the German Emergency Committee was rather small. Although the Quakers’ principle stated that they would assist any person in need, the work of the committee concentrated its rescue effort on so-called “non-Aryans”, i.e. baptised Jews, agnostic Jews and political refugees. Yet Agi’s husband, Norbert, was a believing Jew. That’s one reason why Käthe had to take the initiative from England to rescue the family. The British Quakers had affiliates in the countries of origin of the refugees, similar to British Jewish rescue organisations, but also these were under pressure from the Nazis. Originally the Quakers supported the families of the politically persecuted. Until 1939 the Quakers ran “holiday homes” for the persecuted in Germany. Furthermore members of the “Society of Friends” gained access to Nazi concentration camps, e.g. in 1935, after which they protested internationally against the working and living conditions there. The wave of refugees in 1938 also led to an increase in support by the Quakers to help Jews leave Germany and the occupied territories.

In Austria the first aid organisations of the Quakers were founded in 1919 and especially after the civil war in 1934 Quakers supported the families of the arrested and incarcerated socialists. The Vienna Centre, founded by British and American Friends, started to help people who were persecuted by the Nazis to flee Austria immediately after the takeover of the Nazis in March 1938. By July the Vienna Centre had the names of over 1,000 people who wanted to escape registered on its lists, and more names were added daily, especially those of Jews, all hoping for an affidavit allowing them to leave. Although also the Quakers were under observation of the Nazis like all rescue organisation, their books were not checked by the Nazis. So they could run an agricultural trainings camp in Kagran with 140 adults and 32 children – to prepare them for agricultural work in the UK – who received the permission to travel to Great Britain in September 1938. The number of people who were helped by the Quakers to leave Austria is unclear; it is estimated between 2,500 and 4,500. But the Quakers were also involved in the kindertransports and it is known that overall approximately 1,000 children, among them Susi and Josi, were rescued by them. The Quakers issued a brochure in London in 1938 and 1939 with the title “How you can help the refugees”, where they listed their activities as follows: “1. Advice about non-Aryan Christians and others, 2. Training in agriculture and trades, 3. Arrangement of personal guarantees, 4. Emigration. Until the outbreak of World War II 2,844 Jewish children were evacuated via these kindertransports from Austria.

All in all, around 10,000 children were rescued, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland; non were accompanied by their parents, a few were babies carried by other children. The British government had permitted an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the UK on temporary travel documents as they were supposed to re-join their parents after the crisis. A 50-pound bond had to be posted for each child to assure the ultimate resettlement. The children travelled in sealed trains. One very last transport left on the freighter Bodegraven from Ymuiden on 14 May 1940, the day Rotterdam was bombed and one day before the Netherlands surrendered to Nazi Germany. The eighty children on deck had been destined for Holland.

Kindertransport was the informal name for this rescue operation, where Jews, Quakers and Christians of many denominations worked together. Many organisations and individuals assisted in settling the children in the UK, such as youth organisations, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and many Jewish and non-Jewish organisations. Private gifts of money, bedding and clothing were received as well as offers for foster homes and houses for group homes. The children were dispersed over the whole island. About half lived with foster families, the others in hostels, group homes and on farms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those who were older than fourteen were mostly absorbed in the UK’s labour force after a few weeks of training, mainly in agriculture and domestic service, unless they were sponsored by individuals and sent to boarding schools or taken in foster care. A number of children joined the British or Australian armed forces as soon as they turned eighteen. They were given new names to protect them in case of imprisonment and they then joined the fight against the Nazis. During the “Fifth Column Scare” in 1940, when the British feared infiltration by Nazi supporters, more than 1,000 children of the kindertransports, who were over the age of sixteen, both boys and girls, were interned on the Isle of Man and other sites. Sent on the same ships as Nazi prisoners-of-war, some boys were transported to Canada, some to Australia. After German U-boats sank one ship carrying 1,200 internees, the Arandora Star, with the loss of 600 lives, public pressure built against indiscriminate internment. Then a large number of the deported returned and also joined the army, which had decided to accept “enemy aliens”.

Most of the children were not so lucky as Susi and Josi; they never saw their parents again. Many of the children were well-treated and developed close bonds with their foster families; others however were mistreated and abused, as eyewitness reports document. One kindertransportee remembered for example, “I was basically a maid, hovering and polishing and washing up, and I was a young pair of legs for going shopping. Then of course we come to the time when I left school at fourteen. On the next Monday I was introduced to my first factory job, where I promptly ran a needle of the sewing machine through my thumb. I don’t think I lasted very long in that factory. But then there was always another one. And so it went on until I was eighteen, when I decided to leave my foster parents. I took lodgings with one of my workmates. Until I left my foster parents I was sort of continuously homesick, and it’s a horrible feeling.” But another of the kindertransportees told in an interview, “In Cambridge I moved to a very nice family. They had a son about the same age as I was, a beautiful house and a big dog, and I started school. I think the family would ideally have adopted me because they had a boy and I was a girl, but then the mother had to go into hospital to have an operation and so I went to another family in Cambridge. After that I was in a hostel and another family.” For most of the children England became their new home and a large number of them remained in the UK, mostly all those who were orphaned during the war.

When accepting to care for refugee children from the kindertransports the foster families themselves usually had expectations, hopes and wishes of their own at the arrival of the foster children. Some wanted to compensate for having no children of their own or wanted a sibling for their son or daughter, some wanted help in the household or the shop and some even had missionary intentions. The majority of foster families had no training and had no idea of the problems they might be facing because their good intentions were often put to the test. A great part of the kids that arrived at foster families were not small nice thankful beings, but scared and terrorised children that did not understand English, did not know anything about the English way of life, missed their parents and siblings and felt lost, helpless and deserted. That led to regressive processes in the development of the child, which meant that the children were either depressed and conformed without resistance or they were angry, defiant and unable to cope. Those that organised the kindertransports concentrated on the physical rescue of the children and their material subsistence and integration in the British society. There was no time and also no understanding for the emotional needs of the kindertransportees. But Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, already started in 1940 to deal with the issues of separation and loss when dealing with babies and small children in the “Hampstead Nurseries”. Today we know that the separation from a close person of reference leads to regression in small children and strange behaviour. If the foster parent then cannot cope with the situation the child feels rejected. Small children who cannot express themselves verbally react in the form of eating and sleeping disorders and behavioural disorders. Anna Freud was now and then asked to assist in such situations in care homes, but never when the children were already housed in foster homes.

 

Susi and Josi with their grandfather, Ignaz Sobotka, after the Second World War in England

Even the English press reported about the arrival of Ignaz and Rudolphine Sobotka, survivors of the concentration camp “Theresienstadt”, in England to meet their granddaughters, Susi and Josi

Older children experienced identity clashes. Most children were of Jewish background but at that time the special Jewish identity of the children was of no significance and not taken into account. Rebekka Göpfert wrote later about her experiences, “I am not religious, I don’t have any religious beliefs. I’m an agnostic, and I never felt any religious need to be Jewish, but I’m a hundred per cent sure of my Jewish identity. And the fact that my parents died because they were Jewish, made me very strongly want to remain Jewish.”

After the war only few children were so lucky as Susi and Josi to be reunited with their parents. Those who were, faced another trauma: neither parents nor children were the same as before the separation; they were estranged. Some children, especially the ones like Susi and Josi who were toddlers when they arrived, did not speak or understand German anymore and they had adapted to the new culture. Consequently conflicts of loyalty between foster parents and natural parents arose. Some parents could not cope with the new situation and were overwhelmed by guilt. Most of the children remained in England and made a living there. Mordechai Ron wrote in his memoir, “England was the accidental place of my rescue. I developed a love for this country and its inhabitants and their lifestyle, not just because – as I realised – this country was the cradle of democracy. I experienced friendliness, kindness, understanding and empathy and until today I admire the attitude of these people during the time of the Blitz.” All in all it can be said that only few children were happy in their foster families and the years until the end of the war were characterised by many ruptures, losses and difficulties, but nearly all children developed a close and loving relationship to Great Britain. This can be seen from the fact that many of the young Jewish men who came of age during the war joined the British army to fight the Nazis. Consequently after the war men who had fought had achieved a higher status in society than women who had worked as maids or nurses and by that felt much more content and accepted in the British environment.

Already during the Second World War some child psychiatrists dealt with the question of the effects of the war on children. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham studied and treated children in their “Child Nurseries” and examined the consequences of war trauma for the child’s development and health. In 1967 the so-called “Survival Syndrome” was described that is characterised by first, severe depression, helplessness and apathy, second, a pathological guilt complex, third, psychosomatic illnesses, fourth, a state of panic, sleeplessness, nightmares and extreme tension, fifth, especially in very young children, an interruption of the child’s development and finally psychotic and paranoid disorders. In 1980 these symptoms were diagnosed as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. The children were confronted with a wall of silence with respect to the Holocaust, especially in Austria until the 1980s and this persistent silence or even denial caused further emotional injuries and led in many cases to constant re-traumatising processes. This could lead to distrust towards the outside world and the loss of any trust by those confronted with this silence who in turn kept silent, too. From today’s point of view one can say that the twins, Susi and Josi, who were nine years old when the war ended, both suffered from severe depression and psychological disorders in their adult lives, although as teenagers they seemed to be carefree, happy and cheerful young girls – at least outwardly. Susi committed suicide in her seventies after having cared for her aging mother, Agi, and her sister, Josi, who lived in a care home.

Literature:

Bollauf, Traude, Dienstmädchen – Emigration. Die Flucht jüdischer Frauen aus Österreich und Deutschland nach England 1938/39, 2011

Dwork, Deborah & van Pelt, Robert Jan, Flight from the Reich. Refugee Jews 1933-1946, 2009

Salewsky, Anja, “Der olle Hitler soll sterben!” Erinnerungen an den jüdischen Kindertransport nach England, 2001

Wexber-Kubesch, Anna, Vergiss nie, dass du ein jüdisches Kind bist. Der Kindertransport nach England 1938/39, 2013