Friday, October 5, 2007

Youth Aliya and Kinder Transport

I have just returned from Natanya from the annual meeting of former refugee children who came with Kinder Transport to England in 1938-39. For decades the word did not ring a bell.
Hardly anybody who did not come with a Kinder Transport knew what was meant by that word. Even many of the refugee children themselves could only remember their own personal experience, but little else about the wider aspect of it and how it all came about.
The great change came when in 1989 there was a reunion in London organized by Bertha Leverton. In 1990 a pictorial exhibition about Kinder Transport by Paula Hill was put up in Bergen Belsen, which I happened to see it on one of my visits to Germany and it was reported about in a newspaper article.
A number of personal narratives were published, the play by Samuel was preformed, a couple of films produced.
There started to be talk about Kinder Transport.
As a general background, by the turn of the century in Germany and Austria Jews had reached a relative high standard of living. Anti-Semitism was rampant in most of the European countries. In Germany it took on new forms especially after the First World War. Jews were blamed for the loss of the war, for the inflation in 1923 and the great economic crisis in 1929. Unemployment hit the Jews very hard. They were the first to loose their jobs, many small shops had to close down.
By 1932 in Berlin some young unemployed Jews in their great desperation turned to Recha Freier a Rabbis wife for help. She could not help them either, but she did have a vision, she did have a dream, if only these youngsters could go to Palestine, work half day and study half day, surely that would be a solution for them.
She ran up against strong opposition, people could not understand that she suggested for children to leave home. Who would take on responsibility for them and for the children’s education.
There were a few exceptions, like Winfried Israel, Enzo Serini from Hechalutz, and Lehmann from Beth Shemen, who took a dozen of the youngsters on Students Certificates to his school. These people supported her ideas from the beginning. Recha founded Youth Aliya right then and there and by January 1933 it was a registered Verein.
But it was only after Hitler rose to power that Herietta Szold, as a member of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, at long last saw the necessity to allow young people to build a new life for themselves. She was appointed to head the Jerusalem office. In 1934 the first group organized by Youth Aliya came to Ejn Charod with the Madrich Rinot.
By now there were more candidates than that there were certificates available. It became a very selective procedure.
Certificate for Palestine were given to people who had 1000 Lirot, (see the Havara arrangement) or to agricultural workers, or students.
For Youth Aliya one had to specially apply, go for a month on a preparation camp and pass a reception committee. 5- 6 000 children made it to Kibbutzim in Erez Israel before war started.
The situation in Germany for Jews became more and more difficult. The Nuernberg Laws restricted Jews in many ways and excluded them from the economic, cultural and social life. “Juden Raus” was the cry. The only question was where too. Immigration laws in all countries were restrictive and strictly observed everywhere.
To get to America one needed to have an Affidavit, have a special needed profession or a close relative who would give a Guaranty in order to get unto the waiting list to receive a visa.
In other words to emigrate was one thing and to find a country that would allow you in, was another. It was easier if you were single and young and nobody depended on you.
But for a family without financial means, or a family with infants or old people who dependent on them, the chances to get out were more than slim.
1938 brought more distress.
The annexation of Austria to Germany, with Eichmann in charge, who with great cruelty wanted to make sure that Jews should leave a bit quicker, than they had done from Germany. At the conference in Evian most of the countries explained that their gates were closed for Jewish immigrants. This was followed in October 1938 with the expulsion to Yaboshin of the Stateless Jews from Germany. Poland would not let them in and Germany did not allow them to return.
The 10th of November Pogrom when well over a thousand Synagogues were burned, the shops looted, the men taken to KZ, Jewish schools closed, people were desperate to leave, but nowhere to go too. Who ever could, emigrated or escaped by any means be they legal or illegal. People were desperate to get away, but not everybody managed to.
There was little help forthcoming. It was a handful of prominent Anglo Jewry who got together to try at least to save the children. They got in touch with Trudie Wiessmiller who went to confront Eichmann and asked him to let Jewish children go. (see some of the available literature)
The first organized Kinder Transport left from Austria and Germany in the last days of November 1938. As soon as the first Kinder Transport got under way, it was mainly the mothers who pleaded to have their children included in one of the next transports. Their husbands were in a KZ, they had no savings left, no chance what so ever to get out by themselves, but wanted to see their children spared what was ahead of them. They knew that it would only get worse. It certainly was not an easy decision to make.
In Vienna they turned to the Kultus Gemeinde, in Germany to the department for child emigration in Berlin, which was part of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, or to their local Jewish community, who passed it on to the appropriate authorities.
The women from the Frauen Bund were greatly involved in helping the families and shuttling the children to where ever they had to get too. Forms had to be filled out, emigration papers needed to be prepared for each child, guarantors had to be found, or alternative places of accommodation in England. Some Jewish schools managed en block to transfer to England.
As far as possible priority was given to hardship cases. There were many more applicants than that places could be found. Some families managed to find a private sponsor for their child by their own efforts, while other children were taken first to a reception center in Dovercourt, until a sponsor could be found. It was easier to find foster homes for the younger age group. Hostels were hastily put up such as Willesdan Lane in London or others in Glasgow and Birmingham and elsewhere.
Recha Freier got into the picture and made arrangements for the 12 – 15 year olds to go on Middle Hachshara in England as candidates for Youth Aliya, which involved a great lot of negotiations, before it came about. Many youngsters from the different Zionist Youth movements made it that way with a Kinder Transport to big houses, such as Grych Castle in Wales or Whittingehame the Estate of Lord Balfour in Scotland.
The children themselves fared very different one from the other. A small number of parents survived, while most perished in the camps. The majority of the refugee children were soon orphaned. While some of the children had pleasant experiences others did not. A few converted and were lost to the Jewish faith. When the war was over some remained in England, while others came to Israel, America or elsewhere.
Did the children know at the time that the parting was for good?
Did the parents hope to see their children again? Some did some did not. In any case their effort to save the children and their willingness to part from their children was a heroic act on their part.
Considering that 10 000 children found refuge in England, there are 10 000 different answers. All depended on the age of the child, on the individual circumstances, on the background of the family, where and with whom the child was placed in England or to a great extent it simply depended on fate.
Memory can be tricky, what some remember, others do not.
Literature on the subject is very sparse and scattered, but the whole story has so far been little researched academically .
Whose idea was it, how was it set up, who made all the arrangements, who paid the fares, who was influenced by whom. Question upon question are unanswered and the background story is still shrouded in mystery.
For sure a Tribute to Anglo-Jewry for the part they played in story is long overdue.

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