After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the British government agreed to receive Jewish children evacuated from Germany and countries occupied by the Nazis. In nine months, nearly ten thousand children arrived in Britain.
In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. His government passed a series of anti-semitic laws in an attempt to destroy Jewish social, political, cultural and economic life in Germany. Between 1933 and 1939, two thirds of Jews in employment lost their jobs. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws reduced Jews to second-class citizens. Marriage between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden. Those in mixed marriages and children with mixed parentage faced the same discrimination. For some couples, divorce was the only way to survive the anti-semitic restrictions. For other families emigration seemed to offer an escape, but most countries restricted the number of immigrants they would accept.
In March 1938, Austria was annexed to the German Reich in the Anschluss. German anti-semitic laws now applied to the 185 thousand Jews living there.
Kristallnacht - ‘Crystal Night’
The night of 9/10 November 1938 was a decisive turning point for many German and Austrian Jews. Jewish people, their homes and businesses were attacked in state-sponsored violence. This night became known as Kristallnacht, after the shards of broken glass that littered the streets the next day. Jewish emigration increased significantly as a result.
Kindertransports - ‘Children’s Transports’
Shortly after Kristallnacht leading members of the British Jewish community appealed to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to allow Jewish children into Britain. On 21 November 1938, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, met with a large delegation from different organisations working together as the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany.
‘In nine months, nearly ten thousand children arrived in Britain’
It was agreed that Britain would admit children up to the age of seventeen but no limit on the number of children was officially announced. The Home Office relaxed normal entry requirements, but it was made clear that the children’s stay in Britain would be temporary. Each child had to have a Â£50 guarantee, (around Â£1,000 in today’s money) to pay for their re-emigration.
The first group of children arrived in December 1938. Evacuated from Germany and occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, most travelled by train through the Netherlands and then by ferry to Harwich or Southampton. A small number of children flew directly to Britain from Czechoslovakia.
The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 stopped the evacuation. In nine months, nearly ten thousand children had arrived in Britain.
Life in Britain
Life in Britain for the evacuated children varied a great deal. It was harder to find foster families for older children. Some children lived with poor families and others with rich benefactors. Although many Kindertransport refugees developed close relationships with their foster families, some children were mistreated, and others had to move a number of times.
The outbreak of the Second World War created further disruption in the children’s lives and many had to face evacuation again.
In 1940, the British government decided to intern ‘enemy aliens’ between the ages of 16 and 70. Around one thousand Kindertransport evacuees, mainly the older boys, were interned and another four hundred sent to Australia and Canada. Fortunately the young people were among the first of the internees to be released. Once they were old enough, many joined the Alien Pioneer Corps and later went on to enlist in other branches of the armed forces.
Some families managed to stay in touch through the Red Cross. But by the latter part of the war most communication had stopped. With the end of the Second World War many children learned, or had to assume, that their parents were dead.
A few of the children’s families did survive the Nazis. However family relationships could not always recover from the years spent apart. Thousands of the children settled in Britain after the war.