While the Kindertransport of 1938 – 1939, saved Ten Thousand Jewish Children, it was the catalyst that took them away from their Jewish identities and forced them to adjust to a new country, language and culture. These transported children experienced the same abrupt separation from family, and friends. Everything familiar faded with every passing turn of the transport wheels. The further they traveled from the dangers of Hitler, the more distanced they became from the very culture that made them Hitler’s targets. The transport idea, according to the introduction of the play, “Kindertransport”, by Samuels, was formed by, “the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany “, (pg 1) immediately following the “Kristallnacht”, otherwise known as the night of broken glass, which was a “Nazi pogrom” (pg 1). Kristallnacht had a clear purpose to persecute Jews. I learned of this event from a book, “”Kindertransport”, by Drucker, Olga Levy. She explains that, “There was so much broken glass lying in the streets that it was hard to walk about. That is why that night was later called Kristallnacht, Crystal Night. The Night of Broken Glass.” (Pg 28). The transport was designed to save the children, by bringing them out of Hitler’s Germany and into Great Britain. The unintentional result of the transport was that in Great Britain the children had to learn a new language, customs and religion in order to survive. The transport saved these Jewish children, at the cost of the very things that they were being persecuted for – the things that identified them as Jews, their religious practices and cultural traditions. The children found themselves in an identity crisis.
As Hitler’s regime grew more powerful, he threatened neighboring countries. The transports increased in an effort to save as many children as possible. Most who learned of the atrocities inflicted upon the Jewish people of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were horrified by news of the beatings, and the killings. In a book, “Ten Thousand Children”, I read about how, “Hitler planned to destroy all the Jews in Europe, and that eventually six million Jews – over one and a half million of them children – would die in the period of history that has come to be known as the Holocaust” (pg. 8).
To save their children, parents who heard of the Kindertransport, allowed them to be taken by train to Great Britain, where they would be cared for by British families, or by relatives living in Great Britain. Children were also cared for in hostels or work farms. The Kindertransport was seen as the only way to save the lives of these Jewish children. The parents themselves were hoping to follow by securing visa’s to work in Great Britain. The children could not have known for sure just how long they would be separated from their families or if they would ever be returning to their homelands. The Kindertransport may have physically removed children from direct physical harm, but by being transported away from their families and out of their homelands, the transport brought them into a strange country, to people with unfamiliar customs and foods and who spoke a strange language.
Upon arrival in Great Britain, life changed for the Kinders. British families chose to foster because they heard of the plight of the Jewish children and agreed to take on one or two children to care for them in their homes. It seemed foster families had many reasons to agree to care for these children. Some were couples unable to have their own biological child and saw this chance to have one. Others wanted domestic help and selected an older child who could do farm work, household chores, or be a nanny to their own young children. In this excerpt from the book, “Into The Arms Of Strangers” the author is making it clear that British Jews regarded the German Jews in distain, “There was little sensitivity towards the cultural and religious needs of the children. Jews in Britain who originally hailed from Poland and Russia remembered that their German co-religionists once looked down upon them: they relished the reversal of fortunes. Instead of respecting the emotional trauma and cultural disorientation the children were experiencing, foster families often disparaged and erased the youngsters’ German-Jewish heritage.
A few, mainly the youngest, were given new names, new identities & even a new religion” (Bloomsbury, 2000).
Not only could the children not understand English, the people of Britain, could not understand what the Kinders spoke. Communication between the rescuers and the children was unspoken language of gesture and tone of voice. The children, once surrounded by loving families, familiar surroundings and customs found themselves in a cold, wet land, cared for by strangers who did not speak the same language. What we take for granted in our daily lives, food we eat, words we use to communicate with, where we sleep, our daily routines were now all different for these children. They must have been so confused, scared, and bewildered. They could not even ask questions about their strange surroundings as no one could speak their language.
The book, “The Children of Willesden Lane”, illustrates this, as the authors write, “It reminded her of the tale that the old storyteller who used to visit in on Shabbes had told about the Tower of Babel – about the arrogance of mankind wanting to build a tower so tall that it would reach all the way to heaven – and how God had punished man by making him speak in different languages so people wouldn’t understand each other. Yes, someone was punishing them, she thought. She just wished she could understand why” (Pg 45, 46). I have no difficulty seeing the image of children being surrounded by adults talking like those from the Tower of Babel. The need to know what they were saying must have been so powerful. Equally so, was the need to be understood.
How did the children express to the adults the need to go to the bathroom, or to make them understand when they were hungry? A baby would surely have no need for words, as crying, and giving physical signs of these needs would be adequate to be understood, but children would not be understood solely by non-verbal communication. I imagine the very young, normally reliant on familiar daily routine, to feel disoriented, as if their very existence was somehow altered like a giant jigsaw puzzle thrown in the air and scattered all around. In order to understand what was expected of them, they had to first learn what was being spoken to them. In many cases, they had to learn the English language as they stumbled thru their daily routines. The children perhaps used repetition of sound followed by action, to comprehend, until the children were introduced to some form of formal schooling, to learn English. Once they mastered the spoken and written word, communicating needs became easier.
A major concern, especially of those old enough to understand why they were taken away from their homes, had to be for those they left behind. As children are naturally aware of the existence of illness, death and separation, especially given the situation. They would have most likely been very keenly aware of the danger that their loved ones back in their homelands were facing. Now that they could communicate with those caring for them, they could ask questions, seek assistance in bringing family members out of Hitler’s grasp.
The children had many things to cope with emotionally. They had to cope with a strange and different world, at a time when they were still emotionally attached to parents, and some were old enough to realize their parents were still in danger. The children worried about what would happen to their loved ones, would they be safe, or beaten, as they had witnessed before? Would their parents survive Hitler’s regime? The children caught between their old and new identities, struggled. They came to rely on the British families who took them in for day-to-day survival, warmth, food, and shelter. They needed to conform to British life, while trying to remember those they loved and had left behind.
The British felt that they were saving the lives of the children by taking them into their homes. They most likely thought that the children should be grateful to be alive. Children old enough to have witnessed and understood what they had escaped from, were indeed grateful to be alive, but they still had to have been struggling with how to remain, who they were, which was Jewish. After all, being Jewish was what brought them to the transport. It was their Jewish heritage that Hitler wanted to obliterate. Now the children faced losing their heritage in order to blend in to the ways and customs of those who rescued them.
The Kindertransports were abruptly halted at the start of WWII. Parents who desperately tried to follow their children to Britain were caught in their homelands, looking for hiding places, or hoping for daring escape out of the country. As Hitler conquered one European country after another, the parents left behind were trapped and at the his mercy. Many parents lost their lives in concentration camp and their children who were rescued by the Kindertransport became orphaned. A few were lucky, like Kurt Fuchel, according to an article that I found in the Academic Search Elite database, titled: SAVING THE CHILDREN OF WAR, written by Holly J. Morris, (2000). “My parents let go of a 7-year-old and got back a 16-year-old,” says Kurt Fuchel, who was sent from Vienna to Norwich, England, on the Kindertransport”.
Reading this made me sad, I realized that, war ended the hopes of a temporary separation and forged a 6+-year separation between the children of the Kindertransport and their Jewish families. What became a rescue mission was now a 6-year journey during which children became teens, and teens became adults. The Kinders grew up away from their Jewish heritage, adapted to life in England. They had to learn English, so that they could communicate with those they lived with in foster homes, schools, hostels, and on work farms. English became their language, and their old language forgotten. Prior to the transport, the children grew up in neighborhoods where synagogues were a vital part of their city life. The children learned about and participated in Jewish customs handed down from generation to generation. These traditions gave them a sense of belonging, a sense of whom they were, where they came from. In England church meetings replaced synagogues. English customs replaced the Jewish ones.
In England the children were expected to attend English church and celebrate English holidays; Christmas instead of Hanukkah, a Christmas tree instead of the Menorah. Those who were babies or too young to remember their Jewish upbringing, did not miss what they were too young to remember. Those who were five or older at the time of the transport did remember, and longed for familiar traditions and customs that had been apart of their happy childhood memories. These older children with their memories intact and with their present firmly planted in the English culture must have felt like they had to become someone new, in order to survive. They had to leave their Jewish identity back at the beginning of the transport, at the platforms where they said their last goodbyes. The transport had brought them to a place where Jewish customs and traditions were not honored, and the children were expected to leave their Jewish heritage behind, like baggage they could not take off the trains.
To survive they had to accept new identities, a new language, and new customs. The Kindertransport allowed them to physically survive by separating them from all they knew as Jews and necessity required them to adapt to, and become English. As the years went by and the war separated them from their Jewish culture, the children were educated in the English ways and as they grew into teens and young adults they did as all teens do; they found themselves answering the age old question – who am I? Am I a Jew? Am I English? Those who were under five were now young children with no memory of what being Jewish was. They were in fact now English. Those who were old enough to remember what it was like to be Jewish had to chose their identity. When the war ended, the lucky few who were reunited with their Jewish families came face to face with their past identity. German, Austrian, or Czechoslovakian parents found their children speaking, and living as the English do. Facing their parents had to be a culture shock for those too young to have Jewish memories. The Kindertransport, a humanitarian rescue effort, with the goal to save the lives of those who were being persecuted for being Jewish. In saving the Jewish children the transport did more than transport the children from one land to another, it brought the children from one culture to another. The children were physically saved, but were culturally stripped of the very identities that they were being persecuted for.
The children had two identities, Jewish and English. It would be difficult to locate anyone who would argue the point that the transport saved the lives of the children, it is at what cost that one could find argument. It is my opinion that the cost was their identities. The Jewish children gave up their original identities to be saved. The cost was the very thing that they had been persecuted for, their identity – JEW. How had they been identified as being Jewish? I would say that they were identified as Jewish by what was particular to Jews, their religious belief, their rich Jewish customs, foods, holiday celebrations, and language. The Nazi’s had no trouble identifying who were Jews. They would identify them by putting a big letter J on their passports. There is a photograph of a child’s passport clearly showing the J in the book, “Ten Thousand Children”, (Fox, 1999, Pg 45). Their Jewish identity was visible, physical and undeniable. In the land of their birth, these children were identified clearly by those who persecuted them.
Their identity could and did cost many Jews their lives. As a product of the transport, the Kinders had been given new English identities as a necessary part of their daily survival. They adapted to the English language and became capable of being proficient both verbally and in written form. So much so, that their first language German for many, became the forgotten language. I was struck by the gravity of this by the following passage, taken from the book, Ten Thousand Children, ” My sister took me to Italy to reunite with our parents. I really did not want to go there to live with them. They were like strangers to me; I could not remember them. I had forgotten how to speak German. I had become accustomed to my life in England, and the idea of living in another country frightened me.” (Pg.123).
There may be those who would argue there was no measurable cost that they were lucky to be alive given the enormity of the loss of Jewish life attributed to Hitler’s regime. I say that if there be those who would say there was no cost to the Kinders, that perhaps, they don’t recall their own experience, witnessed a teen going thru the stage where they question who they are? Knowing one’s identity is something everyone to some degree experiences during one’s life. What makes up our identity is as unique as our individuality. What we do have in common is that part of our identity lies in our language, our daily customs, and our celebration of our religious belief. These three elements can and do define who we are. When these three elements are taken from us, and are replaced, whom we are becomes a new creation, different from the old. Our identity makes us unique, and at the same time gives us unity with others who share the same three elements. An event such as the Kindertransport, a tool that saved lives did indeed become a catalyst that changed the very identities of ten thousand Jewish Children.
Fox, A. (1999). Ten Thousand Children. West Orange: Behrman House
Harris, M. (2000). Into The Arms Of Strangers. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing
Morris, Holly J. U.S. News and World Report: 09/18/2000, Vol. 129 Issue 11, p14. Retrieved November
12, 2005 from Academic Search Elite Database
Samuels, D (1995). Kindertransport. New York: The Penguin Group
Golabek, M. Cohen L. (2002). The Children of Willesden Lane. New York: Warner Books, Inc.
Drucker, O.L. (1992). Kindertransport. New York: Henry Holt and Company
Milton, E. (2005). The Tiger in the Attic. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press