A tale of trauma

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST


Into The Arms of Strangers by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer; Bloomsbury; pages 292, $27.50.

"ALL happy families are happy alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This famous opening of Anna Karenina is borne out by a collection of moving tales of some of the Jewish children who were transported to England, prior to the beginning of the Second World War, from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Years later, Warner Brothers produced a feature-length documentary on the experiences of these children. This collection is based on the documentary.

Most of these children lived comfortable family lives in their lands of birth. Some were affluent. The aftermath of the First World War brought misery to Germany. Hitler and his National Socialist party made Jews the scapegoats. The widespread campaign against Jews gained momentum after the Wall Street crash, as the German economy, already run down, was ruined. The Nazis started a systematic campaign to segregate Jews. Children were removed from common schools and compelled to join segregated ones. Those who were still at common schools were prohibited from participating in exercises or sports with their fellow students. When Jews were barred from using public transport, it became very hard for the children to travel long distances to attend school.

There were numerous Jews who had fought in the First World War, and some of them had won the Iron Cross. They thought that the Nazis would spare them, but soon realised that Hitler was bent upon achieving the Final Solution. The world refugee conference in France in July 1938 was a dismal failure as the Nazis led the clamour to get rid of Jews. In November, the same year, 1,000 synagogues were set on fire and 7,500 Jewish business establishments in Germany and Austria smashed. The Nazis also took 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. Auswitz came later.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled the United States Ambassador from Berlin but Congress did not remove or loosen the restrictions on immigration. The British Cabinet took stock of the situation and agreed with Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that an act of generosity might induce the U.S. Congress to revise the immigration policy and allow Jews from Europe into the U.S. But it was of no avail. The British Cabinet, however, decided to permit Jewish children up to the age of 17, unaccompanied by their parents, to come to England. The unofficial limit was 5,000 children. It was also decided that this influx should not be a burden on the public purse. Therefore every Jewish child had to be accompanied with a guarantee of 50 for subsequent re-emigration.

An organisation under the name Refugee Children Movement (RCM) was formed, and it appealed to people to take in Jewish children. The organisation merely wanted people to shelter the children, and not adopt them. The response was promising. The work involved enlisting the children and getting the guarantee. There had to be coordination between London and various centres in Germany and other countries where Jews were persecuted. After a while, Jews who could secure work permits were also allowed to come to England. Although the RCM had government support, the organisation was privately run with the help of a large number of volunteers. The organisers, though with no previous experience of work of this nature, did their work satisfactorily.

Lord Richard Attenborough, who has written a preface to this volume, narrates how his father, who was the principal of the Liecester University College, was an active member of the RCM. He had brought two Jewish girls, Irene and Helga, to stay with the family. They stayed for eight years. Lord Attenborough says, "I know that in the movies I direct, I want to make statements. I want to make a cry for compassion and a plea for tolerance. I suppose the most obvious example is Cry Freedom, an anti-apartheid movie about South Africa. If I had not had the beginning I did, if I had not known Irene and Helga, I doubt that I would have the passion and the determination to demonstrate those feelings through my work."

ALL of the children who came to England had had traumatic experiences. The fathers of some had been taken to concentration camps. Some of them returned to their lands of birth; some never went back. Those who returned were seen to have been severely beaten. These children, also saw their houses confiscated by the Nazis or persons were influential with the authorities. The children, who were 13 or 14 years old, were aware of the political implications of the events they witnessed. When they saw synagogues burning, they could not understand why the Germans who were present at the spot did not raise their voices against the arson. Later, they realised that if anybody from the crowd had objected, he would have been sent to the concentration camp, as Nazis had such camps for anybody who opposed them. But it could not be said that all Germans were against such gangsterism. In fact, there were many who encouraged such outrageous behaviour and even participated in violent acts. This was true of even young boys and girls.

The children who were brought by the RCM with great effort to England were Kindertransport children, between four and 17 years of age. Brothers and sisters who came together did not always remain together in this new land. As it was, they were frightened and worried about their parents. In addition, when they had to be separated, they be- came forlorn and miserable. But eventually they adjusted themselves to the situation that they had to face and did not know for how long. Most of the children were taken under the protection of English families. Those who were not, went to orphanages. Then there was also the question of religion. Those who came from orthodox Jewish families found it difficult to adjust in Christian families. After some time they were sent to Jewish families.

Adversity teaches many lessons. When one of the Kindertransport boys was found with a violin, the guard at the port refused to allow him to disembark. An older boy who was with the group assured the guard that the boy was not a smuggler, but the guard could not relax the rules. At that time many valuable instruments, among other things, used to be smuggled in from Germany. Finally, the older boy asked the one carrying the violin to try to play something and he played 'God Save the King'. All the guards and the other English staff on the ship stood to attention, and the boy with the violin was permitted to disembark.

THE English families who gave these children shelter were not affluent, but they were caring. Of course, there were exceptions. Some families that gave them shelter treated them like servants. One of the girls had to starve for quite some time but was fortunate enough to get herself attached to another family. It is amazing to read that one working class family took pride in flaunting the girl whom they had taken under their protection as a maid and humiliating her in the presence of their guests. Some children were enterprising enough to get work permits for their fathers and bring them to Britain. It was Baron James De Rothschild who was generous in giving work permits to the Jews from Germany and other countries.

In the beginning, the children found it difficult to communicate with the families to whom they were attached or to their teachers and fellow students because of the language barrier. But they learned English and in course of time forgot their mother-tongues. So when they met their parents, they could not communicate with them. All these experiences were very unsettling. It speaks for the tenacity and fortitude of these children that they adjusted themselves to the new situation and were eventually able to carve out their own destinies. In fact, two of them went on to become recipients of the Nobel Prize for their achievements in science. Even then, as one of the Kindertransport children says, all of them were, in a way, hostages.

Some children were sent to Australia. The journey was traumatic for them. They were starved and maltreated. But when they reached Sydney, they were welcomed with open arms. Many of them did not want to be away from Europe as they thought that they would eventually be united with their parents. So when they were told that they could go back to England provided they did some useful work or the older ones among them joined the armed forces, many opted to do that. Some girls chose to become nurses, and they served in the War.

After the conclusion of the War, a long and anxious search for missing parents and children began. Some were fortunate enough to locate their loved ones; but in most cases the search was fruitless. After the war many of these Kindertransport children went to the U.S., as they had relatives there. In this new land, though many of them prospered and raised families, their childhood experiences lived on with them. It was thought that there should be a gathering of those who survived. This reunion was held in London in June 1999. One can imagine the swell of emotions at such a gathering. Those who participated were the victims of the brutality of man, who survived only because of the compassion of some people. They were also the symbols of the courage and fortitude that enabled a generation to overcome such brutalities.

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