Revisiting the origins of the Kindertransport on its 80th anniversary

Today is the 80th anniversary of what is now known as the Kindertransport debate in the House of Commons. Ahead of our conference to commemorate the life of the History of Parliament Trust’s founder, and determined campaigner in support of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe, Josiah C. Wedgwood, Dr Jennifer Craig-Norton (Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton) discusses the debate and what the initiative actually meant for Jewish child refugees…

London, Ankunft jüdische Flüchtlinge
Kindertransportees from Poland disembark the Warszawa, February 14, 1939, London. © Bundesarchiv, used with permission

Sometime after 9:30 PM on 21 November, 1938, towards the end of a two and a half hour House of Commons debate on ‘Racial, Religious and Political Minorities’, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, announced the Government’s willingness to admit an unspecified number of unaccompanied Jewish and ‘non-Aryan’ children into the UK declaring, ‘here is the chance of taking the young generation of a great people; here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible sufferings of their parents and their friends’ (‘Racial Religious and Political Minorities’, Hansard, HC 21 Nov 1938, Col 1464). In a mere 500 words, Hoare set in motion what would become the most celebrated and mythologised refugee movement in modern British history, the Kindertransport.

The debate that night began with a long speech by a tireless defender of refugees, Philip Noel Baker, who pleaded passionately for the British government to alleviate the suffering of Jews and others who were being persecuted in the Third Reich. This theme was taken up by Samuel Hammersley, who argued that the British Empire was uniquely positioned to absorb the majority of those who were desperate to get out of Germany and advised that Parliament ought to ‘look upon this problem of 500,000 refugees in Germany as just another practical problem which British statesmanship is called upon to consider and to solve.’ Geoffrey Mander spoke next, asking that the Home Secretary look into establishing temporary camps in Britain to receive large numbers of refugees, and proposing that the Aliens Act be amended, for ‘It was never intended to exclude political exiles’. He believed that there was ‘a case for making it very much easier for refugees…to come to this country…by a relaxation of the rules’.

Aliens Act 1905
Aliens Act 1905

One after another, for over two hours, members of Parliament stood up and expressed their unanimous sympathy and support for these refugees, offering various suggestions for receiving and housing them in the UK and abroad; yet, at the end of the debate, the only concrete policy shift the Home Secretary had been willing to concede was the admittance of a bloc of unaccompanied minor children—the only group of refugees to be granted a waiver from the restrictions of the Aliens Act and the visa procedures that had been imposed in early 1938. Hoare made it clear that though he was opposed to setting quotas of any kind, there was to be no large movement of refugees to the United Kingdom, Palestine or the Dominions, and that applications for asylum would continue to be dealt with on a case by case basis, despite the huge backlog that such a policy had created. Only unaccompanied children could be dealt with ‘in large numbers, provided they were sponsored by responsible bodies and responsible individuals’.

In the eighty years since that night, the Kindertransport, often mischaracterised as a government-sponsored scheme, has become enclosed within a simplified narrative of rescue and salvation, and a revisiting of the debate’s actual context and the limited terms of the Home Secretary’s concession can provide a corrective to such mythologizing. It is important to note that the Home Secretary confined his brief remarks announcing the child migration scheme to two subjects: the limitations of the government’s involvement and the parents of the children who would be allowed to come to the UK. In contrast to notions of a grand humanitarian gesture on the part of the government, Samuel Hoare made it absolutely clear that the children could only be accommodated if their maintenance was privately guaranteed ‘without any harm to our own population’ and that the Home Office would do nothing more than ‘to give the necessary visas and to facilitate their entry into this country’. He also made it clear that the children’s parents and families were not to receive similarly favourable treatment, but remain subject to the stringent immigration policies that various members of Parliament had that very evening begged the Home Secretary to amend.

Samuel Hoare was not unaware of the controversies that a policy of welcoming children but not their families entailed. It is notable that he used the phrase ‘to some extent’ when outlining how his children’s migration proposal might ‘mitigate…the terrible sufferings of their parents’, and he acknowledged what a ‘terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany’. However, he told the assembled members, he had received assurances from a Quaker relief worker that German Jewish parents ‘were almost unanimously in favour of facing this parting with their children and taking the risks of their children going to a foreign country, rather than keeping them with them to face the unknown dangers with which they are faced in Germany’. Based upon such declarations, Hoare stated, ‘we shall put no obstacle in the way of children coming here’.

This Parliamentary debate and the subsequent fundraising and organising that resulted in the bringing over of 10,000 or so children over the next eleven months garnered widespread contemporary publicity, but the children’s movement was overtaken by the momentous realities of the Second World War and virtually forgotten in the years that followed. It was not until its ‘rediscovery’ in the late 1980s, amidst a wider emerging interest in the Holocaust, that the mass emigration of Jewish child refugees in the late in 1930s even became known as the Kindertransport. This re-awakening coincided with an embrace of oral and testimonial history more generally, and the resulting explosion of Kinder life-story telling has tended to dominate the historiography of the movement.

In the past few years a concentrated academic and scholarly interest has begun to focus on the Kindertransport, bringing with it a re-evaluation of its origins, operation and outcomes, and a critical examination of the distortions and mythologies that have grown up around its celebration, commemoration and re-telling. This reassessment has been brought into sharp focus by a revival of the idealised images of the Kindertransport in the context of recent debates on refugees and unaccompanied child migration. The eightieth anniversary of the debate that set the child migration movement in motion is a good time to revisit its context and terms, using it as a springboard for engaging in a more clear-eyed discussion of the both the Kindertransport and the wider immigration policies in which it was situated—policies that saved the lives of thousands of children but separated the majority of the children from their parents permanently.


Dr Jennifer Craig-Norton is an Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute, University of Southampton, UK. Her publications include the forthcoming book, The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory (Indiana University Press, 2019) and Migrant Histories and Historiographies: Essays in honour of Colin Holmes (Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics, 2018), co-edited with Christhard Hoffman and Tony Kushner.

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