This week, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany announced that the German government had agreed to make a one-time payment of about $2,800 to people who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe as children through an operation known as the Kindertransport.
Between December 2, 1938 and May 14, 1940, approximately 10,000 children under the age of 17 were relocated primarily to the U.K. from Nazi-controlled areas of Europe. The convoy was facilitated by a network of Jewish groups throughout the continent and sponsors in the U.K., who allowed the children to enter the country on temporary travel visas. While younger children were often raised by sponsor families, some older children went to orphanages, farms or joined the labor force. Many who fled their homelands would never see the rest of their families again.
The payment has been in the works for three years, reports Vanessa Romo at NPR, and it comes this month during the 80th anniversary of the first Kindertransport operation. Stuart Eizenstat, special negotiator for the Claims Conference, tells Romo that the payment, which will go to the roughly 1,000 remaining Kindertransport survivors, approximately half of whom live in the U.K., is primarily a symbolic gesture. “[T]hese are children who went through enormous psychic trauma that haunts many of them to this day,” he says. “After having to endure a life forever severed from their parents and families, no one can ever profess to make them whole.”
Erin Blakemore at History.com reports that while the Kindertransport is one of the only successful operations to save Jews from the looming Holocaust, the politics surrounding it were complicated. After the German National Socialist party rose to power, life got harder and harder for Jews living inside Germany. Reading the writing on the wall, Jewish refugees sought to escape the Nazi regime in large numbers. That immigration influx led to the Evian Conference, where delegates from 32 nations and relief organization representations met in Evian-les-Bains, France, to discuss the situation in July of 1938. However, while countries expressed sympathy for the situation, little resulted from the nine-day meeting, with most countries, including the United States, Britain, and France, keeping their strict caps on Jewish immigrants, leaving many with no place to flee.
It wasn’t until the devastation of Kristallnacht that November that Great Britain relented and agreed to begin taking Jewish children.
While the episode is often portrayed as one of the nobler acts of Britain during the war, historians warn that it needs to be viewed in context.
The children’s parents were not allowed to accompany them, and there was an understanding that those on the transport would return home after the refugee crisis passed. The government also refused to spend any money on the children, insisting that they had to be sponsored by private individuals and organizations.
Not everyone who accepted the children did it out of the goodness of their hearts. Some refugee children went to homes where they were abused or where they were treated as servants. In 1940, the British government also began interning refugees who were age 16 and older as so-called “enemy aliens,” and as a result some 1,000 members of the Kinder transport were sent to internment camps or shipped overseas to penal colonies in Canada or Australia.
Today, historians point out that there is a need to acknowledge the nation’s failure to act earlier, to help more people and offer sufficient support to many of the children who struggled to integrate into British society—or even learn the language—once they fled their homeland.
At the same time, the operation likely saved thousands of children from death, and survivors, most in their 80s and 90s now, cannot overlook that. “I am sure my fellow Kinder will join me in expressing our appreciation for this gesture payment from the German government,” Kindertransport-Association of Jewish Refugees Chairman Erich Reich says in a press release. “While no amount of money can ever compensate for our emotional or material losses, this award recognises our experience of being separated as children from our parents and having to live in an alien country with a foreign language and culture, and the unique story and act of rescue of the Kindertransport.”
Romo reports for NPR that in 2013, the Claims Conference authorized a similar payment to child survivors of the Holocaust and another for “flight victims” who escaped from the Soviet Union during the Third Reich.