In the wake of the Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, the Nazis embarked on a range of antisemitic policies and actions. German Jews were persecuted in many ways, resulting in their lives being heavily restricted.
From 1933 a steady stream of Jewish families began to leave Germany for neighbouring countries, the UK and the United States. However, the 32 delegates present at the Evian conference, held during the summer of 1938, offered very little practical help.
Beginning in August 1938 the Nazis rounded up 60,000 Jews and expelled them over the Polish border. The son of one of the expelled families was studying in Paris. On 7 November 1938 he went to the German Embassy and shot a diplomat. On 9 November the diplomat died.
The Nazi leadership used this as an excuse to begin a national press campaign against the German Jews. Nazi thugs attacked Jews, smashed up Jewish-owned buildings and daubed the Star of David on them.
On the afternoon of 9 November 1938 Joseph Goebbels gave a speech attacking the Jews and calling for an organised attack against them. Across Germany and Austria the SA were used to mount further attacks against synagogues and Jewish owned shops and homes. Hundreds of Jews were injured and 91 were killed. The night became known as ‘Kristallnacht’ or ‘The night of the broken glass’.
Over the next months and weeks 30,000 Jewish males over the age of 14 were taken away to prisons and concentration camps. Germany and Austria were then extremely dangerous places for Jews to live and many sought to leave by any means possible.
The relief effort
Reacting to public opinion, some countries allowed limited immigration of Jews, but in the main a tight quota system was enforced. In Great Britain the Central British Fund for German Jewry and other relief organisations lobbied the British government to allow German and Austrian Jews into the country. The UK government agreed to allow an unspecified number of Jewish children between the ages of two and seventeen years to enter the country. However, it was on the condition that they should not be a burden on the state.
On 2 December 1938 the first 200 children assembled in Berlin to begin their journey. Over the following nine months 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to safety in the UK. We now know this rescue mission as the ‘kindertransport’.
The children had been allowed to pack a small suitcase containing clothes and their cherished possessions. Their journey saw the children travel by train across Germany, through Holland and on to the Hook of Holland. From there they travelled by boat across the English Channel to Harwich in England.
Arriving in Harwich the children had arrived in a strange new world. Most couldn’t speak the language and had no idea who was going to care for them. Many of the younger children travelled on to Liverpool Street Station in London. There they met their volunteer foster parents for the first time. The older children tended to be housed in hostels.