The same week as Americans head to the polls for what’ll be at least in part essentially a referendum on how to treat children seeking asylum, Britain is commemorating the Kindertransport, a massive effort to get as many endangered children out of Nazi reach as possible.
Friday is the eightieth anniversary of the violence of Kristallnacht, which prompted the efforts that became known as the Kindertransport, which ultimately got 10,000 children to Britain and safety. The Guardian says that London’s Jewish Museum is opening an exhibition “featuring the stories of six of the children who came to the UK from Germany as part of this rescue effort,” and the paper also sent Stephen Moss to talk to all of them, spreading their stories out across the week. Today they’re featuring Bob and Ann Kirk, each of whom escaped via the Kindertransport efforts. Bob told the Guardian:
“I didn’t really know where I was going,” he recalls. “There were about 200 children on that transport, and we were all, to say the least, a bit nervous. You are concerned, excited, and most of us were sold the idea that we were going on an adventure, and that, of course, our parents would be coming as soon as they got their papers.” He was carrying his small regulation suitcase, and had his stamp collection confiscated by Nazis at the Dutch border. He carried no family photos or memorabilia. “My parents were so intent on not making it seem like a parting that they didn’t include anything which might suggest we wouldn’t see each other again.”
Neither of them ever saw their parents again.
As Ellen Umansky recounted last year at Slate, the United States chose not to fling open its doors in the wake of Kristallnacht; a bill was introduced that would welcome 20,000 unaccompanied minors under the age of 14 escaping Europe, without counting them against the overall annual quotas, but it met with fierce opposition:
In April 1939, while congressional hearings on the refugee bill were being held, Fortune conducted a poll: If you were a member of Congress, would you vote to increase the number of European refugees currently admitted? Eighty-three percent of respondents said no. A month later, the St. Louis idled up the Florida coast with 900 refugees, only to be turned away. The prospect of inviting 20,000 children into the U.S. “is being opposed with as fiercely narrow a sincerity as if they were an invading host,” reported the New York Herald Tribune.
The St. Louis returned to Europe; its passengers were distributed across Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, as the Washington Post recounted. Out of 937 people, 254 would later die in the Holocaust.
“I never felt guilty about surviving,” Kirk told the Guardian. “I felt tremendous gratitude to my parents for their courage. All the parents who allowed their children to go showed tremendous courage.”