2 December 2023 would have been the 101st birthday of my father.
That he landed in occupied France as a paratrooper in the Pathfinders in the wee small hours before the main Allied invasion on D-Day, survived the Second World War, started a successful small business, raised a family, and had the opportunity to live into his 70’s was due principally to an event also commemorated on 2 December – the 85th anniversary of the first Kindertransport coming to London. These were chartered trains bringing children from Nazi-occupied lands to safety in Britain amongst a relatively welcoming community.
Newspaper reports of the Kindertransport 1st arrivals in 1938
Reports of the horrific ‘Kristallnacht’ (Night of Broken Glass) pogrom on 9-10 November 1939 had led to the British government being persuaded at last to relax immigration rules. Notable among these ‘good people’ were MPs, Lords and Ladies, members of Anglo-Jewry, Quakers, concerned citizens from various Christian denominations, and humanitarians who saw an urgent need. A committed network of volunteers and aid organisations stepped up.
Extracts from the House of Commons debate to relax immigrations rules for Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany
By the start of the war in September 1939, some 10,000 mostly Jewish children had been rescued on chartered trains from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Bewildered, disoriented but safe, these children were dispersed into foster homes, colleges, farms and community centres across the UK. Some travelled on farther to refuge in Canada and Australia. Most of them never saw their parents or families again due to Nazi-led genocide.
My father arrived as a teenaged refugee from Berlin early in 1939 thanks to this Kindertransport programme. A few weeks later my mother arrived on a Kindertransport from Vienna.
On 3 December 2023, an ever-dwindling group of survivors, their families, descendants of foster families, community leaders and many well-wishers commemorated this historic rescue in the aptly-named Hope Square at Liverpool St. station in the City of London. 85 years on, we bore witness and gave thanks in front of Kindertransportee Frank Meisler’s memorial ‘The Arrival’, as we saw our personal stories in his depiction of a group of refugee children. The event was organised by the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR).
‘The Arrival’ statue at Liverpool Street Station, London. Credit Mark King
Thousands more Jewish adults and children arrived in Britain via other channels – perhaps 70,000 refugees in total. Each one has left their unique mark on this country. The British response to Nazism is a living part of our nation’s story and, of course, is a notable theme for me and many of my colleagues, who lead tours and talks about the Second World War in every region of the UK.
‘The Arrival’ plaque. Credit Mark King
The role played by ordinary individuals and local groups is being documented in a national initiative that maps survivors, victims and refugees as well as rescuers, liberators, care-givers, cultural centres, aid committees, even foster parents: www.ukholocaustmap.org.uk
The Harwich Memorial. Credit Mark King
The map spans ‘Finchleystrasse’ to Folkestone, Windermere to Weymouth, Harwich to Halifax, Cardiff to Keele, even the Isle of Man (site of internment camps after PM Churchill commanded “Collar the lot!”) to the Channel Islands – the only part of Britain that endured brutal Nazi occupation and where their westernmost concentration camp was located. The map will continue to grow as more local stories are shared.
The Holocaust Map reminds us of the nationwide effects of this era of refugee immigration and many individuals’ subsequent impact on British life – as well as contributions from so-called ‘ordinary people’ living in their local community.
Incidentally, January 2024 sees the UK release of a major film ‘One Life’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as celebrated rescuer, Sir Nicholas Winton – an ordinary man who quietly, yet effectively made extraordinary things possible that saved hundreds of lives. When Esther Rantzen interviewed a then unknown, unassuming elderly man on her TV show in 1988, it made for one of the most moving pieces of television ever.
Kindertransport Google Doodle, 2020 commemorating Sir Nicholas Winton
As a postscript, it is worth noting that Blue and Green Badge guides’ own professional body, the Institute of Tourist Guiding was steered into existence thanks to the chairmanship of Professor Ludwik Finkelstein. ‘Fink’ was himself a Nazi-era refugee, married to a survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and the father of three successful children including journalist, author and politician Baron Daniel Finkelstein of Pinner.
The legacy of the past informs the present and continues to shape our shared future.
- ‘Get the Children Out! Unsung Heroes of the Kindertransport’ by Mike Levy
- ‘Pearls of Childhood: The Poignant True Wartime Story of a Young Girl Growing Up in an Adopted Land’ by Vera Gissing
- ‘Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport’ by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer
- The UK Holocaust Map
- The Association of Jewish Refugees Commemorative Plaque Scheme
- 80 Trees for 80 Years
- The National Holocaust Centre & Museum: Kindertransport
- The National Archives: Kindertransport
- Holocaust memorial to be built next to Parliament: BBC
- Kristallnacht: History.com
- Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival
- ‘One Life’ film 2023
- Holocaust Memorial Day January 2024: The Fragility of Freedom
About the Author Mark King is a born and bred Londoner but has also lived in Oxford and Dorset and he has worked overseas in France, United States of America, Czech Republic and Russia as well as travel extensively around the world. His peerless tours encompass both the historical and contemporary in London, several outer and inner boroughs of London as well as sites outside of London – Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and Stonehenge never fail to delight, as well as the the ‘must see’ cities of Salisbury, Bath and Oxford. Mark is author of the The Blue Badge Guide’s London Quiz Book and he sits on the Council of the Friends of Kenwood. You can contact Mark here