Child refugees in Britain: A change in attitude

8 Mins read

There were many children on the train platform that morning in December in 1938.

Some were confused, others were scared.

What was the United Kingdom? And why were their parents sending them there?

Strolling through the crowd was 13-year old Lothar Baruch, who was being sent away by his older sister and parents.

The train set off to the Netherlands where he boarded a ferry to his new home in England.

Just like that, he had escaped the Nazis.

This British humanitarian programme which came to be known as the Kindertransport, German for children’s transport, was an organised rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1938 and 1939.

The UK took in nearly 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

In many cases, they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.

Jewish refugee children, who are members of the first Kindertransport from Germany, arrive in Harwich, England.

Jewish refugee children, who are members of the first Kindertransport from Germany arrive in Harwich, England [United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej]

For some children, the journey across Europe is far more dangerous today.

78 years after the first Kindertransport in 1938, Europe is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, one characterised by the staggering number of unaccompanied children.

More than 1.2 million people sought asylum in the European Union last year, and around 30 per cent of them – almost 370,000 – were minors.

A quarter of those children were unaccompanied.

While this isn’t always recognised by the UK government, some of these children have a legal right to settle in this country.

They cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, they travel the roads in packed lorries, and sometimes they don’t make it to their final destination alive.

If they do, they often find themselves being put in camps like the Calais jungle with little information on what is happening to them.

Many refugees dream about a peaceful life in England, but in 78 years a lot has changed.

As the only Jewish boy in class in the school in 1936 in Köslin, Germany (today Koszalin, Poland), the physical and verbal abuse had become unbearable for the 13-year-old Lothar Baruch.

“My teacher was a committed Nazi, stones were thrown at me and I often came home with a bleeding head,” he recalls today in an interview in his north London home.

Lothar Baruch later became Leslie Baruch Brent when he joined the British army in the middle of the Second World War.

As his status as a German national would make him liable to execution in the event of capture, so he was advised to change his name.

He survived the war and continued to serve in the army – in 1974, he was demobilised with the rank of Captain.

Now 91 years old, Brent considers himself to have been a very fortunate man.

Leslie Brent came on the first kindertransport from Berlin as 13 years old. Today, he considers himself to be a very fortunate man.

At 91 years old, his family of six children and nine grandchildren keeps Leslie and his wife busy [Alice Grahns]

After an incident in the 1930s when someone, assumed to be the teacher, had written “All Christians are liars and cheats” on the black board and he was forced to stand up in front of the class, 11-year old Baruch was sent to a Jewish orphanage in Berlin by his parents.

It simply wasn’t safe for him to continue his education in his hometown.

The situation for the Jewish community in Germany and elsewhere was about to get worse, but Baruch was lucky.

The director of the orphanage nominated him to go on the first Kindertransport leaving Berlin on December 1, 1938.

“I owe my life to him. Had I stayed in Berlin I would’ve suffered the same fate as a majority of the boys at the orphanage, as well as the teachers and the director. They were all sent to Auschwitz,” he says.

Baruch’s 16-year old sister stayed behind in Berlin with her parents – they all paid the ultimate price for being Jewish in 1942 when they were murdered by the Nazis who took them into the Latvian woods and shot them.

In the past few weeks, many disturbing stories have come from the Calais jungle in the events surrounding its demolition.

Today’s child refugees are evoking memories of the plight of children like Lothar Baruch who were forced to flee their homes in search of refuge in a foreign country.

“They are refugee children, some of them are probably orphans, and they need to be taken care of,” Brent argues today.

Violence broke out in Calais, unaccompanied children hadn’t been identified and they had to sleep rough.

At the same time, critical voices were raised about the age of these children.

As a result of this, they covered their faces as they entered the UK, unlike the children of the Kindertransport who were greeted by smiling faces when they arrived.

[pullquote align=”right”]They paid the ultimate price for being Jewish in 1942 when they were murdered by the Nazis[/pullquote]This demeaning situation caused a frustration among campaigners that the Home Office hadn’t done enough to protect the anonymity of those being helped.

“It was pretty chaotic in Calais [during the demolition]. The children should’ve been priority and this didn’t occur,” says Charlotte Morris of Safe Passage UK.

“We’re worried that because of the focus point on Calais has gone now, it takes the pressure off the government to do what they should be doing,” she continues.

Safe Passage UK was set up a year ago as an initiative to bring children and vulnerable adults to the UK if they have the legal right to come.

Between March and October 2016, the project run by Citizens UK brought 60 children and vulnerable adults over from Calais.

While the lobbying process continues, there are nearly 400 children there and in other parts of France who also have the right to be in the UK.

“We presented the government with a list of these children in August and finally in October, just before the demolition, they agreed to take half of the children from Calais,” Morris told us.

It is clear there is a resistance in the UK government to accept refugees, both children and adults, and campaigners say that by comparing the number of refugees the country has taken in compared to others, the UK isn’t doing their bit.

Looking back at the Kindertransport in the end of the 1930s, many question what has happened to the UK’s generosity today?

Afghan refugee in the Calais camp before it was demolished.

Around 90,000 accompanied minors have come to Europe as of late in this refugee crisis [Lilian Simonsson]

“There’s an underlying racism going on at the moment. If these children in Calais had been white Europeans, I wonder whether the British government would’ve been as inhumane as it’s proved to be with these Muslim children,” Brent says.

“I think we’ve become more selfish as a nation. If a party promises to do well financially, we’ll vote for them regardless of anything else,” he continues.

Although the Second World War and the Syrian Civil War have similarities in terms of the situation for fleeing child refugees, they occurred in two different times in history.

Nevertheless, the situation for the child refugees of our time has evoked strong emotions in the Jewish society in Britain.

The Masorti Judaism community in the UK decided to act and raised £200,000 to pay the legal fees for 100 unaccompanied child refugees in Calais to enter the country.

“The refugee crisis was well underway in the summer, then the Brexit referendum happened and we had a spike in xenophobic hate crime. As an ethnic and religious minority, we care about those issues. As a movement we wanted to act,” says Matt Plen, Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism.

Having gone through it themselves as a Jewish community, they often find themselves connecting with the people fleeing from war.

It goes right back to the Jewish faith’s 3,000 year-history of exile and immigration, but still, the Jewish society finds themselves reluctant to compare the two.

[pullquote align=”right”]“We can’t rest on our laurels for something that happened nearly 80 years ago”[/pullquote]“The precise constellation of the Holocaust hasn’t happened before, and hasn’t happened since. It was a unique historical occasion where a highly developed and Western superpower essentially orchestrated the systematic and industrial murder of civilians for reasons of racial prejudice. And that’s certainly not what’s going on now,” Plen says.

“You look at the face of a child, who doesn’t have anyone to look after himself or herself and is in danger. Who cares about what the historical context is? You got to do something to help them,” Plen continues.

In the end, the 4,000 members in the Masorti Judaism community, brought together a bigger Jewish society in Britain and rescued children who otherwise wouldn’t have been helped.

The individual initiatives to help today’s refugee children are many, but back in the 1930s, Nicholas Winton became one important figure.

Having organised the rescue of 669 children from Czechoslovakia, a majority of them Jewish, the British humanitarian is seen as a hero.

After his death in 2015, at the age of 106, his daughter Barbara Winton and the rest of the family are carrying on his legacy.

In a recent open letter to Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, Barbara Winton urges the UK government to “show a compassionate and warm response” as they did in the 1930s.

“The British people believe themselves to be a welcoming, generous and tolerant people but we can’t rest on our laurels for something that happened nearly 80 years ago,” she told Artefact.

“Problems continue and if we want to consider ourselves generous, compassionate and ethical then we need to think about how we’re responding to an issue right on our doorstep,” she added.

Refugee in the Calais jungle before it was demolished

Refugees in the Calais “jungle” before it was demolished [Lilian Simonsson]

Just across the Channel, in the Calais jungle, there was an issue building for a long time: “Neither of the British and the French government seemed keen to address it until it became absolutely critical. At which point it was a very last-minute response which is a shame because a lot of anxiety, stress and difficulties could have been prevented if it hadn’t been allowed to get to this stage,” Winton says.

One of Winton’s 669 kids, Czechoslovakian Alfred Dubs, who came to the UK at the age of six, stands out from the crowd as he successfully pressurises the UK government to do more.

Now recognised as Lord Dubs, he has been a member of parliament, and he proposed the amendment of the Immigration Act 2016, which forces the government to take in vulnerable and unaccompanied child refugees with no ties to the country.

“A survey discovered there were 80,000 to 90,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe and nobody was doing much about it. It seemed to be the right thing to do for Britain to take some of them,” Dubs says.

The amendment successfully passed through parliament, and although many kids are still on their own on the streets in Europe, several hundred have come over.

Still, it’s not a number comparable to the 10,000 children rescued at the beginning of the Second World War.

There are many different opinions on why that is. The question is whether the UK could ever take in a similar number ever again.

“I believe in freedom of movement, but I think the large numbers of people coming to Britain every year has made public opinion less sensitive towards other people coming. People have become resistant towards the numbers,” Lord Dubs says.

Although, he also believes that the public plays a big and positive role in politics: “One big factor why the amendment went through, is public opinion. The British society as a whole support the child refugees, it does matter. It you get public opinion on your side, you can do far more,” he believes.

The first group, which arrived in Harwich via the Hook of Holland on December 2, 1938 consisted of 200 children between the ages of 12 and 17 from Berlin and Hamburg.

Children of the first Kindertransport arriving in England from Germany. Why has the attitude towards this vulnerable group changed? [United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej]

During the Brexit campaign, an underlying fear for immigrants became evident.

Some parts of the British society were worried about their jobs, others were concerned immigrants were coming here to live on benefits.

While this fear might be legitimate, Leslie Brent argues that most of the Jewish children who, like him, came to the UK with the Kindertransport, have all made huge contributions in England.

Brent himself has had an extraordinary career in immunology and zoology in the UK, and his work later led to the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology being given to his supervisor Peter Medawar.

“There was an element of responsibility which led to the British government agreeing to take in children [in the 1930s]. Nevertheless, the British view of themselves, is that they opened the doors, they welcomed people in need,” Barbara Winton says.

“There may be difficulties in taking in vast numbers of people but there should be some elements of kind of generosity towards this vulnerable group. If people put themselves in the shoes of the children or in their parents’ shoes, how would they want their own children to be treated in that position?”




Featured image by Freedom House via Flickr CC.

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