In 1938, the British government made an exemption to the usual strict rules for immigration to Britain. Approximately 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees arrived in the country between December 1938 and September 1939, on what later became known as the Kindertransport (children’s transport). These were organised largely by Jewish organisations such as the Central British Fund for German Jewry and Youth Aliyah, but several were also arranged by non-Jewish groups like the Society of Friends (Quakers). Some of the most famous rescues were spearheaded by Nicholas Winton, a British banker who saved 669 children by organising transports from Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Berlin-born Harry Weinberger was fifteen when he fled from Prague. He travelled by train with his sister, and remembered the children on board being “terrified”: “Every town we went through there were people milling around in uniform, there were loudspeakers everywhere blaring military music, and the children were…all very upset because they’d left their parents, they’d left their families, and they didn’t know what would happen at the border…German border guards in uniform came through taunting us and checking whether any of us had any money.” They were only allowed to take 10 marks with them; the equivalent of about £1. Harry arrived in London, and later lived with his uncle in South Wales.
Listen to Harry’s story here (External)
The British government only admitted unaccompanied minors through this scheme, despite the fact that most of them had lived with their parents and other members of their families before their flight. Most children also had to be ‘guaranteed’ by a cash deposit of £50 from a sponsor (such as individuals, the Jewish community, church groups, workers’ co-operatives) which covered their maintenance up until the age of eighteen. The government was determined to avoid committing public funds to the scheme.
The reasons for the restrictive conditions imposed by the UK government are widely debated: fears of a negative effect on the labour market in the UK, and the higher cost of supporting more refugees if adults were to be admitted as well, played a part in the government’s decision-making, as did anxieties surrounding security, and possibly a latent antisemitism in British society (George Orwell claimed in 1945 that “There is more antisemitism in [Britain] than we care to admit, and the war has accentuated it”).
Several Kindertransportees found themselves in Wales. Some, like six-year-old Elga Kitchener, stayed with relatives (Elga’s aunt lived in Abercynon). Others, like Renate Collins, were fostered by Welsh families. The welcome for refugees was not always warm: Hannelore Napier was bullied as a German during her month in Cardiff, before moving to England and living with a Methodist family in West Riding, Yorkshire.
Many were evacuated to Wales from other areas, like London, or the Czechoslovak State School in Llanwrtyd Wells, which was located at the Abernant Lake Hotel from 1943-5. Between 1939 and 1941, around 200 Jewish child refugees were housed at Gwrych Castle in Abergele, as well as at Llandough Castle in Glamorgan. A small number of child refugees also attended the Aryeh House School at Bronwydd Castle, a Jewish school which was evacuated there from Brighton.
Dorothy Fleming was ten when she came on a Kindertransport from her home in Vienna. She spent much of the war in Cardiff, but initially was fostered by a couple in Leeds. In this clip, recorded in 1997, she recounts the process by which she and her sister were chosen to come to Britain:
I have the pictures from which she chose me, and that very picture, she said, Mrs Ross [on the refugee committee] said “here you are, here’s a picture – this girl is exactly what you want. She speaks English, she’s ten, and she has many interests.” So Tilly [Dorothy’s foster mother] said “right, we’ll take her,” and as she was leaving, she looked back and saw another picture of a very beautiful child, and she said “who is that beautiful child?” And Mrs Ross said “it’s very odd you should pick just that one, that’s the little sister of the one you’ve chosen”. And Tilly, to her eternal credit, said “well, it’s bad enough that these children have to leave their parents, but to split up the sisters is just too bad. I don’t know how we’ll manage but we’ll better take them both.”
Dorothy’s uncle had a factory at Treforest Trading Estate, and she went to stay with him and her aunt in Cardiff. Her father, Erich Oppenheimer, had been interned, but was also released to work at Treforest, where the family remained for the rest of the war. Dorothy attended Hywel School before going to Bath and qualifying to become a teacher.
Lia Lesser was a child refugee who left from Prague, Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939. Her family had already moved three times in the previous six months due to growing antisemitism in the country, before her parents decided to send her to London. She was fostered by a Christian woman from Bull Bay, Ynys Môn , who was able to converse with Lia in German. Lia remembers her arrival in North Wales:
we went to Bull Bay, which is a tiny little village. It just had a post office, nothing more than that…And my memory, when I actually got into the bungalow, on the kitchen table sat a cat. And I know straightaway, I knew I was going to be all right because I loved cats. I had a little cat in Czechoslovakia. And so I thought, “It’s going to be alright.”
She attended the local school, where she discovered that she was the only refugee on the island, but later joined the Czechoslovak School in Shropshire and then Llanwrtyd Wells. She later returned to Ynys Môn and completed her schooling after the closure of the Czechoslovak School. Like many Kindertransportees, the rest of Lia’s family were not so fortunate. Her mother perished in Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, while her father died of starvation in Auschwitz.
Listen to Lia’s story here (External)
Heinz Lichtwitz left Berlin in early 1939 and arrived in Swansea in February, aged six. He stayed with a Jewish couple named Morris and Winifred Foner, who knew Yiddish, but no German. Heinz’s father, Max, sent constant postcards to him from Germany to keep up his spirits. Heinz (by now known as Henry Foner) learned English very quickly, though, and when his father phoned him wishing him a happy birthday in June, Henry realised he had forgotten most of his German. Max was a lawyer in Berlin who helped other Jews to escape the country, but he was tragically unable to save himself. He was sent to Auschwitz in December 1942, and murdered a week later. Henry later received a letter that Max had sent to Henry’s brother before he died:
“I think my Heini has found a good home and that the Foners will look after him as well as any parents could. Please convey to them, one day when it will be possible, my deepest gratitude for making it possible for my child to escape the fate that will soon overtake me…Please tell him one day that it was only out of deep love and concern for his future that I have let him go, but that on the other hand I miss him most painfully day by day and that my life would lose all meaning if there were not at least the possibility of seeing him again someday.”
Henry later compiled a book made from postcards his father had sent him, entitled Postcards to a Little Boy: A Kindertransport Story.
Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, Never Look Back: The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain, 1938-1945 (Ashland, OH: Purdue University Press, 2012)
Ciara Cohen-Ennis, ‘The story of the six-year-old brought to Abercynon to escape Nazi Germany’, ITV News, 27 January 2020 (https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2020-01-27/the-story-of-the-six-year-old-brought-to-abercynon-to-escape-nazi-germany)
Jennifer Craig-Norton, The Kindertransport: Contesting memory (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2019)
Vera K. Fast, Children’s Exodus: A history of the Kindertransport (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011)
Daniel Feldman, ‘Address Unknown: German Children’s Literature about Refugees’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 45:2 (Summer 2020), pp 124-44
Andrea Hammel (ed.), The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39: New Perspectives (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012)
Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (New York: MJF Books, 2000)
Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Donald Macintyre, ‘Goodbye to Berlin: Postcards from Nazi Germany tell story of the Kindertransport’, The Independent, 27 June 2013 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/goodbye-berlin-postcards-nazi-germany-tell-story-kindertransport-8665473.html)