Memorialising the Kindertransport 85 years on 

Precisely ten years ago my dad and I stood outside Liverpool Street Station, London by Frank Meisler’s “The Arrival” memorial for the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. I had just begun to think about my undergraduate thesis which was about Britain’s memory of the Kindertransport. Professor Bill Niven was my supervisor. After the ceremony a tall, blonde lady who was full of life came over to me. She asked me why I was at the event, and I told her that I was there to research the proceedings as part of my degree. Within a flash she introduced me to her father and brother. I’ll never forget how Tamara Barschak took the time on such an emotionally filled day to lead me to Fred, her father, who fled Vienna for Hull and later London. Fred was one of the first Kinder I had the pleasure of interviewing. While he is not here to witness the publication of our book he is certainly one of its inspirations.  

As soon as I started to speak with survivors such as Fred and Hanna Zack Miley I could see that there was a disconnection between their complex personal transnational memories and the way in which various nations around the world remember the Kindertransport. In Britain, for example, you will seldom see any reference to the fact that Britain did not act alone in rescuing the Kinder, or that many Kinder actually left British shores before and during the war to move to other host nations, or were forcibly sent on internment ships as enemy aliens to destinations such as Canada and Australia. Our book, National and Transnational Memories of the Kindertransport: Exhibitions, Memorials, and Commemorations, is the first study of the memory of the Kindertransport and the first to explore how it is represented in three different genres in six different countries.  

“The Three Musketeers” – Fred, Tamara, and Aaron Barschak at the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport in London. Fred fled Vienna on a Kindertransport bound for Britain. 

The Kindertransport is generally thought of as a movement from the Nazi sphere of control and influence to Britain between 1938 and 1940. However, Kinder were journeying to many different countries before, during and after the Second World War. Although we do make reference to other host nations and countries of origin, our book focuses mainly on the English-speaking host nations (Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and Germany, the country from which most of the Kinder came. Given that the Kindertransport was itself an international event – something that should not be overlooked despite Britain’s central role – it would seem, ideally at least, to lend itself to a transnational optic. However, national memory frameworks remain strong despite the increasing significance of transnational memory trends that link the host nations with each other and with the countries from which the refugee children originated. For example, Britain’s celebratory memory of the Kindertransport has dominated commemorations.  

“Orphans’ Carousel” – Kindertransport memorial in Frankfurt (Yael Bartana, 2021).

Of course, we should remember the contributions Kinder have made to our society but we should not overlook the fact that adapting to a new way of life, often without family, is a very difficult process. While American and Canadian memories of the Kindertransport set in late compared to Britain, the Kindertransport has been subsumed into a successful postwar integration story which is in keeping with the national Holocaust memory discourse of these nations. It is only Australian and New Zealand memories which never sought to incorporate the Kindertransport into such narratives. Rather, both nations felt compelled to understand the Kindertransport in all its complexity so that they could fill in the gaps in their national memories. It is striking that German memory of the Kindertransport was neglected up until recently. Jewish exile from National Socialist Germany has not featured prominently in German memory culture but Kindertransport memory here has reflected upon persecution up until the transports, on the trauma of separation and loss of family members in the Holocaust.  

Our book also tracks the new developments in these national memories such as how Britain is starting to face difficult questions as to whether it could have done more to help refugees in the past and whether it could do more to help them now. This is a process that parallels developments within all the national discourses that we discuss. For example, in North America first, second and third-generation Kinder have been the driving force behind a memory which is constantly drawing connections between the Kindertransport and the current refugee crisis. This is the case in Australia too. Australian memory has also left its mark on German memory because it has encouraged acts of conciliation and empowered some Germans to engage with their own family histories in relation to learning about the stories of the Kindertransports beyond British shores. It is German memory though which truly resonates because it remembers Kindertransports to life and Kindertransports to death. German memory has influenced British memory, but Britain is in need of expanding its memory of the Kindertransport to understand that the term was used in 1942 to mean movements eastwards to death in the Nazi camps. 

What we are most proud of in this book is the new theory: personal transnational memory. Former Kinder and members of the second and third generations bring their personal transnational memories to bear on exhibitions, memorials and commemorations in all of the countries, helping to generate an international understanding of the Kindertransport. It is they who truly emphasise the importance of drawing lessons, in the spirit of human rights discourse, from this memory.  

“Trains to Life – Trains to Death” – Kindertransport memorial in Berlin (Frank Meisler, 2009). 

Our book therefore argues that Kindertransport memory is very much at a crossroads in the nations we examine: it could incorporate more personal transnational memory, which presents the events in all their complexity, or it could continue to focus on the very narrow definition of the Kindertransport as rescue. The Kindertransport is a rescue but it is also a family separation, and it signifies the deportation and annihilation of Jewish children. 

This guest post was written by Amy Williams with Bill Niven

AMY WILLIAMS holds a PhD in History from Nottingham Trent University, UK 

BILL NIVEN is Professor Emeritus of History at Nottingham Trent University, UK 

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