LAST month an important conference took place to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
Two leading researchers — Dr Louise London and Professor Paul Weindling — presented what was reportedly regarded as shocking evidence relating to the choice of unaccompanied German and Austrian children who were — or were not — permitted to enter the UK under the Kindertransport scheme.
Children were refused places if it was thought that they had ‘disabilities’ or had ‘too Jewish’ an appearance. What was wanted were children who were not religious and so could be all the more easily integrated into British society.
Prof Weindling cited the case of a Viennese Jewish boy whom the authorities described as “very well behaved but very slightly mentally backward”.
The application made on his behalf was rejected. We do not know what fate befell him.
As Dr London remarked, the “problem of what to do with the Jews took precedence over efforts to save them”.
I describe the evidence presented by Prof Weindling and Dr London as “shocking”. Unfortunately, those of us who have researched the Anglo-Jewish response to the Holocaust cannot have regarded it was shocking at all.
Key to the choice of Kindertransport children was the Jewish banker Otto Schiff, head of the London-based Jews’ Temporary Shelter and ‘Overseer of the Poor’ of the United Synagogue.
Schiff worked hand-in-hand with the Aliens Department of the Home Office, so that, in practical terms, Jewish refugees from Nazism were allowed into Britain — or were refused entry — on his authority.
The Home Office trusted Schiff because it knew that, in his approach to this task, he would bring to bear prejudices and preferences of which the government approved.
The Viennese boy was not rejected by the British government, but by Kindertransport officials in London. That is to say, by fellow Jews!
Is there a case to be made in defence of Schiff and his colleagues?
Anti-Jewish prejudice appeared to be on the rise in the UK at that time. With a handful of notable exceptions, the Anglo-Jewish leadership — at the head of which was the then-Board of Deputies president, Mancunian barrister Neville Laski — believed that allowing more foreign-born Germanic-speaking Jews into this country would add fuel to the fire.
Laski had no qualms in publicly articulating the view that Jews, by their conduct, fostered antisemitism. In his book Manchester and the Rescue of the Victims of European Fascism (published 2011), the late Manchester Jewry historian Bill Williams reminds us that in December, 1935, the Manchester-based Women’s Lodge of Bnai Brith resolved that “the spread of antisemitism in England is largely brought about by ourselves”.
But I need to stress that what was true of Manchester was equally true of London.
Indeed within British Jewry this view was widely shared. And because it was widely shared, during the 1930s the official organs of Britain’s Jewish communities did their best to ensure that the least possible number of Jewish refugees were admitted to the UK, and that, as far as possible, only those were admitted who might be judged to be the most easily inclined to assimilate into the host society.
Beyond that, the fewer foreign-born Jews who were permitted to enter the UK, the better.
And what of those heavily traumatised children lucky enough to be chosen for the Kindertransport? Had they all been found billets in Jewish homes, their sufferings might have been lessened.
But in 1943, Dayan Dr Isidor Grunfeld, of the United Synagogue’s Beth Din, recalled how in 1938, when the Kindertransport began arriving, Jews who had been only too willing to donate money to refugee causes “showed themselves very reluctant to take Jewish refugee children into their homes”.
While a case can be made in defence of Otto Schiff and his colleagues, it strikes me as weak.
As for Schiff himself, I never cease to be amazed at the praise still lavished upon him. I noted with dismay that as part of the 2018 Holocaust Memorial Day events, a number of posthumous awards were made to ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’.
Among the recipients was Otto Schiff, upon whose activities the then-Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, waxed lyrical.
Indeed, so preciously revered is Schiff’s memory in certain circles that a Jewish Care home in Golders Green actually bears his name. I am outraged.
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