This blog post focuses on the chapter, “Constructing (another) ideal refugee journey: the Kinder,” in Tony Kushner’s The Battle of Britishness.
The Kindertransport was a voluntary movement organised by the British government in 1938 that brought 10,000 Jewish and other children from Nazi Europe to Britain. It was set up in November 1938 and successfully brought refugees (of which, 90 per cent of the 10,000 children were Jewish) from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
The anti-Alien feeling still very much existed in Britain when this movement was created. Questions were increasingly raised on whether it was right to give free entry to political refugees who were seen as a danger to state and to law and order. Especially as, to the British state, migrants from Eastern Europe were the least desirable, no matter which problems they were facing at home. Kushner documents that almost all of the 80,000 refugees from Nazism, before the outbreak of the war, including those on the Kindertransport, were on temporary visas. Kushner also discusses the anti-Alien feeling in regard to the attitude of the British government, as there was no intention of the Kindertransportees to stay indefinitely, entry was, in words of the Home Office overview policy, strictly ‘on condition that they would be emigrated when they were 18’. This is reflected by a refugee worker who spoke to journalist, Mollie Panter-Downes (one of the leading voices in kindertransport), at Liverpool Street Station, who informed her that the children would not be settled in Britain permanently – homes may be found for them in America, Australia or ‘wherever room can be found for them’.
The Kindertransport was restrained within the confines of existing alien legislation, according to Kushner’s studies, he regarded it as ‘a scheme with many flaws’. He mentions the failure to assess the sustainability of guarantors and whether children should be separated from their parents. However, Kushner states that those working on the project acknowledges their short-comings, and admit their failure on the guarantor’s assessment.
Nonetheless, the movement is celebrated in Britain, with many statues, documentaries and movies spawning from the experiences of the children. Britain became a shining example, especially to America, of help given and a contrast to restrictionism everywhere. Kushner states there was a mixture of sadness, excitement, confusion and tiredness among the kinder and that the memory of the Kindertransport has been instrumentalised to show how generosity is integral to British character. But, Kushner concludes that while it is important to remember how many refugees Britain has taken in, it also has a history of rejecting many refugees.