QUAKERS IN ACTION

Kindertransport

Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on 31st January 1933. Within two months London Yearly Meeting had appointed its Germany Emergency Committee and it had had its first meeting. Bertha Bracey, a Friend from Birmingham, who had wide experience of Germany and Austria, was its Secretary and became its driving force. The Committee was able to help Jewish and other victims of Nazi persecution to leave Germany. It then supported them in the countries to which they had fled.

Bertha had the support of many other British, American and German Quakers. Their work was greatly helped because many Germans, including highly placed Nazis, felt gratitude to the Quakers who had come to the aid of their compatriots in the hellish aftermath of the First World War. This gratitude unlocked doors that would have been otherwise permanently closed. However it did not prevent, either then or later, some of the German Quakers being sent to concentration camps for being too friendly to the Jews and/or for being pacifists.

The Committee assisted hundreds of Jews in the years leading up to 1938. Early that year there was talk of winding the Committee up, because the international community had woken up to the plight of the German Jews. It was thought that the work the Quakers had been doing had acted as a catalyst and it could now be handed over to other, larger organisations.

Events during that year changed this perception utterly. A major international conference to discuss what the Nations of the World could do was held during the summer, but ended in failure. The year also saw crises over Austria and Czechoslovakia and a temporary sign of hope from the Munich Agreement. However on the night of 9/10 November matters turned even worse for Jews living under Nazi regimes. That night has been known ever since as “Kristallnacht”. Gangs of brown-shirted youths roamed Jewish neighbourhoods smashing shop windows, burning synagogues and attacking any suitable victims they could find. The authorities backed this up by sending a quarter of all Jewish men to concentration camps. Other countries reacted in horror.

The Quakers reacted by sending a six-person mission to ascertain the facts. They had been invited to do this by local Jews and they reported their findings to British Jews and the British Government. Based on their report a delegation of British Jews met Neville Chamberlain, only five days after Kristallnacht, to ask him to lower the barriers to immigration, so children could be admitted, but he refused. Six days later a joint Jewish/Quaker delegation met the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, who belonged to a Quaker family. The Quakers included Bertha Bracey and Phillip Noel Baker. That evening there was a debate in the House of Commons at which Sir Samuel announced that 10,000 children were to be admitted under a special scheme. This announcement was welcomed by the Labour spokesperson who happened to be Phillip Noel Baker! The evacuation of these children became known as the “Kindertransport.”

Immediately the Quakers opened discussions with the German authorities to seek their permission for the departures, agree documentation and arrange for the trains. They also set up offices in major cities where permits could be obtained. These were besieged by thousands of hopeful parents. In the meantime, British Quakers prepared for the children’s arrival. Jewish organisations set up similar arrangements. They focussed on practising Jews, while Quakers helped Christianised and secular Jews.

The first train left on 1st December, only three weeks after Kristallnacht. The trains continued to come until war broke out in September 1939, and brought nearly 10,000 children to safety. Quakers were probably responsible for bringing about 2000 of these out. The Kindertransport children left behind heart-broken but thankful parents, most of whom they never saw again.

Many of the children were first housed in a Butlins Camp near Harwich before going on to Liverpool Street Station. There they met their hosts, Jews, Quakers and others, who had promised to care for them and who often became their life-long friends.

There is a statue commemorating the Kindertransport at Liverpool Street station and another at the Westbahnhof Station in Vienna, chosen because about four thousand of the children came through it.  The picture on this page is of a sculture by Naomi Blake honouring Bertha Bracey and is situated in Friends House, London.

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