Forward from the Past: The Kindertransport from a Contemporary Perspective

Leo Baeck Institute London; in cooperation with the German Historical Institute London; Aberystwyth University; and the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, University of London
Aaron Jochim, Historisches Seminar, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

For a long time, the Kindertransport was presented as Britain’s redemptive answer to the Holocaust. In major narratives of escape, asylum, and generosity the boundaries have been blurred between celebratory commemoration, collective memory, and well-meaning historiography. In recent years new research looking more closely at untold stories, post-war experiences, and methods of memorialization has cast doubt on former assessments.[1]

Following this realignment, the symposium ‘Forward from the Past: The Kindertransport from a Contemporary Perspective’ brought together international experts to analyse critically the transports to Britain in 1938–9, their aftermath, and representation. As part of a series of events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the symposium was held on Tuesday, 25 June 2013 at the German Historical Institute London (GHIL) and organized by the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) in cooperation with the GHIL, the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, and Aberystwyth University, School of European Languages. The symposium was also attended by a considerable number of representatives of the first and second generation of the Kindertransport, creating a fruitful dialogue between research and contemporary witness.

After a welcome by host ANDREAS GESTRICH (London), RAPHAEL GROSS (London), BEA LEWKOWICZ (London), and ANDREA HAMMEL (Aberystwyth), the symposium opened with a first panel reflecting the representation of the Kindertransport in British historiography. Drawing on unconsidered individual cases and Britain’s contemporary immigration policy, TONY KUSHNER’s (Southampton) keynote paper challenged dominant tropes and narrative patterns describing the Kinder’s journey in the light of escape and redemption. Kushner showed how the memory of the Kindertransport has been instrumentalized to portray the emergence of a successful symbiosis between Britain’s generosity and the Kinder’s gratitude. According to Kushner, this story does not reflect the full complexity of the Kinder’s journeys and lives, which have been anything but perfect. While Kushner highlighted the organization of the Kindertransport as a ‘remarkable grassroots movement’, ROSE HOLMES (Sussex) shed more light on the often neglected voluntary tradition. Referring to the Quakers’ voluntary contribution, she described how the Kindertransport was organized, financed, and managed. Holmes emphasized the generosity of the Quakers and their efforts, which were later unfairly claimed by the government itself. Thus, by considering non-governmental help from British citizens, her paper corrected another major narrative. The first panel closed with a paper by JENNIFER CRAIG-NORTON (Southampton) which investigated the complex relationships between the carers and the children. She discussed how official letters from carers, compared with the foster child’s memory, can serve as an important source. The paper demonstrated that the plight of the children and pressure of time often made it impossible to guarantee the carers’ competence. Foster families were barely informed about the past and the fate of the Kinder, and often treated them like orphans. Even if carers made great efforts, their generosity did not always outlast the hardship of wartime.

The second panel focused on the experiences and memories of the former Kinder after 1945. ELIZABETH HEINEMAN (Iowa) outlined a research project questioning the ‘happy end’ of children who were reunited with their parents after the war. With reference to her own family, Heineman is writing a micro-history in order to show how long-term family dynamics, separation, and the influence of additional elements, such as religion or education, affected relationships in reunited families, sometimes for the worse. While Heineman revealed the richness of her family’s literary legacy, BEA LEWKOWICZ (London) stressed the importance of the AJR Refugee Voices Archive as an invaluable source for new research. The archive contains a collection of 150 filmed interviews with Jewish survivors and refugees from Nazism now living in the UK.[2] Regarding two interviewees, Ursula Gilbert and Susan Einzig, who came to Britain with the Kindertransport, Bea Lewkowicz discussed how reflective sections at the end of each interview give particular insights into different ways of coping with an often traumatic past.

From the angle of a literary scholar, ANDREA HAMMEL (Aberystwyth) surveyed the narrative layers of three memory texts by former Kindertransportees: Martha Blend’s “A Child Alone”, Vera Gissing’s “Pearls of Childhood”, and Ruth L. David’s “Ein Kind unserer Zeit”. Approaching these works as a ‘creative exploration’ of the past, Hammel highlighted that, in retrospect, the memoirs constituted specific portrayals of childhood. She described how the techniques featured in the texts, especially the interaction between narrated self (the child) and narrating self, evoked the impression of estrangement and defamiliarization, and represented the experiences of a disturbed identity.

The third panel addressed the experiences of the second generation, which have hitherto received little attention. In brief talks, four representatives of the second generation revealed how the Kindertransport affected their family lives and different ways of dealing with their parents’ legacy. MELISSA ROSENBAUM forged a bridge from feelings of shame about being Jewish, initially present in the family, to the importance of her parents’ past for their own identity. GABY GLASSMAN followed on by explicitly addressing psychological and psychoanalytical issues. Dismissing the construction of a hierarchy of suffering, she stressed the subjectivity of suffering and how, in the case of the Kindertransport, the children of the Kinder could unconsciously associate with the grief of their parents. KAREN GOODMAN, on the other hand, considered her family’s past as an appeal to take responsibility. Thus, she said, it had influenced her personal engagement as a social worker for asylum-seeking children. MELISSA HACKER, president of the Kindertransport Association, explained how the felt difference between children of former Kindertransportees and other Jewish families in New York provided an impetus to find out more about their parents’ past. These efforts resulted in the film “My Knees Were Jumping”, parts of which were shown after the talks. Bea Lewkowicz commented on how the film, focusing on the transmission of the drama through the generations, unveiled specific characteristics which defined the family life of former Kindertransportees: the tension between history and imagination, as well as between assimilation and the feeling of being different.

While the second generation experience was conveyed as essentially a transition from personal experience to (cultural) memory, the fourth panel referred to specific memorialization of the Kindertransport. The visual representation of the Kindertransport was the topic of a talk by NATHAN ABRAMS (Bangor). Comparing four documentaries and one fictional film, Abrams analysed prevailing techniques of staging the Kindertransport in film. He convincingly demonstrated that using black and white images, or specific motifs, such as biblical reconstructions, contributed to hidden narratives presented by the films. An instance of contrast was seen in the film “Vienna’s Lost Daughters” (2010), which resisted many of the prevailing documentary techniques.

The last two presentations discussed the approaches of material culture. SUZANNE BARDGETT (London) gave insights into the Kindertransport section of the IWM’s Holocaust exhibition. The exhibition tries to convey an understanding of the personal stories by means of specific artefacts. JUDITH VANDERVELDE (London) added to this by presenting particularly emotive Jewish artefacts exhibited in the Jewish Museum, London. She also reflected on the curator’s role in telling specific stories by selecting and presenting the exhibits. According to Vandervelde, the untold stories which seldom came up for discussion included the apathy of Britain’s Jewish community at the time of the Kindertransport, anti-Semitism, and the often traumatic evacuation of the children within the UK. These two talks invited debate on the issue of space in both physical and cultural terms. How is it possible to present the Kindertransport appropriately within a limited exhibition space? And why are these spaces limited? Does the timeline of the IWM’s Holocaust exhibition, stopping in 1945, not dramatically limit the scope of the Kindertransport section?

In his concluding remarks, DANIEL WILDMANN (London) picked up on the points which came up in the preceding discussion. Highlighting the issues of space, identity, and the (lack of) confidence of British Jewry, as well as the public presence of Anglo-Jewish history and culture in the UK with reference to the Kindertransport as still open questions for research, he came full circle to Tony Kushner’s starting paper. The sphere of representation in particular makes it clear that the Kindertransport still has to fit into certain cultural contexts, limits, and narratives, and that the ‘Battle of Britishness’ might not be completely over.

The symposium ended with the opening of the exhibition ‘Double Exposure: Jewish Refugees from Austria in Britain’, designed by Bea Lewkowicz, and a performance of Hans Gál’s ‘What a Life!’ (Norbert Meyn: tenor; Malcolm Miller: piano).

Considering the historiography on the Kindertransport, its memorialization, experiences after 1945, and neglected groups (like the foster families or the parents) the conference highlighted the Kindertransport as a complex phenomenon that does not end with the arrival of the children in the UK. Different narratives, memories, and historical approaches are intertwined and need to be carefully analysed. While micro-historical studies or examinations of untold stories or cases have been presented as a means to break up misleading narratives, the conference also addressed the issue of how the memory of contemporary witnesses can be adequately preserved for future research. The symposium constituted an important opportunity for exchange between academic research, representatives of the commemorative sphere and contemporary witness, and provided significant inputs for new views on the Kindertransport.

Conference Overview

Section 1: The Kindertransport in British Historiography
Moderation: Raphael Gross (LBI)

Tony Kushner (Southampton): The Battle of Britishness: The Kinder’s Perfect Journeys

Rose Holmes (Sussex): Quakers and the Kindertransport: The Neglect of the Voluntary Tradition

Jennifer Craig-Norton (Southampton): The Historiography’s Missing Pieces: What the Letters of Carers reveal

Section 2: New Research on the Kindertransport Experience after 1945
Moderation: Andreas Gestrich (GHILondon)

Elizabeth Heineman (Iowa): Kindertransport: Family Aftermaths

Bea Lewkowicz (IGRS London): The Refugee Voices Archive and the Kindertransport

Andrea Hammel (Aberystwyth): Kindertransportees: Writing their own History

Section 3:The Second Generation Experience
Moderation: Bea Lewkowicz, (IGRS London)

Film Screening and Panel Discussion
Gaby Glassman, Karen Goodman, Melissa Rosenbaum, and Melissa Hacker

Section 4: Memorialization of the Kindertransport
Moderation: Daniel Wildmann (LBI/QMU London)

Nathan Abrams (Bangor): The Kindertransport in Film

Suzanne Bardgett (IWM London): The Kindertransport Story at the Imperial War Museum

Judith Vandervelde (Jewish Museum, London): The Stories we tell… and the Stories we don’t: Multiple Interpretations at the Jewish Museum


[1] See esp. the collection of articles in Andrea Hammel and Bea Lewkowicz (eds.), The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39: New Perspectives, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 13 (Amsterdam, 2012).
[2] See <>, accessed 19 July 2013.

Tagungsbericht: Forward from the Past: The Kindertransport from a Contemporary Perspective, 25.06.2013 London, in: H-Soz-Kult, 22.08.2013, <>.
Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Sprache Beitrag
Land Veranstaltung
Sprache Veranstaltung