In one of the lesser-known chapters in the horrific story of the Holocaust, 10,000 Jewish children were spirited to sanctuary in England from their homes in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. After the Anschluss in 1938, by which Hitler merged Austria into the Third Reich, and after Germany subsequently divided and then swallowed Czechoslovakia later that year, Jews in all three countries prepared for the worst. The Nazis had been in power for five years, and attacks on Jewish people, property and liberty were on the increase.
Even then, few could imagine the nightmare of the Final Solution, but Jews knew they were vulnerable to acts of heinous persecution. Some managed to flee. Many more would have fled had they been able, but punitive emigration regulations made legal departure nigh impossible. Thousands, though, opted to send their children abroad in a program that lasted from 1938 until Hitler's invasion of Poland finally sparked World War II in September 1939. Writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris' heartbreaking documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers, tells the stories of a dozen now aged individuals who are likely alive today because of the program called Kindertransport.
The experiences of the Kindertransport children were as various as human individuality. Many recall a happy childhood and the searing pain of being separated from their parents and sent to live with strangers in a foreign country with a foreign tongue. Most recall understanding that their lives were at stake and that they were being sent away to a safer place.
Hedy Epstein, however, was angry at her parents and accused them of sending her away because they did not love her. Robert Sugar remained angry at his parents for a long time and pledged, along with some of his associates among the transports, to die with his children rather than ever send them away. In contrast, Alexander Gordon was an orphan and eager for the transport. But he eventually became the victim of anti-German discrimination and was relocated for a time to Australia.
Some of the transported children were housed in camp dormitories. And although the goal was to place as many children as possible into foster homes, almost all of the youngsters went through a process of interviewing and examination that made them feel like animals in a zoo. Not remarkably, the foster parents, too, varied. Some took children and turned them into servants. That's what happened to Bertha Leverton, who nonetheless convinced her foster parents to offer refuge to a sister and brother as well.
Some treated the children almost as afterthoughts. The family that took in Inge Sagan fled to the country and left her behind in the city during the relentless Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry. Others treated their wards kindly, but with enough coolness to leave wounds that have lasted more than a half century. Lorraine Allard appreciated her foster parents but remembers wanting hugs that never came.
And still others, of course, welcomed the refugees as full members of their families, equal siblings to their own natural children. That's what happened to Kurt Fuchel, who was taken in by Miriam and Percy Cohen. Kurt and Miriam remain close to this day (Percy died in 1963), and Kurt was happy enough as a Cohen child that he didn't want to return to live with his natural parents, who survived the Nazi reign of terror after a miraculous journey from Austria to France where they were afforded years of hiding by the French Resistance.
Fuchel's is a typical story of the inevitable apprehension, predictable even if unwarranted guilt and enduring conflict suffered by the Kindertransport children. Today, the refugees recall the terror they felt about possibly being rejected by their foster parents, and an urgency to please born of insecurity.
With the end of the war, of course, came profound grief, for the great majority of the children's parents were swept away in Hitler's genocide, a fact the children feared but dared hope had not happened. Lore Segal talks about how the psychological stress of the children's circumstances sometimes made them very difficult to raise. She was domiciled with five different families, never adjusting to any of them. Still, Segal remembers the English families with gratitude for their "grace to take in a Jewish child."
That's a credit in which Americans shamefully cannot share, for our Congress blocked legislation for a Kindertransport program to the United States on the bizarre grounds that taking children away from their parents was "contrary to the laws of God." One and a half million Jewish children died in the Holocaust. The British saved 10,000. How many more we Americans might have saved we will sadly never know.