Cambridge Kindertransport author says refugees then faced UK visa blocks familiar to Ukrainians today
Cambridge author and Holocaust educator Mike Levy was able to source material for his recently published book about 1930s Kindertransport children from a tranche of records made publicly available by Cambridge University Library in 2020.
The archive of Cambridge Refugee Committee documents from 1938-39 reveal the difficulties of obtaining visas and the dearth – part indifference, part politically motivated – of official financial support to the families who housed the Kindertransport children who arrived in England just before the outbreak of war.
Remarkable similarities between the UK government then and today’s stance towards Ukrainian refugees are evident, says Mike Levy, a researcher for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Association for Jewish Refugees, and an educator with the Holocaust Education Trust.
His new book, Get The Children Out! Unsung Heroes of the Kindertransport, shines a light on the courageous deeds of 22 women and men who organised the difficult journeys of the Kindertransport refugee children – 100 of whom came to live in Cambridge.
“The Cambridge Refugee Committee was referenced in a book I read, and I discovered a huge archive at Cambridge University Library,” explains Mike.
“For many years I wanted to spend more time looking at the archive and the supplementary archive at Churchill Archive Centre and I found that very exciting.
“Previous books on Kindertransport – and I’ve read most of them – focus quite naturally on the refugee children and how 10,000 of them came to live in Britain, but there’s not an awful lot on how it was organised. For example, they often came without their parents. Locals set up more than 200 refugee centres up and down the country, and Cambridge was one of the most active centres.”
The centres, all volunteer-led, were a response to the tragedy unfolding in Germany, with discrimination against the Jewish population accelerating after Kristallnacht – ‘The Night of Broken Glass’ – in November 1938, at which point the Nazis’ murderous intent towards Jews became all too apparent. Thus began an exodus of Jews from Germany – but the UK government would not waive visas for adults, just for children, creating a series of colossally tragic familial goodbyes at railway stations, as painfully described in Get The Children Out!.
The hitherto unsung heroes who worked to make this happen are introduced and their stories told. They include a shopkeeper, a rabbi, a ‘society last’, a charity worker, a holiday camp manager, a Quaker, a bishop, a brigadier general…. ordinary people doing extraordinary work on behalf of those fleeing a vicious and inhumane regime.
“The Nazis didn’t stand in the way of the children leaving,” Mike says. “Their main policy at that point was expulsion, not extermination.”
Like most governments determined to scapegoat foreigners, they made the form-filling as arduous as possible.
“The Nazis didn’t do anything by halves in terms of bureaucracy,” notes Mike, “so parents would have to go to the local authorities and fill in the paperwork for their child to come to England, and it was very detailed, right down to a declaration that they didn’t owe any subscription fees to the Hitler Youth organisation – as if a Jew would be in the Hitler Youth.”
The child would also have to have a home in England lined up.
“There was very little bureaucracy for children, but what the government of Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 was to keep the visa system for adults – which was used as a way to block asylum seekers.”
He adds: “Voluntarism was at its peak in the 1930s, which helped, but finding homes for more than 10,000 children was a big challenge. What happened now – and you can see it today with the government’s response to the current refugee crisis – was that it was driven by volunteers. One government minister said: ‘We don’t want to do any harm to the population’. He meant he didn’t want them to take any jobs.
“So the volunteers had to feed, clothe and educate the refugees, and set aside money for their eventual expulsion and re-emigration. But war intervened and the re-emigration didn’t happen.
“My job is to tell the story that hasn’t been told of how the volunteers came forward and sometimes it wasn’t done all that well. For instance, this was before the days of the welfare state and there were constant worries about money. It wasn’t a mass movement because there weren’t enough homes.”
There are eerie echoes of Ukrainians having to go from city to city to get a UK visa from embassies which were often shut.
“There were only two or three German cities, and Vienna in Austria, where you could get a visa, and it meant queueing up [at the embassy]. Sometimes it took weeks or even months, and that’s been the case today for Ukrainians who have found the office closed.”
The book describes how one diplomat, Berlin Embassy-based Captain Frank Foley, “took it upon himself to stamp the application forms without waiting for London to say ‘yes’”. Captain Foley, sometimes called ‘the British Schindler’, saved thousands of lives by fast-tracking visas. All 22 worked tirelessly to save as many children as possible, and are themselves saved from historical oblivion by Mike’s astonishingly detailed research.
Mike started writing Get the Children Out! in 2016, originally with two colleagues, who dropped out but ultimately helped with the editing.
“In 2017 I decided to have a go at doing a PhD on the subject as what Anglia Ruskin University called a ‘super extra-mature student’. I hadn’t completed it when Covid struck and access to the archives was curtailed, but I thought ‘I’ve done a lot of work’ so I decided to write a book for a wider readership.”
The book has delighted Allen Packwood, director, Churchill Archives Centre, who said: “It is wonderful that you are promoting Mike’s book. The whole story has become especially resonant and relevant at this time, when we are once again being faced with large numbers of refugees from Europe.
“The Churchill Archives Centre is proud to hold a collection documenting the inspiring work of Robert and Sybil Hutton in helping to save refugee children and adults from Nazi occupied Europe in 1939. Robert was the Goldsmith’s Professor of Metallurgy at Cambridge University but he and his wife helped run and administer the local Kindertransport scheme, which saw Jewish, Polish, Czech and children of other nationalities brought to Cambridge.
“The papers, including case histories, were deposited in 1984 and many are available for research by appointment in our reading rooms.”
John Wells, senior archivist at the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library, added: “The archive was presented to the library by Dr K Wood-Legh, of Lucy Cavendish College, in August 1974. Access to the archive was formerly restricted, with permission to consult it having to be sought in advance from the keeper of manuscripts.
“This was because it contained material relating to living individuals. However, I believe access was given on several occasions over the years. The restriction was lifted in 2020, and the papers can now be viewed by anyone with a library reader’s card. They are not on display.
“The collection is also listed on The National Archives ‘Discovery’ resource.”
Get the Children Out! Unsung Heroes of the Kindertransport is published by Lemon Soul Books, price £9.99.
With each copy sold, £1 is donated to London-based Safe Passage, which helps child refugees find legal routes to sanctuary.