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Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship-based approaches in Social Work

Learning from the Kindertransport Children’s Lives

Patricia Higham

Patricia Higham

Introduction

The life stories of children whose Jewish parents sent them to Britain on Kindertransport trains in 1938-9 to escape Nazi persecution in Germany reveal the emotional pain of leaving their parents and living amongst strangers in a different country. This article discusses the experiences of the Kindertransport children, and argues that today’s practitioners can learn strategies for practice from the Kindertransport children’s lives, including how to diminish the incidence of post-traumatic stress, mitigate the impact of traumatic life events on vulnerable individuals and facilitate post-traumatic growth.


In the late 1930s, British people responded to the Nazi persecution of Jewish people by establishing the World Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. Trainloads of children up to 17 years old were sent from Germany to Britain for refuge. The first transport of 320 children arrived in Britain in early December, 1938. By September 1939, 9354 children had come, of which 7482 were Jewish. Some of the children were placed with relatives or friends, and were sponsored and classified as ‘guaranteed’. The ‘non-guaranteed’ children with nowhere specific to go were maintained by the organisation or by local committees. Most of these children did not realise at the time that they would never see their parents again.

Kindertransport stories

The success of the Transport’s rescue mission depended on British volunteers who offered foster homes for the children when they arrived in Britain.  The Kindertransport children experienced loss, trauma, and stress.  In adulthood, some wrote accounts of their experiences that provide insights for contemporary practice.  Other individuals whose families had helped the children to writte their accounts.  Their stories reveal the trauma of growing up and not knowing what had happened to their parents.

  • The novelist Penelope Lively wrote an autobiographical account (2001) of her youth during World War Two, portraying her aunt’s helping activity as a volunteer, resettling refugees, including some Kindertransport children.
  • Karen Gershon, a Kindertransport child, collected individual testimonies from the grown-up children whose lives had been disrupted as children and who suddenly had to adapt to a foreign country, a foreign language, and the loss of their parents.  In these anonymous accounts, we learn of their strength and courage, and the transformation of their identities because of migration.  They tell us of their individual struggles and adaptation.  At the time of publication, the Kindertransport children were adults in their mid twenties to early forties.  Themes expressed by Gershon’s collection of narratives include recollections of the moment of leaving, becoming an adult, confused identity, and finally, belonging.
  • In 1990, Bertha Leverton and Schmul Lowehnsohn edited a book which presents firsthand reminiscences by the Kindertransport children in late adulthood (between their forties and seventies.)  Some of the children had remained in the United Kingdom; others emigrated to USA and Israel.  The older children fared less well than the younger ones, having been placed in hostels and having to find work, then being interned as enemy aliens at outbreak of war.  They suffered poverty and had to fend for themselves very soon after arriving.  The younger children were placed in foster homes which varied in quality. 
  • Lotte Kramer, a Kindertransport survivor, drew on her own witness testimony     to write poetry that expresses intimate feelings. Lotte was born in Mainz, Germany and arrived in Britain on the last Kindertransport in 1939.  She has published several volumes of evocative poetry that reflect on the migrant experience, identity, history, and relationships. 
  • W.G. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944 and settled in England in 1970, becoming Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, before dying in a car accident in 2002.  He wrote Austerlitz, (2001, translated from German by Anthea Bell). In this novel, Jacques Austerlitz, a lecturer in architectural history, tells his life story to a confidante in a series of meetings from 1967 to 1996.  Gradually, in retirement Austerlitz begins to confront his repressed memories of his early childhood identity.  His seemingly unconnected reflections to his confidante on railway station architecture, clocks and time, railway journeys, the flight of homing pigeons, moths and butterflies, airplanes, and the architecture of fortresses are revealed as the traces of his childhood memory when he was parted in 1939 at the age of 5 from his Jewish parents in Prague and travelled on a Kindertransport train to England.  He was placed with Welsh foster parents who provided shelter and an education but little love and affection.  He grows up without being given any information about his early identity, and only learns his real name as he is about to go to university.  Despite academic success, he is seized with unnameable dread and fear throughout his life so that he is unable to form any close relationships.  In late middle age, he determines to find out the identity of his parents and what happened to them.  Eventually he travels to Prague and is reunited with his old nurse who remembers him as a child.  He begins to piece together his fragments of memory.  For the first time, he confronts the horror of the systemic Nazi war machine and the realities of the Holocaust.  He learns that his mother was sent to Terezin concentration camp.  He is unable to trace his father.  At the end of the novel, Austerlitz says goodbye to his confidante as he sets out on another journey to discover more about his parents and about himself. 

    Sebald’s novel portrays man’s inhumanity to man and the importance of individual identity.  The novel is not a polemic but a plea to value an individual’s life and search for identity.  Where is the social worker in this novel who might have helped the child Austerlitz to understand his early life parents?  She is absent.  Jacques’ lack of love in his foster home is not noticed, apparently because his foster parents – a Baptist minister and his wife – are respected members of the community.  Knowledge of his earlier identity is denied him, and his foster parents die without providing any information about his origins.  When Austerlitz embarks on his journey of discovery he is approaching middle age.  At the end of the novel he is old, yet still searching to develop his sense of self in old age.  How often would present-day professional practitioners be ready to consider this search a priority? 

The Present Day

  • The National Holocaust Centre and Museum, in the countryside locality of Laxton, Nottinghamshire, is, as its publicity states, a memorial, a place of testimony, and a centre of learning for all ages.  White roses, in memory of Holocaust victims, are found in the beautiful gardens that surround the buildings.  I took my family, including teen-aged grandchildren, to visit the Museum a few years ago, and we heard the living testimony of a Kindertransport survivor who spoke to us for two hours about her childhood experiences in Germany and then in the UK. 
  • The Kindertransport children who were brought to the United Kingdom before the Second World War are now in their late adulthood, and many have died of old age.  The continuation of their stories and the influence of the Holocaust on future generations is told in a series of autobiographical accounts (Fremont, 1999; Epstein, 1997; Pilcer, 2001) by the adult children of Holocaust survivors living in the USA, revealing the long shadows cast over the children’s lives by the remembered (and sometimes denied) experiences of their parents.
  • I met two adults whose parents were Kindertransport survivors when I presented a paper at the Child Migrant World Congress in October 2002.  They came forward to talk to me privately, prompted by my brief mention of the Kindertransport in my paper.  One woman worked for the Refugee Council; the other worked for UNICEF in Bangladesh.  Both women affirmed the influence on their own lives of their mothers’ experiences as refugees and Holocaust survivors.
  • Some Kindertransport survivors became social workers who subsequently ‘blended in’ with British society, and only after I mentioned publicly the Kindertransport experiences did they reveal to me the story of their early lives.

The Future

The testimonies of survivors and survivors’ children can enhance practitioners’ understanding of responses to loss, and of being placed in foster homes and hostels at a time when there was no available help from professional social workers.  These life stories and reflections can teach practitioners much about present-day issues for practice with refugees whose lives are disrupted by violence, war, or civil unrest. The Kindertransport children’s efforts to establish a new identity in a new country depended on receiving help from strangers, and on gaining acceptance for their new blended identities that were British but which included their Jewish heritage.  The Kindertransport children grew up to lead productive lives with families of their own, but most important to them was discovering what had happened to their parents and knowing their own life stories and identities.  I argue that this is true for children in care, and for others whose lives have been disrupted. 

 Practitioners will recognise some themes of current ‘good’ practice: support for loss, the need for attachment, and resilience.  Practitioners now recognise the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a relatively recent psychiatric diagnosis, that affects, inter alia, combat veterans, women who experience domestic violence, and individuals whose lives are disrupted by sudden natural disasters (Herman, 2010).  Recently, psychologists have acknowledged the possibility of recovery from PTSD through a process of post-traumatic growth (Rendon, 2015) 

I became aware of trauma in my current practice with women who experience domestic violence.  I try to gain their trust, often a lengthy process; I do not ‘tell’ them what to do, but offer ‘tips’ and suggestions that they are free to decline.  Many of these women spent their childhoods in care, and most of them have sketchy memories of their childhoods.  Using a collaborative technique of researching their life stories helps them move beyond trauma to growth.  The Kindertransport stories illuminate my hope that trauma arising from difficult life events may not be a final chapter, but a pathway to growth.   The Kindertransport children’s experiences mirror the lives of present-day asylum seekers, refugees, and trauma victims.  Learning about the lives of the Kindertransport children helps practitioners to understand the impact of post-traumatic stress, and how post-traumatic growth can take place, thus diminishing the impact of lingering trauma. 

Practitioners advisably should draw on a range of communication skills that impart emotional understanding as well as intellectual understanding.  Narrative and biographical methods are effective approaches for building understanding and trust. Autobiographical techniques recount individual struggles, cultural adaptation, and can play a part in traumatic experiences leading to emotional growth.  The historical accounts of children brought to Britain on the Kindertransport programme can help practitioners develop effective contemporary practice.

References

Epstein, Helen (1997) Where She Came From. A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History Plume: New York

Fremont, Helen (1999) After Long Silence. A memoir  Delta: New York

Gershon, Karen (ed.) (1966) We Came As Children.  A Collective Autobiography of Refugees Gollancz: London

Herman, Judith Lewis (2015 edition) Trauma and Recovery. Pandora: London

Higham, Patricia (2020) Communication and Interviewing Skills for Practice in Social Work, Counselling and the Health Professions Routledge: London

Kramer, Lotte (1994) Earthquake and Other Poems Rockingham Press: Ware, Hertfordshire

Kramer, Lotte (1997) Selected and New Poems 1980-1997 Rockingham Press in association with the European Jewish Publication Society, Ware, Hertfordshire

Kramer, Lotte (1994) The Desecration of Trees Hippopotamus Press: Frome, Somerset,

Leverton, Bertha and Lowensohn, Shmuel (eds) (1990) I Came Alone.  The Stories of the Kindertransports The Book Guild Ltd: Sussex

Lively, Penelope (2001) A House Unlocked Penguin: London

Pilcer, Sonia (2001)  The Holocaust Kid Delta: New York

Rendon, J. (2015) Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth   Touchstone: New York

Sebald, W. G., (2001) Austerlitz (translated from German by Anthea Bell) Hamish Hamilton: London 

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