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No Safe Refuge, Part 1

Since the Second World War ended, since the horror of the concentration camps and the full extent of Hitler’s genocidal aspirations became known throughout all sectors of society, there has been a determination that such atrocities should not be repeated. “Never again” has been an impulse that has influenced education, politics, and outreach initiatives throughout Europe for nearly seventy years. From the international friendship initiatives of the late forties, fostering cultural links and travel throughout Europe, to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, through programmes too numerous to mention, this determination has changed the way that we look at international relations and our fellow humans abroad.

But could more have been done earlier? Governments since the war have excused their inertia in the mid and late thirties by pointing out that no-one could have foreseen the extent of the Nazi extermination programme. This is to some extent true: until the concentration camps were liberated, the inhumanity and suffering they embodied was far beyond anything anyone had imagined. And no-one predicted in advance of the war that the Nazis would work with such a potent mix of callous inhumanity and practical efficiency to eliminate from the face of the earth those individuals – Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others – that they considered inferior.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of indicators that the Nazis’ targets were going to be seriously mistreated. Throughout the mid and late thirties, there was an accelerating programme of discrimination against Jews in Germany and, after Anschluss, in Austria. From laws forbidding German Jews to marry non-Jewish citizens, to others restricting their right to earn a living, to gain an education, and to enjoy the full citizenship they had hitherto shared with other Germans, there was a step by step erosion of their rights from the time that Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Hitler asserted in advance of the Evian conference that all German Jews were criminals, and would be treated as such unless other countries took them off his hands. There is evidence that plans for a concerted attack on Jewish lives and property were made in detail in 1937, only waiting for a trigger that would allow the German government to justify acting in such a way. When the moment arrived, the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938 saw many Jews killed, their homes, schools, hospitals and businesses ransacked and smashed or burned, and 30,000 people incarcerated in concentration camps. These events were widely reported at the time, sending a shockwave of horror through Europe: the Times of the 11th November 1938 said, “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”

But, surely, there was overwhelming international support for the victims of this systematic persecution? Actually, there wasn’t, at least not from governments. Britain and the United States both tightened their immigration criteria in response to those seeking asylum, and vetted potential refugees stringently, preferring to accept doctors, scientists, and other economically useful categories of people. In 1935 Sir John Simon, Home Secretary, was briefed that those who had been allowed entry into the United Kingdom were “drawn for the most part from the scientific, business or professional classes. We have congratulated ourselves privately that we have taken the cream of the refugees, persons who are likely to promote new industries and learning”. In November 1938, the new Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, informed Parliament that this policy of careful selection meant that the Jewish refugees allowed into Britain during the previous five years had created jobs for 15,000 Britons, and advised that this cherry-picking of asylum seekers should continue. Moreover, the entry of Jewish refugees had been assisted by the Jewish community here guaranteeing that it would bear all the expenses of their accommodation and maintenance, so that public money would not need to be spent on them; without this guarantee, the numbers accorded even temporary visas would have been much smaller. It seems that Britain was only generous if it would cost nothing, and preferably would contribute to our economy as well.

The “Kindertransport” initiative, inaugurated after Kristallnacht, is something that Britain is rightly proud of. This programme was developed largely in response to public opinion, and saved around 10,000 children, most of whom would otherwise have ended up in concentration camps.

Looking more closely at this scheme, however, shows us how much more could have been achieved. The United Kingdom set no limits on the number of children who could enter, but every child had to be offered a home and have its expenses guaranteed by the Jewish community, members of the public, or a charity. The children’s parents, adult siblings, or other relatives could not accompany them, as such people might then compete with British people for jobs, housing, or other resources. Additionally, the children were only allowed into Britain on temporary visas, the assumption being that they would return to their families or home towns once the emergency was over. But the emergency became a war, and by the end of the war, these children had no families or homes to return to. There are group photos of the children whose lives were saved by this initiative, and stories of how they spent those lives. There are no group shots of the parents whose hold on life was so precarious that they willingly uprooted their children and sent them away to a foreign land to be cared for by strangers. These are people who had no voice, and no future.

Although I am not Jewish, these events have a particular resonance for me. My husband’s parents, in their early twenties at the start of the war, were Czech Jews who were among the fortunate ones allowed to make a new life for themselves in England. My husband’s aunt was a Kindertransport child. Like many of their compatriots, they spent the late forties and fifties seeking and hoping for news of the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had left behind. They received confirmation of these relatives’ deaths in concentration camps one by one, in a fifteen-year long cycle of hopes raised, hopes dashed, and accumulated bereavements.

I would like to think that, had we known in advance the full extent of the horror awaiting those the Nazis considered “undesirable”, we would have done more: more to prevent the persecution and killing, and more to save people from it. I would also like to think that the lessons we have learned from the atrocities of the Second World War include a willingness to prioritise people over balance sheets, human life above economic considerations. I would like to believe these things, but I wonder if this is naive of me. What do you think?

I will consider such issues in my next post.