This Saturday marks the 80th anniversary of the arrival of 206 Jewish children from Germany to Britain; these were the first of some 10,000 who would arrive over the next eight months, thanks to an effort that came to be known as the Kindertransport. Robert Philpot notes that, while the UK is right to be proud of this effort—without parallel in any other country—this year’s celebrations overlook London’s mixed record when it came to Jewish refugees. Most importantly, when the British government let the children into the country, it made a conscious decision to bar their parents, most of whom perished in the Holocaust:
[T]he focus on the Kindertransport also hides a somewhat guilty national conscience, both about those who were not able to escape to Britain, and the fates—including internment and deportation—which befell some of those “lucky ones” who did, . . . some of [whom] were later designated “enemy aliens” [since they came from Austria and Germany, with which England was at war] and faced internment and deportation to Canada and Australia.
Britain adopted a highly restrictive policy toward migrants throughout the 1930s. No exceptions were made for refugees, meaning that by early 1938 there were only about 10,000 Jewish refugees in the country. . . . The introduction of the notorious White Paper of 1939, which capped Jewish migration to Mandatory Palestine at 20,000 per year, closed off another potential route of escape. “The world is divided into places where [Jews] cannot live and places where they may not enter,” lamented the future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann. . . .
Only after Kristallnacht—in the face of strong public support and with even newspapers which had previously been sympathetic toward the Nazis and hostile toward Jewish refugees rapidly changing their tune—did the numbers of refugees admitted to the UK begin to climb. Even then, however, it is important to remember that the Kindertransport was not a government initiative, but, as Tony Kushner of Southampton University has argued, “a voluntary scheme funded and implemented by the British public.” . . .
[Then-Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain himself wrote privately after Kristallnacht, “I believe the persecution [of Jews in Germany] arose out of two motives: a desire to rob the Jews of their money and a jealousy of their superior cleverness.” So as to leave his correspondent in no doubt as to his own attitude, the prime minister added: “No doubt the Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself—but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.”