At a time in which our current Home Secretary is trying to change the law to require sea rescue personnel to turn back boats of vulnerable refugees in mid channel and make it an offence to rescue them – and 27 people have now drowned – at Liverpool Street on Saturday, I came across the memorial to the Kindertransport. There is an understated plaque on the wall behind it, but a superficial glance at it would leave most viewers thinking it was a memorial to the domestic child evacuees that were sent out to the countryside early in World War 2 to avoid the much feared impending bombing offensive.
Around the base of the plinth are the names of the German cities from which Jewish refugee children were rescued from the Nazis, between Kristallnacht in November 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939.
The statue is at Liverpool Street, because most of the children arrived there after getting across the North Sea by Ferry to Harwich from Rotterdam.
It is a rather bland statue, the children’s faces showing little anxiety or distress. Normalising somehow. Just enough to remind us that something relatively good was done. But not enough, either in the sculpture or the plaque, to drive home the horror they fled, nor draw out why it was that their parents and so many others were left behind to be murdered en masse in the concentration camps, let alone draw any parallels with refugees today. Nothing to disturb the thoughts of the thousands of passing commuters on their way into the City of London.
Self congratulation about the Kindertransport in Britain serves to obscure the harsh reality that all other refugees from Nazi Germany were locked out; including after the war started.
British immigration policy in the 1930s was extremely tight with the door slammed shut, including for refugees. This was compounded by campaigns in the right wing press.
“The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. The number of aliens entering the country through the back door is a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed” Daily Mail, 20 August 1938
How little that paper has changed.
Although former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had gone on the Radio after Kristallnacht and said, “Thousands of men, women and children, despoiled of their goods, driven from their homes, are seeking asylum and sanctuary on our doorsteps, a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest” the then Conservative government gave no consideration to providing such asylum and sanctuary for the thousands of men and women who were the parents of the children they did let in, who were left to deal with “the tempest” the best they could.
Just under 10,000 were able to use the temporarily relaxed visa regulations that only applied to children up to 16 years old, with the costs of accommodation and fostering footed entirely by the “Movement for the Care of Children from Germany”; a united front of Jewish, Quaker and other refugee support groups who had assured the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, that none of the refugees would become “a financial burden on the public”. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the government from trying to claim credit. Hoare commented that the Home Office “shall put no obstacle in the way of children coming here to show that we will be in the forefront among the nations of the world in giving relief to these suffering people”; so long as the tab was picked up by someone else of course.
During the afternoon, the statue was surrounded by a little group of anti vaxx demonstrators. They were middle aged or older, seemed quite quiet and subdued, not talking to each other, almost invisible. Sombre. Middle class in a brittle sort of way. Dressed darkly, with darker thoughts in their heads and paranoid placards.
In the evening, passing it again, it was a Saturday night and the whole station concourse was a setting for a seething bacchanalia of edgy crowds dressed up, seemingly pissed up, shouting, pushing past each other, consuming without noticing; everything at once intense and meaningless. The statue was surrounded by people waiting. No anti vaxxers this time, but bored and aimless consumers of the night who carelessly decorated the plinth with discarded milkshake cups and burger boxes; the disrespect of those that do not look.