Monday 27 January was Holocaust Memorial Day, an opportunity to remember all those who were murdered in The Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution, and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
A common refrain for Holocaust Memorial Day is “never again”, reflecting the importance of using the day to remember how these genocides were allowed to happen, and to ensure that we act to avoid such events ever happening again.
The Holocaust is an event that has shaped my family history and life in profound ways. My paternal grandmother lost almost her entire family in a massacre of the Jewish community in the village of Mir, in modern day Belarus. She never really talked about it, but the gaping hole in that side of the family said more than words.
My schooling also provided regular reminders of the Holocaust, especially the important role Britain played in helping to provide shelter for those being persecuted by the Nazis. My school – Hasmonean High School – was established by Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who worked with the British Government and many others to help organise the kindertransport.
The kindertransport was initiated following “Kristallnacht” – the Night of Broken Glass – a pogrom which targeted Jewish communities throughout Nazi Germany on 9-10 November 1938. The British cabinet discussed these events the following day, and, encouraged by a delegation of British, Jewish, and Quaker leaders, a Bill was quickly passed through parliament to allow unaccompanied children at risk in Nazi Europe to seek refuge in Britain. The first children began arriving on 2 December 1938, and ordinary British people opened their homes to over 10,000 children who arrived in the period up until May 1940.
The story of the kindertransport is one of cross-community mobilisation, the power of motivated individuals and swift political action, combined with the generosity of ordinary people across Britain. It is all the more inspiring when recognising that this action took place in a Britain with much more modest standards of living, on the brink of a world war.
The kindertransport is though also a tragic story. It was supposed to provide temporary refuge for these children, who would then be supported to return to their parents and homes once the threats facing them had passed. Sadly, due to the horrors of the Holocaust around four in ten never saw either of their parents again and most lost at least one parent.[i] Their homes and communities were also devastated and irreparably changed, and so Britain became their permanent home.
Hearing about this important chapter in British history when I was growing up helped to motivate my career in the international development sector. It has also inspired many people – including Lord Alf Dubbs, who was rescued in the kindertransport – to push for faster and more ambitious action from the UK Government to help address the refugee crisis that has gripped the world in recent years. Today, largely due to conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, more than 70 million people are displaced, of whom 26 million are refugees.[ii]
As it is one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid supporting people displaced in the developing world, the British Government is already doing much to address the global refugee crisis. The UK also gave protection to 18,519 people (40% of which were children) in the UK in the year ending June 2019, up 29% compared with the previous year.[iii] This increase did though follow four years of stagnation in the numbers of successful asylum seekers[iv], whilst global refugee numbers soared. The lesson of both the Holocaust and the kindertransport is that today, in a better resourced Britain, where we are ever more connected to the world, we must do all we can to ensure that children and other vulnerable refugees are not failed at this new time of crisis.