Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Folk und Kinder

I'D been planning to go to Liverpool Street station today to see an unusual Suitcase. It's a drama commemorating the arrival at the station seventy-years ago of a special train - the first of the Kindertransport trains which were to bring almost 10,000 mainly Jewish children out of Nazi Germany and Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia.

The site-specific work has been developed by Ros and Jane Merkin from the memories of their mother Johanna who was one of the children on that train, from Vienna, in December 1938.

The audience will not be seated comfortably in a theatre, but conducted around the station to come upon scenes telling the story, with bewildered children, waiting foster parents, bemused railway workers and bystanders. The performance also incorporates music, seasonal carols and tunes from the Old Country, provided by Max Reinhardt and the Trans-Siberian Marching Band.

There's to be three one-hour performances, numbers have had to be restricted so as not to cause too much disruption to a busy station, and the good news is that the reason I could not go is I received a message at the weekend regretting to tell me the event was fully booked, indeed over-subscribed.

At least I can think of those who never made it to those trains.

It was after the Nazi 'Kristallnacht' pogroms in November 1938 that a delegation prevailed upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his government to allow up to 10,000 child refugees into Britain. It was not easy. Homes had to be found for the children, and a £200 bond paid for each child. The children had to leave their parents behind, and few ever saw their parents or relatives again after the Nazi genocide. In all, some 9,500 children came to Britain this way including some 2,000 whose parents though not Jewish were persecuted by the Nazis as political opponents.

The last train came as war broke out between Britain and Germany. The Refugee Children Movement committee which had organised the trains had already run out of funds in August 1939. Meanwhile in the United States, though some children were brought in informally, the Wagner-Rogers Bill to admit 20,000 Jewish refugees under the age of 14, co-sponsored by Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.), had failed to get Congressional approval in February 1939.

By sheer coincidence, though I could not attend the Liverpool Street performance of 'Suitcase', I happened to borrow a David Roberts novel from the library the other day, it's called 'The Quality of Mercy', and features his period gentleman sleuth and agent Lord Edward Corinth and intrepid communist journalist Verity Browne as well as such unlikely characters as Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Edwina, and Hitler-admiring Unity Mitford. But apart from the country house polo playing set and London art scene this book brings its heroine and hero into Vienna as the Nazis take over Austria, and to the rescue efforta of the kindertransport.

Among the real-life figures who stand out for such efforts, we think of Nicholas Winton. the young British businessman who made it his business to organise the rescuse of children from Czechoslovakia as the Nazi jaws closed on that country following Munich. He apparently never considered he had done anything special, and it was not till half a century later that his wife Greta was going through an old scrapbook in the attic and found out the story. He was knighted at the end of 2002, and the Czech government nominated him for a Nobel peace prize.

Among various individuals and organisations which helped receive the children in Britain, one which has been quite modest about its part is the Woodcraft Folk. Emerging from efforts to form a non-militaristic alternative to the Scouts, following World War I, this youth movement, founded in 1925, drew its name from the outdoor, nature-loving "woodcraft" ideas of American Edward Thompson Seton, looking to the Native American tribes; but combined with the democratic and egalitarian comradeship ideals of the labour, and more especially co-operative movement. On the Continent, particularly Germany and central Europe, its links are with the social-democratic Red Falcon youth movement.

It was not till looking at some letters from Kindertransport children that I noticed references to the Woodcraft Folk, and started discovering more about its part. But here is one witness, Zusana Medusova, writing in a Prague magazine in 1998:
"My father was already in hiding from the Gestapo...an Austrian socialist, political editor of Vorwarts
, the daily paper of the Social democratic party...Of course he had to flee at once. ..the paper was forbidden and its editors were enemies of the new state! So, together iwth many other anti-nazi refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, Czechoslovakia was their first place of exile...Very soon the children of these refugees were formed into a youth group called Die Rote Falken...Some of us Rote Falken had attended an International youth camp in the summer of 1937. It was held in England, near Brighton. ..None of us could guess that two years later Britain would beome our new homeland.

"The organiser of this large camp - the head of the Woodcraft Folk - was a young married man, an idealist, keen trade unionist, humanitarian - we all love this man. He was eager to know from our youth leaders what was then the situation in Czechoslovakia and he kept in touch with them after ourreturn from this wonderful holiday. When it became obvious that the Germans had their eye on their Czech neighbours Henry fair wrote a pleading letter to all members of the Woodcraft Folk, asking them to volunteer to take some of the children whose parents were once again threatened by the Nazis. It must be said that these were working-class families and that, by taking a refugee child, they would certainly have to make financial sacrifices... none of us could imagine that we would neevr see our parents agin - in my case out of 52 members of my mother's extended family, only eight survived two returned from the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen."

(Article from Rosh Chodesh magazine, quoted in Fashioning a New World: A History of the Woodcraft Folk, by Mary Davis).

Susanna Pearson, was born Susanne Ehrmann on 11 April 1928 in Moravska Ostrava, a town in Czechoslovakia… The family moved to Prague when she was four years old, for her father’s job

"My mother had many friends, loved parties and nice clothes. We were both members of the Rote Falcons, an international youth movement which had links with the Woodcraft Folk in Britain, Mother as a helper. I have happy memories of the camps we went to. At that time, we little knew that it was probably the membership of this organization that would save my life"

As the Nazis closed in, Susanne's parents and their Jewish friends were seeking ways to leave the country. "This was proving impossible as the world had closed its doors to Jewish refugees. However there were efforts made to bring out children, particularly by a British stockbroker called Nicholas Winton who was on holiday in Prague. He realized the plight of the Jews and resolved to do something. He gained permission from the British government to bring out children, providing he could find families to care for them and a guarantee of £50 per child for re-immigration. In this way he made it possible for 1,000 children to come to Britain. The start of the Second World War prevented the last transport train leaving, but nevertheless he was able to rescue about 680 children.

"The demand for places was very high, but I was probably given one because the Woodcraft Folk in England were able to offer 20 homes for Rote Falcons. They were prompted to do so having met up with some of us at a camp in Brighton in 1938. It is difficult to know how my parents felt when they learned that they had been successful in their application for me to be one of these children. I have often wondered, particularly when my own daughters were the age I was then. The decision my parents made to send me must have been a very brave and difficult one, because they knew they could not come with me. Nor did they know whether they would ever be able to join me".

"My transport left Prague on 29 June 1939 with about 241 children aged 2-15. I find it difficult to remember how I felt on that day when my parents took me to the railway station, and I became one of the children on one of the last trains to safety before the war started. Perhaps it seemed an adventure, and I certainly did not realize that I would never see my parents again…"

Susan concludes her account thus: "My own beliefs remain intact. My Jewishness is a positive part of myself, although I am not observant. I am on the left of politics, and like to think of myself as tolerant and anti-racist. My hope is that by telling my story, it will help young people to begin to understand what can happen to ordinary people when they become the victims of racism, discrimination and prejudice".

(extracts from Susanne Pearson’s account in Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, published by The Quill Press, in association with The Aegis Trust.

I've been struck by the fact that not only do these one time child refugees pay tribute to those who helped them, but often they, and their children in turn, rather than dwell exclusively on their own experiences, as well they might, show ready sympathy, understanding, and support for today's refugees and victims of oppressive regimes. I might return to that.

Meantime, from those of us who have been fortunate enough not to go through such experiences, and are sometimes inclined to sneer at organisations like the Woodcraft Folk as twee, or neglect the importance of practical help to people in deperate need, let's hear it for the aptly-named Henry Fair, for Sir Nicholas Winton, and the Woodcraft Folk! Without them some of our friends would not be here.

For a Kindertransport memory on Czech radio:

Also, Nicholas Winton

Susan(na) Pearson and Somali refugee on community TV

after not making a fuss of their part in helping the child refugees, Woodcraft Folk is making it part of their educational work on refuge problems then and now:

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