In My Own Words: For the good of the nation or the individual?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
I’d already read and reviewed one non-fiction work about the Kindertransport – when more than 10,000 Jewish and non-Jewish minors were able to escape from areas controlled by Nazi Germany and receive shelter in England between November 1938 and September 1939* – so I paused for a moment before deciding whether I wanted to read another book on the same topic. What made me decide to ask for a copy of “The Kindertranport: What Really Happened” by Andra Hammel (Polity) is not just that it offers an easy-to-read discussion of the Kindertransport, which clearly shows how it worked, but discusses how myths about historical events can affect the decisions we make today. The discussion of historical myths is why I decided to write about the book in my page two column, rather than a book review. The questions it raises about the good of the nation vs. the good of the individual are – as the author notes at the end of the book – still important today. 
Hammel explores the myth of the Kindertransport – a myth that says the British government did a wonderful thing by allowing these children to immigrate and provided for all their needs. While not denigrating what the government did (because its policies did save many innocent lives), the reality of the situation was not as simple as the myth suggests. First, the British government did not pay for the program: funds were raised from organizations and individuals. There was no government subsidy. Families were not accepted: the government was not interested in adults, but rather children who could be molded into acceptable British citizens. Plus, the children were generally expected to leave school quickly and take jobs that would allow them to pay their own way. The children’s applications were carefully reviewed and those with physical, developmental or psychological problems were not accepted. 
Some children did well and Hammel tells of their lives during and after the war. Others never recovered from the experience: their stories – including one person who died by suicide – were more difficult to read. Most parents and children did not expect the separation to be permanent. However, many parents died in the Holocaust. Those who did survive faced difficulties caused by a variety of reasons – language and cultural barriers, to name just two – especially with children who immigrated so young they were unable to remember their parents or the language they once spoke. 
The part of the work that I continue to ponder – and which is still relevant today – is how we balance the needs of society vs. the needs of individual refugees. For example, before World War II, the British government worried about immigrants flooding the country and taking much needed jobs from British citizens. It wanted to know who benefitted from the money that was being spent. And, once the war began, there were worries about whether the older immigrants (including teenagers) could be trusted, since pretending to be anti-Nazi was an excellent way for a spy to enter the country. The needs of individual children were also often not considered during Kindertransport placements. Hammel explores the different circumstance in which the children found themselves – from individual families to larger groups – but, as one might expect, the situations ranged from satisfactory to unsatisfactory, with some children being abused by those they lived with and other host families coming to consider the children as true family. 
The reason behind Hammel’s discussion is the large number of refugees from the Middle East who are attempting to find refuge in Britain and European countries. What matters most: the humanitarian needs of those fleeing their homelands or the needs of the country they seek to enter? The author notes that many more children applied to be part of the Kindertransport than were accepted. (There is no way of knowing, but one may presume that many of those not accepted died during the war.) Governments and citizens need to decide what should be the first consideration: making certain that letting in immigrants does not negatively affect the country (for example, by making certain they have sponsors who will take responsibility for their upkeep), or saving as many lives as possible and worrying about the other questions – funding, housing, schooling, etc. – later?
The debate in recent years in the United States has been a volatile one and there seems to be little agreement about the best policy. As a Jew who sees how many lives could have been saved if nations had opened their doors to Jewish immigration before World War II, it’s hard to not to say, “Open them all!” Yet, I also understand that nations have a right to decide who enters their borders. It also breaks my heart to think that we can’t save everyone, but I do know that having open borders will not solve the real problem: what is happening in the refugees’ countries of origin. However, Judaism not only asks us to welcome the stranger numerous times in the biblical text, but the Talmud tells us we must continue a task, even if we can’t finish it. 
As for “The Kindertransport,” Hammel does an excellent job showing the range of experiences – the good and the bad. The bottom line is that as imperfect as the program was, it did save lives and we should be grateful for that. But accepting the myth of its being the perfect humanitarian effort is not helpful because it prevents us from learning how we can do better in the future. 
*Click here to read The Reporter’s review of “The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory%u201D by Jennifer Craig-Norton.