Immediately after Hitler came to power, most German Jews assumed Nazi anti-Semitism was emblematic of a new nationalism and unlikely to affect them directly. However, when violent unprovoked attacks on Jewish people and property began, prosperous Jews, especially those with business connections overseas, academics, writers and musicians began to leave Germany.
Others, as Germans who served in the First World War, were convinced that this outbreak of state sponsored animosity could not possibly last. The less affluent Jews found it more difficult to leave. Much of Europe and the United States were in a state of recession and with high unemployment and inflation did not want to encourage immigration.
British law allowed special consideration for an immigrant ‘seeking admission to this country solely to avoid prosecution on religious or political grounds‘ but German Jews were not deemed eligible in the early thirties. The only nation able to offer practical resettlement at that time was Holland.
As the situation in Germany grew more dangerous, the Jews plight was championed in Britain the Jewish Refugees Committee (later the German Jewish Aid Committee) led by Otto Schiff. In May 1933 Lionel de Rothschild and Simon Marks raised funds to help the committee lobby the League of Nations. Palestine had been designated the Jewish National Home in 1917 and a mass immigration to Palestine would solve part of the problem. The large number of Zionists amongst the German Jewry began to train their young people with skills they would need resettling there.
In 1933, German schools had to reduce their Jewish pupils to less than five percent and in 1935, the Nuremburg decree insisted German citizenship was restricted only to Aryans and the Jews lost their right to vote, employment and state education.
By 1936, about 80,000 Jews had left Germany and by 1938, at least 30,000 had found new lives in Palestine. After the Nazis marched into Vienna and Eichmann declared his intention to free Austria of all Jews, those Austrians intended to flee.
More support was gathering in Britain. The Save the Children Fund and the Society of Friends raised funds and petitioned to provide practical support. On the nights of 9 and 10 November 1938 Nazi stormtroopers destroyed Germany’s synagogues, vandalised thousands of Jewish homes and businesses, murdered a hundred Jews and arrested thousands. This became known as Kristallnacht – ‘the night of broken glass’. The Jewish situation had become desperate.
The British House of Commons debated refugee policy on 21 November. It was decided to make special provision to accept Jewish young people, provided they would not ‘burden the state’ This would be organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement.
Just a week later, the plans for kindertransport were taking shape. It was decided the Dutch Refugees Committee would assist with the initial stages of the journeys. The main route would be by train to the Hook of Holland then by boat to Harwich and to Liverpool Street Station, London by train. The children would be sent from Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Vienna and Prague. Amongst the first children to be accepted on the kindertransport were orphans from a Jewish orphanage in Berlin. Each child was allowed to bring a small suitcase and ten Reichsmarks.
Between December 1938 and 31 August 1939 (the date of the last kindertransport), just under 10,000 children were brought to Britain. Many never saw their parents again.