Thought for the Week: Quakers and Kindertransport

Stephen Wright reflects on a recent encounter

Some months ago a Friend made an offer to our local Council of Christians and Jews that we in Harrow Meeting would be pleased to arrange a talk to a future meeting of the Council on a topic chosen by them and relevant to Quakerism.

We were asked to make a presentation to the Council on 23 January under the title ‘Quakers and History, including Quaker involvement in Kindertransport’ as the presentation would be given on a day close to Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January. I was delighted to give the presentation and at the end of it a member of the Council stood up to propose a vote of thanks for me.

The member of the Council, a Jewish lady called Irene, then recounted her experience of leaving Germany in 1938. It brought to life the trauma experienced by Jewish people in Europe at that time. Irene and her mother lived in Berlin. In 1937 her mother was warned by a neighbour that her life was in danger and he urged her to leave Germany as soon as possible. Irene, who was aged four at the time, was placed in a residential nursery, and her mother came to London using her German passport, which was marked with a large letter J, denoting that she was Jewish.

In London she found work and temporary accommodation. She then returned to Germany and told Irene that she would be returning to London, and when she had found a place where they both could live she would come back to Berlin to collect Irene. On her way back to London she was stopped at the German border with the Netherlands and her passport with the large J was confiscated. She was told that she could leave Germany but that she would not be allowed to return.

Back in London, Irene’s mother was obviously distraught, and one day on entering a department store she became confused in the revolving door and burst into tears. A man asked whether there was anything he could do to help. Her whole story came out to this stranger and he said that he was in contact with some people who may be able to help her.

A short time later this man contacted Irene’s mother to say that if she could get Irene into the Netherlands then transport from there to Britain could be arranged. Irene’s mother made enquiries with contacts in Berlin, in particular at the nursery where Irene was staying, but was told that there was no way Irene could be brought out of Germany. This message was relayed to the man who, after a short time, told Irene’s mother that a friend of his would be travelling to Germany shortly, and would be taking papers with him that would enable him to bring out Irene, posing as his daughter. The plan went ahead, and Irene travelled with this unknown man through the Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, by boat to Harwich and then by train to Liverpool Street station.

On arriving at Liverpool Street Irene saw her mother waiting on the platform and ran to her. Then she looked around for the man. He had vanished. Irene and her mother had no opportunity to speak with him. All this happened in 1938, and since that time Irene has been waiting to say a big ‘Thank you’ to Quakers for saving her life. Irene did so after my presentation, and I pass those thanks on to the Society.

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