First Person

Some Reflections on Child Removal

Today seventy-one years ago I left Germany. My Aunt Leni came early in the morning to my home in Potsdam. She was to accompany me to Berlin. Although it was the first day of spring it was snowing. My grandmother kissed me in the flat, my grandfather and my Uncle Heini came outside—one embraced me and the other patted my back. We were not a demonstrative family.

I was fifteen and a “Halbjude”—a half-Jew. If I had been a girl I would have been a “Halbjuedin”. These were the definitions according to the Nuremberg laws introduced by Germany in 1935.

I was to join a Kindertransport—a group of Jewish children travelling to England. At the Lehrter Bahnhof, parents and relatives were not allowed to enter the departure platform. A woman stood by the gate and read out the names. There was no time for leave-taking—a policeman next to her called out “Schnell, bitte!” Aunt Leni kissed me and I passed through. Everybody was crying but there was no noisy grief or pandemonium. Even the smallest children cried quietly. The older carried the luggage of the smaller ones along the platform. We were limited to one suitcase. The special carriage was next to the locomotive. Two ladies stood by the door and handed us packages with sandwiches. They smiled at us.

There were sixty of us, ranging in age from four to seventeen. Most were being sent by parents who were unable to get visas to leave Germany. In November 1938 the British government had agreed to accept unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany and Austria, on the condition that charity organisations in Britain were to look after them for the time being; but everybody knew that war was coming and “the time being” might last many years. The major Jewish organisations, other religious charities like the Society of Friends, as well as a large number of non-Jewish British people volunteered to take one or two children into their homes.

From December 1938 until the end of August 1939, a week before the war, 10,000 children came to England. Most of them would not have survived the war if they had remained in Germany. Most never saw their parents again. My personal story is not as tragic as that. My parents were active members of the Communist Party, and my father was Jewish. They left Germany in 1933. Having left Berlin by train for Hamburg, my Kindertransport was put on the American liner Manhattan. Two days later my mother met my ship in Le Havre, and a day later my father met me outside the synagogue in Soho Square, London.

Few of us had papers, passports or visas. Some time later the Home Office issued me a “Certificate of Identity”. It had a passport photo, physical description and other particulars. It stated that the “holder was landed at Southampton on 24th March 1939 as a young person to be admitted to the United Kingdom for educational purposes under the care of the Inter-Aid Committee for Children, and subject to the condition he does not enter any paid or unpaid employment while in the United Kingdom”. In England, I had become a “young person”, no longer a “Halbjude”.

In 1989 in the Albert Hall, London, several thousand celebrated the golden anniversary of their arrival in England. They did not forget to thank those, now long dead, whose selfless work in Germany and England made the children’s transport possible. Individual accounts by participants later published stressed their gratitude to the host country. In the annals of our century the “children’s transports” stand out as a great humanitarian action.

A few days after the last group of children arrived from Germany, the war started. In case of German bombing attacks, the British government had contingency plans for evacuation of children from the larger cities. These were put into effect in September 1939. There were also proposals to send children “for safe keeping” to North America. The parents who wanted to do this believed that their children would not only be safe from bombs but also from possible occupation of Britain by the Germans. The British government agreed to provide berths on ships, and the US and the Canadian governments agreed to let the children in provided that families and organisations in their countries looked after them—for the time being.

My wife was then eleven and her sister eight. Their father had left for the war. Their mother was left in sole charge of the children, had very little money and would have liked to do war work. Friends whose children were being sent to North America suggested that her own children would be safer there too. Nevertheless she decided not to let them go. Also she left the decision too late—by the summer of 1940 no more children were sent because too many ships were being sunk.

The number of children sent to North America from Britain was over 10,000—the actual number is unknown because many people sent them privately, not through official channels. The decision to let them go had to be made very quickly and under abnormal circumstances. This was true of the children leaving Germany and those leaving England. The tie between mother and child is so strong that in many cases the loss of the child outweighs the better future or even the preservation of life.

Any so-called “verdict of history”—guilty, not guilty, or not proven—is very difficult from an objective point of view. Most of the parents who made these appalling decisions are dead but their courage and unselfishness are celebrated by their children, most of whom are still alive.

The idea of a future “better life” was also the paramount reason which motivated the governments of Britain, Australia and Canada to establish a child migration scheme in 1946. There were other reasons—Australia and Canada were large countries with small populations, Britain was small with a big population. The two ex-colonies had survived the war well, had plenty of food and accommodation; Britain was exhausted by six years of war, had lost factories and houses to bombing, food was strictly rationed and all commodities were scarce. Another reason was that some of the children selected were living in orphanages. They had no parents or just a single parent who did not, or could not, look after them. During the war married women as well as unmarried women had produced babies that were not wanted.

It was assumed that the children were from what was then called “the lower classes”. As far as the inmates of orphanages were concerned, the local authorities were legal guardians and they could ship the children overseas. With parents, usually mothers, legal authority had to be obtained. Where this was difficult due to a mother refusing to part with her child, other pressures were applied—from grandparents, from a married man returning from the war who would not accept another man’s child, or from medical, social services and religious bodies.

At that time the national state had reached powers over the individual citizen which had never been exercised before or since. Germany, Russia, Britain, Japan and the USA had harnessed their populations for the war effort. In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell describes a future where all countries remain totalitarian and individuals lose all their freedoms. But he does not distinguish between the temporary beneficial dictatorships of Britain and the USA, and the permanent malevolent dictatorships of Germany and the Soviet Union. Intellectual freedom was curtailed in the Western democracies, but not extinguished as it was in Central and Eastern Europe. Was there any opposition to the Child Migrant Scheme?

The harrowing personal experiences of some of the children have been described in television documentaries. One “documentary drama” used child actors to portray what happened to some of these young emigrants. A religious institution, re-created as it might have been in 1950 in Australia, was a scene of strict discipline and a lack of love. Physical punishment was shown, sexual abuse was hinted at. A few of the real child migrants, now in their sixties and seventies, told their stories in interviews.

The twofold impression was, first, that the governments of England and Australia at the time colluded in a “transportation” project which was inhuman and cruel; second, that the recipient institutions and families, again with the consent of the Australian authorities, treated these children in an inhumane and cruel way.

Most Australians who watched this, or read about it, did not know about these events. Many had not yet been born at the time, while many came to Australia as voluntary migrants later. The one-sided picture of the Child Migrant Scheme was based on the real experiences of some of the children after they came here. Their memories, like mine of the Kindertransport, are subjective and can be “bent” by an astute interviewer.

Einstein’s relativity theory posits that the straight line of light from the sun can be “bent” by a massive body nearby. A number of historians and social scientists are now working on what the Germans describe as Geschichtebewaeltigen (history being overcome, or overpowered, or mastered). The word was invented by historians who were rewriting what the German teachers had to teach during the Hitler period.

Quite a few Australians of an older generation will have been disturbed or even mortified by this version of the Child Migrant Scheme. These people will have been connected with these children, on arrival and later. Others will be the spouses, children and grandchildren. I am thinking of the majority—the decent hosts in homes and institutions and most of the migrants who became contented Australian settlers. The stories of the “good” hosts and the “contented” migrants remain unheard.

In Australia in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, the mounted policeman who removed Aboriginal children from their homes was an instrument of the state, and the missions and other institutions who looked after the children were tools of a policy. In retrospect, many Australians who looked after these children have been tarred with the same brush as the government and the bureaucrats and academics who advised them. Were they all guilty of setting up an inhuman action of exterminating the remnants of a race? Were most of the men and women of the missions and institutes brutal and nasty to the children in their charge? What of the Australian families who took these children into their homes? Questions like that, and the answers to them, do not fit into contemporary attitudes.

The population of Australia is now classified as either “Indigenous” or “non-Indigenous”. In 1935 the German government classified their population as either “Aryan” or “non-Aryan”: either one or the other. In 1936 millions of Germans looked through church registers to see if their great-grandparents were of pure “Aryan” stock. Thousands were in for a shock. They were not one or the other. The government had to establish categories for not-quite-pure ancestry: Mischling category No. 1 with two non-Aryan grandparents, and Mischling category No. 2 with one non-Aryan grandparent. Oddly for a country which prided itself on meticulous obedience, these laws were soon bent. Luftwaffe General Milch, a category No. 1 Mischling, was a friend of Marshal Goering—they had been fellow pilots in the First World War. Some category No. 2 Mischlinge were sent to the extermination camps, because they “looked Jewish” or somebody denounced them.

Most of the Australian “stolen children” were “Mischlinge”, of mixed race. Europeans and Australian natives have mixed socially and sexually for more than two hundred years. There was no legal apartheid as in South Africa or long prison sentences as in Germany, but both races discouraged and disliked mixed marriages or cohabitation. Nevertheless they took place, as they did in America and indeed everywhere else where two races have lived alongside each other.

The outcomes of these stories about children have happy endings. Most of the children are now old. I like to believe that they have had good lives and got over the events of their childhood. I sympathise with those who have not. But the “new sympathisers” of today stir the muddy waters of history and create retrospective “victims’ and “oppressors”. They lack historical knowledge and tolerance.

Finally I would like to say something specifically about the Aboriginal “stolen children”. Some of them are now widely respected by Australians of all races. They are magistrates, lawyers and leaders of Aboriginal councils and appear frequently on television to discuss Aboriginal matters. With a few exceptions, they look like people who have Aboriginal and European ancestry. They have a good command of the English language, a precise legal knowledge about land rights and an admirable grasp of political arguments.

Would that a few of these eminent men and women would speak out—that they are the product of two races, that they are proud of their inheritance, and that they are the bridge between the people who have been here for thousands of years and those who came later.

My favourite character in Australian fiction is an inspector of the Queensland Criminal Investigation Department named Napoleon Bonaparte, “Bony” to his friends and associates. He says of himself, proudly, that he is the product of two races and that he has solved every case he has been given. The author of the “Bony” books was a boundary rider, horse breaker and station cook. He set his books in the country and the outback, drawing his characters of whatever race without sentiment but with respect. Arthur Upfield was an English immigrant. His books did not sell well in Australia, but he was a best-seller in Europe and North America. He never set any of his books in the city. He once said that the Australian coastal dweller had no love for the country and was waiting to make enough money to sail “home”. In the sixties when I first visited here, there was little interest in the “bush” or Aboriginal matters.

Now the media, academics and opportunist politicians tell the Aborigines to maintain their differences. This attitude is the Nuremberg laws stood on their heads. It is postmodern racism.

I wish those Australians of mixed descent would be allowed to decide their own identity at the next census. Perhaps the bureaucrats of the ABS could add another question to the census next time. Instead of just “Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent?” they might also ask: “Is the person of mixed descent?”

I am not a “Halbjude”, nor a half-German, nor a Mischling Category No. 1. My four children, for whom I have written this, are not Mischlinge Category No. 2. I am Me—and they are They.

Peter Gross, who was born in Berlin in 1923, has lived in Australia since 1983. His memoir “Memories of Willi Münzenberg” appeared in the April issue.

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