Her voice breaking with emotion, the mayor of Harwich recalled the impossible decision made by the parents of 10,000 mainly Jewish children to put them on trains and send them to England. Councillor Pam Morrison told the crowd of Kinder, their families, dignitaries and children from schools in London and Harwich: “I have been incredibly humbled; I cannot imagine what it would be like to hand a child over.”
Some 25 Kinder were welcomed in the Essex port last Friday to mark the 77th anniversary of the arrival of what transpired to be the largest transport arranged by Sir Nicholas Winton of a group of 241 children from Prague. The date coincided with the first anniversary of Sir Nicholas’ death.
The Kinder – including three who had been on that train exactly 77 years ago – travelled from London Liverpool Street to Harwich Parkeston Quay, the arrival point for many of the Kinder who came to the UK from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Danzig.
Thanking the town of Harwich for its welcome which, he said, mirrored the welcome it gave Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies, paid tribute to “the few who managed to come to this country, where they were given a home and where they thrived”.
After watching the schoolchildren give a posy to each of the Kinder, he also implored them to “never be prejudiced against people because of their religion, culture or beliefs”.
The Kinder and their families, together with guests including Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev and representatives from communal organisations, were then taken by vintage bus to St Nicholas’ Church, for a service of thanksgiving and remembrance, and were shown a special screening of archive footage and part of a documentary made in 2009 of the Winton commemorative train journey. The bus passed by the site of Warner’s Dovercourt holiday camp, which was given over to the Refugee Children’s Movement and used to house the Kinder.
Ruth Jacobs was 10, and her brother Harry Heber eight, when they were put on the train to England from Innsbruck in Austria, a journey that took two days.
“I was completely bewildered,” Ruth recalled. “I didn’t understand why we had to leave our home. We didn’t speak English and had been told to stay together, but the first thing that happened on the train was that we were split into different age groups.”
Harry added: “We saw Nazi troops coming into the town and had to leave. It was a traumatic experience. We had never been left alone.”
Speaking on the return leg of the journey, Sir Eric Pickles MP, UK Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, said: “It was very moving but we can’t get too sentimental about how wonderful the UK was because we need to emphasise the reason why these children came alone was because Britain wouldn’t let their parents in. We could have saved more.
“But against all that there were a number of people who were really good, who recognised the evil and with no experience just pressed on. The Kinder went through the war, for the most part they lost their parents; they settled down, got married, had kids, had a career, they put their heart and soul into the UK, which has been enriched by them, and maybe we should remember that a little bit more.”
Sir Erich Reich, chairman of the Kindertransport group of The Association of Jewish Refugees, said it was a “fantastic” event. “It was overwhelming and even though I did not come to Harwich – I came to the London docks at the age of four – the welcome they gave us here was extraordinary. It was wonderful for the Kinder because they felt appreciated.”
Arkush delivered a powerful message to the trip’s youngest participants. He said: “Can you imagine what it must have been like to be separated from your parents, at the age of four, or five or six, put on a train with other children you didn’t know, taken to a country you’d never been to and you couldn’t speak more than a few words, if that, of the language and some of you will never have seen your families again, all too many.
“That is the story of these people you see in front of you. And it was the result of prejudice against people just because they were Jewish. You must never be prejudiced against people because of their religion, culture or beliefs. That is the story of why we are here today. Be British, stay without prejudice and love your fellow human being.”
Event organiser Peter Hedderly said: “The children learned a lot about history and the Kinder. It’s important in the world situation at the moment where effectively, but not exactly, history is repeating itself. Young children in particular have to be aware of their history because they have the possibility to change it for the future, for the better.”
Photos by Ronald Scutcher & Adrian Goddard, and Alex Galbinski