As a child survivor of the Holocaust, I have dedicated myself for the past thirty plus years to Holocaust education. For me, the importance of this endeavour is not to achieve some kind of personal catharsis, but to warn of the corrosive nature of prejudice, the rhetoric of hate, and where it can lead. My message is a simple one: “Do not swallow the negative propaganda. Question the rhetoric. Look for the facts”. I must admit that the present negativity being expressed towards those seeking asylum in the UK, and the political machinations to prevent them from settling here, leave me wondering whether, unlike the fabled child with her finger in the dyke, my efforts not only are hopeless but that the tsunami of hate being stirred up about refugees will engulf us all.
During a recent Parliamentary debate about his government’s present determination to prevent the small boats bringing desperate people to safety, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, diverted criticism by asserting (as he had reportedly reminded his Cabinet colleagues that morning) that Britain had always welcomed those fleeing oppression (‘Sunak says UK is a welcoming country after Braverman’s migrant ‘invasion’ claim’, The Independent, 1 November 2022). This assumption has become the accepted narrative here in the UK, based largely on the story of the Kindertransports, the rescue of 10,000 children from Nazi Germany in late 1938. Leaving aside the logic of supposing that this past event could in any way exculpate their present policies to bar unaccompanied child refugees, I wish to question the rhetoric and to look at the facts.
The fact is that the Prime Minister’s statement was a lie. It can be exposed as such by focusing on another group of Jewish children who were refused entry to this country and who subsequently perished during the Holocaust, the children of the Vél d’Hiv.
The Vél d’Hiv was the mass arrest of Jewish families by French police and gendarmes at the behest of the German authorities. The first roundup within Occupied France to include women, children and the elderly started in Paris on 16 July 1942. Up until then the targets had been Jewish immigrant men—of Polish origin in the main—of working age, in order to validate the myth that they were being transported to fill the labour requirements of the German war machine. However now that the death camps were established, the parameters were changed to feed the voracious appetite of the gas chambers. Over a long hot weekend, a total of 8,160 Jews, including 4,115 children, were taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a sports stadium in Paris, and kept there without food, water, or toilet facilities in the stifling heat for several days while a decision over their fate was awaited. In fact, in Berlin, Adolf Eichmann, concerned about a possible backlash, initially refused to allow the deportation of the children and the Vichy Government offered them safe passage to any country willing to accept them.
A Home office paper dated 8 September 1942 states that Sir Herbert Emerson [The League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] had informed the then Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, that French exit visas for the children could be obtained. Morrison’s response is recorded: ‘The general policy is not to admit additional refugees to the United Kingdom unless it can be shown that the admission… will be directly advantageous to our war effort. Any departure from this rigid policy is liable to lead to fresh claims and pressure for the admission to the UK of persons who are in danger’. In a three-page memorandum presented to the War Cabinet on 28 September 1942, Morrison made the case for admitting only a limited number of Jewish child refugees from occupied France:
‘Strong representations have been made to me that in view of the dangers and suffering to which Jewish refugees in occupied France are exposed as a result of the decision of the Vichy government to deport them to Poland, consideration ought to be given to the possibility of admitting to this country some of the children…
…Emerson has requested ‘that the question of admitting say a 1,000 children should be considered’…’
Morrison qualifies this request by reporting on a discussion with Otto Schiff, president of the Jewish Relief Committee [who had negotiated the visas for the 10,000 Kindertransportees]:
‘…Schiff recognises that ‘it is not possible for us to admit large numbers of these unfortunate people and that it would be necessary to draw a strict line of demarcation for the purposes of limiting the number… His recommendation is that admission be limited to ‘only the children… who have near relatives in this country… the JRC’s estimate for the total number would not exceed 300 or 350’
Morrison recommends: ‘If this policy is approved, I would propose to refuse all further concessions. For instance, a special appeal has been made to me to admit 28 children who are in a Jewish Home in unoccupied France and have guarantees for admission to Palestine. … It will be necessary to resist all such appeals’.
In contrast to the virtual open-door granted to the Kindertransportees, Schiff’s recommendation to impose strict limits on the numbers of Polish Jewish children was accepted by the War Office, with the understanding that ‘all further concessions of this nature be refused’. There is no evidence that any children gained admission to this country by this route. The French Jewish historian, Serge Klarsfeld, records that out of 75,721 people deported from France, only 2,500 returned. 11,400 unaccompanied children were deported to the camps in the East. It is estimated that fewer than 250 of them survived.
If it had not been for a brave policeman who disobeyed orders and warned my mother that we were on the list for arrest at the time of the Vél d’Hiv roundup, I too, aged 2 years 6 months, would have become one of the vanished children. My mother managed to escape down through unoccupied France and over the Pyrenees. In the expectation that Spain would soon fall, she gave me up to the Red Cross, and in June 1943 I sailed for the United States on a rescue mission. It is noteworthy to record that on the immigration documentation my race is recorded as HEBREW. So much for the present arguments about racial policies against the Jews. It was not until 1947 that I was reunited with my birth parents, who had managed to survive and were living in the UK.
From personal experience—reinforced by nearly two decades of research within various archives—I know the danger that the slow drip of prejudicial rhetoric poses to even supposedly civilised societies. This is what encouraged me to tackle Suella Braverman, the current Home Secretary, about the danger of her language which dehumanised the present asylum seekers. Not only did she refuse to apologise (‘Suella Braverman tells Holocaust survivor she will not apologise for ‘invasion’ rhetoric’, The Guardian, 14 January 2023), she has reinforced her actions with further negative rhetoric and the creation of laws which label these desperate people as criminals just for trying to reach the sanctity of our shores.
As uncomfortable as it may be, both for Anglo-Jewry and the UK government, the fact is that their own historic prejudice against the Polish Jews and the language used against them leading up to the 1905 Aliens Act slammed the door shut to these Jewish children of Polish origins deported from France. Their claim that the UK has always been a refuge for those fleeing persecution is, I am sorry to say, a lie, just as their denial that present policy echoes those which led to the Holocaust is a dangerous delusion.