On the eve of World War II, families across Europe were beginning to realize the dire situation. The Nazis had invaded countries in predominantly Eastern Europe and, following Kristallnacht, it became clear for many Jewish people that they were on the brink of war. They needed to find a way to get their children out.
Kindertransport was a method of transporting children, mostly by train, out of Germany and other Nazi occupied countries and getting them safely to Britain. The system was run by wealthy British families who arranged homes for the children.
It was not an easy decision for many parents to make, made worse because many of them would never see their children again. Many of the parents would not survive the war.
Kindertransport saved close to 10,000 children’s lives, yet many people today are unaware of the extraordinary efforts taken to save so many. The Dallas Holocaust Museum is currently exhibiting “A History of Kindertransport.” The exhibit centers predominantly on the experiences of Magie Furst, a Dallas-area woman who went through Kindertransport.
Furst could not be reached for comment, but museum officials relayed her story. They say Furst refuses to be called a “survivor” because she does not equate her experience and that of Holocaust survivors. Instead, she prefers the term “Kindertransport refugee.”
Paula Nourse, the Director of Marketing at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, said that Furst’s experience was different from even other Kindertransport refugees because “both her brother and her mother were with her.”
Furst is a rarity because she was able to keep close to most of her family after Kindertransport, Nourse said, when many other families were split apart forever.
Dr. Rick Halperin, the director of SMU’s Embry Human Rights program, said the experience for most refugees was fairly traumatic. Though they did not lose their childhood in the same way children in the concentration camps did, they did generally lose most of their family and were thrust into new countries and new living situations.
After Kristallnacht, many people from Britain, mostly in London, began to contact the Nazi regime and got permission to get children out of those Nazi occupied countries. However, permission was not given quite that easily and the reason Kindertransport was so successful was due to the tenacity and speediness of the people who arranged for the children to be transported to London.
Halperin pointed to a 2013 move called “Nicky’s Family” from the Czech Republic as a prime example of how Kindertransport occurred. The film centers on the story of Nicholas Winton, a wealthy British man, who helped 669 child refugees make their way from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia into London, but he did it without meeting any of the children.
Winton, though he was not immediately associated with Kindertransport, showed how the process worked. Instead of being done under complete secrecy, the usually unforgiving Nazis allowed Kindertransport to occur. Nourse said the British coordinated their efforts with the Nazis because, after Kristallnacht, people began to realize the severity of what was coming. However, she went on to say the relief efforts were cut short by the beginning of World War II.
Very few people today seem to know about Kindertransport. Sarah Israel is an SMU student who studied the process of Kindertransport in a her classes and also works part-time at the Dallas Holocaust Museum.
Israel believes the lack of knowledge concerning Kindertransport stems from the same place as a general lack of knowledge concerning the Holocaust.
“It is easier to ignore the past rather than confront it head-on,” she said.
The speed with which Kindertransport was organized, carried out, and then shut down by the onset of World War II was very quick., according to Nourse.
“It was so fast and sudden. Very little was written about that time because it all happened so quickly,” she said.
The short time period spanned from just after Kristallnacht when the British began to organize to carry out Kindertransport until the beginning of World War II.
The Kindertransport exhibit is designed to educate, but in such a way that it does not feel ominous. The room is bright with light and the colors are bright – a distinct contrast to the rest of the museum.
Though the exhibit is centered on Furst’s testimony and includes many informative posters, the most powerful part of the exhibit is a display in the middle. The museum set up large bulletin boards and has pieces of paper available for guests to write what treasured item they would bring with them through Kindertransport. The exercise forces visitors to think how they would handle the experience themselves and the answers, mostly written by children, are generally very poignant with it ranging from “mac and cheese” to “my brother.”
The exhibit ends on Feb. 28.