A handful of the Jewish community's oldest readers might remember the adverts that appeared in the newspaper soon after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. ‘Have YOU done YOUR share? It is your DUTY to give generously to the Central British Fund for German Jewry’. Each and every donor was listed by name alongside the amount they had given. Both the geo-political landscape and fundraising practices have changed somewhat since then.
The Central British Fund was the precursor to World Jewish Relief and this weekend we are joining with many others to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the seminal rescue mission for the Jewish community.
Just three and a half weeks after Kristallnacht, on a chilly morning on 2nd December 1938, almost 200 children disembarked from the overnight ferry at Harwich, Essex. They had travelled by train from Berlin to the Hook of Holland and over the next nine months would be followed by almost 10,000 children from across Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
It was the direct fundraising – the equivalent of almost £17 million in today’s money was raised in the organisation’s first year alone (1933) - and government lobbying by our founders that precipitated the Kindertransport. But this was a genuinely collaborative interfaith and inter-organisational effort; individuals such as Sir Nicholas Winton and organisations including the Quakers were instrumental in making it happen. Then, as now, our community is at its best when we join together, coalescing to support people facing life-threatening situations.
Despite its tragic context, the Kindertransport remains a shining beacon of humanity in our modern age. For World Jewish Relief, it inspires so much of what we do today. In the 1930s we helped those refugees because they were Jewish. Today, we help people because we are Jewish. Our support for people facing poverty and extreme vulnerability is inspired by our predecessors; whether that’s for the world’s poorest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe or for a new generation of refugees who are fleeing today’s global conflicts. In the 1930s we supported Kinder to build lives and livelihoods in the UK. Today, our Specialist Training and Employment Programme supports Syrian refugees in Coventry and across Yorkshire to ensure that they have the language skills and qualifications needed to get jobs and settle into their new life in the UK. The context is different but the life-altering nature of the two interventions is timeless.
This weekend, as communities across the country mark the Kindertransport Shabbat, our community will reflect on the loss of those who didn’t make it out, the heart-wrenching decisions of parents and relatives who sent children away with just a suitcase in hand, as well as the wonderful contribution of so many of the 10,000 children in shaping our Jewish community as it is today. It is OUR duty to commemorate and pay heed to the lessons of history and our responsibility to continue supporting people in our society whose journeys mirror the ones taken by those Jewish children 80 years ago.