I was in Paris a few weeks ago, just before the tragedy of Nov. 13. Unlike previous trips, I didn’t go for the wine or the croissants or to see the Eiffel Tower.
This year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, I went to see memorials to victims of the Holocaust.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, there were 250,000 Jews living in France. By the time the war was over, 75,000 of those Jews — men, women and children — had been rounded up in cities and towns throughout France, put onto trains and deported to their deaths at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Ordinary French men and women created the laws that made this happen, denounced their friends and neighbors, took belongings from the Jews’ vacated apartments, drove the trains to Auschwitz, and supported the Nazi effort to rid Europe of every single one of the continent’s Jews.
The number of Jews in Germany when Hitler took power in 1933 made up less than 1 percent of the country’s population. By effectively manipulating anti-Semitism, xenophobia and fear in a turbulent political environment, the Nazis incited people across the entire continent to eventually kill more than 6 million Jews living throughout Europe.
By 1938, the situation for the Jews had already become dire. President Franklin Roosevelt gathered representatives from 32 countries to meet in France and discuss the plight of the Jews. Their rescue then seemed within reach.
But the conference was a failure. The U.S. and Britain refused to accept substantial numbers of Jews, and nearly all of the other countries followed. The Jews had no escape. Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first president of Israel, said: “The world seemed to be divided into two parts — those places where the Jews could not live, and those where they could not enter.”
After the conference in France, several private programs saved about 12,000 Jewish children. To put that number into context, 1.5 million Jewish children were exterminated in the Holocaust. Combined rescue efforts saved perhaps 1 percent of Europe’s Jewish children.
The best-known rescue was the British resettlement “kindertransport,” meaning the transportation of the children.
Five days after Kristallnacht, shocking anti-Jewish riots in Germany and Austria in November 1938, a delegation of British Jews and Quakers met with Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. The British Parliament passed a bill to permit unaccompanied Jewish children — infants up to age 17, without their parents — to be allowed into the UK on a temporary basis.
On Nov. 25, British citizens heard an appeal for foster homes on BBC radio. Soon there were 500 offers.
In Germany, volunteers made lists of children most in peril: teenagers in concentration camps or in danger of arrest; children or teenagers threatened with deportation; children in Jewish orphanages, or children with a parent in a concentration camp. Once the children were identified, guardians or parents were issued a travel date and departure details.
Children could take one small suitcase. Some children had nothing but a manila tag with a number on the front and their name on the back. The children were brought to the railway stations. The parents had to leave before the train departed, to prevent terrible scenes of emotional anguish.
The children traveled by train across Europe to port cities on the Atlantic Ocean and then by ship to a port city in England.
Imagine being a child, alone, on a voyage like that.
The first kindertransport left Berlin on Dec. 1, 1938, less than a month after Kristallnacht.
The UK took in nearly 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Most of these children were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.
During the war, many of these children served in the British armed forces, the nursing professions, in food production and in war-related industries. Thousands stayed in Britain after the war and made considerable contributions to their adopted country. Four won Nobel Prizes.
There was also a small program in the U.S. The One Thousand Children refers to 1,400 mostly Jewish children who were rescued from Nazi-threatened countries and brought to America. Jewish and Quaker agencies organized the operations quietly to avoid attention from isolationist and anti-Semitic forces. Just like the children on the British transports, these children had to leave their parents behind in Europe, and most of these parents were killed by the Nazis.
Like the children brought to Britain, these children, too, contributed greatly to their new homeland. Jack Steinberger, Arno Penzias and Walter Kohn all received Nobel prizes in science. Richard Schifter was in the U.S. military during World War II and served as U.S. ambassador for human relations at the United Nations.
When I was in Paris last month, I saw pictures of Syrian children on billboards, along the walls of the river Seine, posted on the sides of churches, in public spaces everywhere. French upstanders today are urging good people to help these innocent refugees, just as French upstanders tried to save Jews 70 years ago.
Today’s millions of Syrian refugees undoubtedly see the world in two parts: places where they cannot live — and places where they cannot enter.
And just like the people throughout Europe who were susceptible to the xenophobia and anti-Semitism and hatred spewed by the Nazis and their supporters, today there are Americans who are susceptible to the racism, anti-immigrationism and anti-Islamism of hatemongers in our country.
A commentary in the Star Tribune (Nov. 25) asked: “What if 1940s Londoners had to accept German refugees?” That is, indeed, just what Londoners (and Americans) did in 1938, through private efforts that saved Jews — and non-Jews — from Germany and occupied Europe. These children “aged up” and made remarkable contributions to their adopted countries.
The world made a tragic mistake at that meeting in France in 1938. We cannot right that terrible wrong, turning away people who were certain to be killed by the Nazis. What we can do is open our hearts and doors to today’s imperiled refugees — innocent Syrian men, women, and children.
Ellen J. Kennedy is an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and executive director of World Without Genocide (www.worldwithoutgenocide.org/advocacy/openhearts).