How the World War II Kindertransport could provide lessons for helping Syrian refugees

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. Back to the migrant crisis for a moment and that unforgettable image of the little boy on the beach in Turkey. So many of the refugees fleeing the Syrian war are children. Mark Goldsmith is a rabbi at Alyth Synagogue in London. Many of his congregants were once child refugees themselves, they fled Nazi Germany. Goldsmith recently went with some of those congregants to a meeting with young Syrian refugees.


Mark Goldsmith: This congregation started in the 1930s, and from about 1936 onward the number of German and Austrian refugees who became part of it really charged the character of this congregation. So for many of these people, they’ve been part of the shul for a very, very long time. But I had never really known their story, and when we were driving up to the houses of Parliament, which is where this meeting took place, hearing them comparing their stories and the kind of lucky chances by which a child refugee actually gets to be in a safe place, were quite remarkable. The meeting with the Syrian refugees--it’s interesting, these are people in their 80s, 90s, they’re kind of polite, a bit reserved, etc., they didn’t run with open arms to each other but they absolutely recognized, in young men who had made it from Syria, themselves when they were themselves teenagers.


Werman: Was it that drive up to Parliament when this idea of kind of a modern version of the Kindertransport occurred to you?


Goldsmith: No, really that had been around for quite a long time. I think in any Jewish community, you know that it was through the acceptance of the country where you live for refugees is why you’re here, your children are here, your grandchildren are here, and without that, you wouldn’t be. One man from Hamburg originally, called Alex, talked about his parents writing to Brazil, to America, to Canada, etc. trying to get a visa and not being able to, and that sense of desperation, which he, as just even a seven-year-old boy as he was at the time, was so aware of, until they finally made it to England. The lucky chances, you know? And that’s why can we not have this be lucky chances of who actually manages to get over here on a boat or not.


Werman: Yeah. I mean, looking at the tragic picture of that boy in the beach dead after trying to swim, it makes you realize that lucky chances may have to be engineered, which it sounds like what your congregation is proposing. You’re part of this group, Citizens UK, and you’d like to ramp up a Kindertransport for Syrian refugees. Are you talking about a literal transport of kids asking their parents to let them go?


Goldsmith: No, it’s way healthier if it can be about families. And that’s what it really should be--a family that moves together then has a basis to build together, and that’s what I think we’re really asking for. So in Citizens, what we’ve proposed is, look, if every borough, and this is the local government, said, “We can settle 50 people here,” there are thousands of boroughs, then you begin to get somewhere. And I think it is about local people saying, “Yes, in our backyard.” So Kindertransport, that was a point in which 10,000 desperate children were separated from their parents in 1938-1939 and sent abroad--that’s not a model for anything. But thank goodness that happened.


Werman: How fresh is this conversation about this kind of scheme? And who’s saying, “We’ve got so many homeless here on the streets of London. We need to find shelter for them first”?


Goldsmith: I think this is about simple human compassion, and that picture of the boy on the beach is about simple human compassion. And you can’t compare one person to another, you can’t say, “Because we’ve got this problem, we can’t deal with that problem.” This is very fresh. So last night, for example, I was at a meeting with people about opening a day nursery, and people were getting straight into the topic of, “Right, what are we doing as a community in London about this issue? We’re seeing it, we know our religious values and that of our Christian/Muslim/Hindu neighbors all say “˜Care. Don’t just look after your own.’ What are we doing?”


Werman: There was a kind of quiet antisemitism in the UK during WWII, even though some 42,000 Jewish kids found shelter there. Today, how would you describe the British attitude towards Syrians?


Goldsmith: Pretty similar. You know, “This country’s too full,” that sort of thing. A bit of a fear of the other, it’s still there. Will they assimilate, will they become part of “our culture”? Similar to the 1930s in that way, I’ve got to say.


Werman: Rabbi Mark Goldsmith. He leads a congregation at Alyth Synagogue in London. Thank you very much for speaking with us, rabbi.


Goldsmith: You’re most welcome.