The life of a refugee is always going to come with challenges no matter the circumstances. And during the pre-war anti-Semitic years in Germany many, many people were forced to become refugees in order to save themselves and their families. Families were split up and brothers and sisters were separated and most often killed. But for few, there was an escape: the Kindertransport. Desperate parents sent their children out of Germany via the Kindertansport in hopes of giving them a better, safer future.
The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) initiative was responsible for the transportation of children out of countries such as Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Poland so that they could be given sanctuary by British families. Organised by Sir Nicholas Winton, around 10,000 children were safely transported to the United Kingdom.
Most of the refugees left by trains from Berlin and other major cities. The transports were planned by Jewish organizations inside the Greater German Reich, and generally favoured children with urgent need for emigration because they were unsupported by their parents. Many parents were moved to concentration camps without their children, therefore priority was given to orphans and the homeless. Many of these young refugees were likely to be the sole survivors of their families.
The first Kindertransport arrived in Harwich in 1938. Oundle resident Mrs Ursula Walker was one of the children who was transported from Berlin to England via the Kindertransport in 1939. She considers herself very lucky that both she and her sister Ilse were able to come to England; her father was influential enough to arrange an escape for his two daughters.
Mrs Walker was transported at the age of eight and her sister was soon to follow a month later. As luck would have it, the pair were housed very close to each other in Northwich, Cheshire. Her mother had died three years earlier, and her father remained in Germany, where he was imprisoned in three different concentration camps during the course of the war.
When I met Mrs Walker she was very keen to emphasise how fortunate she had been to be housed with the family she was sent to live with, where they treated her as their own child. ‘They were just like parents. I became closer to them than I was to my own father.’
The couple was unable to have their own children, and they were more than happy to welcome her into their family. Mrs Walker was just as – if not more than – happy to be part of their family. ‘I was very lucky really because I got two sets of parents!’
The abrupt move from one country to another was more of an adventure for young Mrs Walker; being only 8 years old, there is little she remembers or experienced first-hand about the political turmoil at the time. Living in a Jewish community and going to a Jewish school meant that she was sheltered from direct hostilities. However, she was aware of the anti-Jewish sentiment building in Berlin and understood why she and her sister had to be evacuated.
The children were only allowed to travel with one suitcase and for Mrs Walker, her case consisted solely of clothes and a few surviving photos. As a small child she missed her grandparents the most: ‘My grandparents were wonderful to us and I missed them.’ After she left Berlin, she never saw them again.
Growing up in Cheshire was a very normal experience. Regardless of there being obvious anti-German feelings in England during the war, Mrs Walker did not encounter any ill-feeling with respect to her background. She said she only noticed sympathy: ‘Oh, well, they felt sorry for me.’
Mrs Walker’s ‘aunty and uncle’ – her British parents – sent her to a grammar school, and it was a simpler transition for Mrs Walker than would have been thought because other transported German children attended the same school. There, she was able to quickly learn English and make some good friends with whom she could visit and go walking. Her new family gave her many opportunities such as music and horse-riding lessons.
Many years later she returned to Germany to visit her mother’s grave, but she decided to remain in England after the war. Her father survived the concentration camps, and moved with her sister to America. She was satisfied knowing that her father had one of his daughters to look after him, and he knew that she was well-looked after.
She remained with her adopted family until she married, and much later became their sole heir. While she was at school, Mrs Walker met the man who would later be her husband. They married after she finished a nursing course. ‘Now I have a wonderful daughter to look after me, as well!’
Mrs Walker was lucky to have had a second chance to lead a fulfilling life after becoming a refugee, but there are still many refugees worldwide who are still homeless. The Kindertransport remains a model for how communities can work together to assist those in need, fleeing war and persecution.