Against Purity
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Against Purity

five years ago—when the view from the united states was grim but few people had even imagined Donald Trump, Brexit, the Syrian war, or the congested seaways of the Aegean—I published an op-ed in the New York Times that drew analogies between the language used by extreme anti-immigration activists such as the Minutemen and that used by conservationists and native-plant enthusiasts. The invitation to participate in the conference on which this journal issue is based offered an opportunity to revisit the piece and reflect on its concerns in the context of contemporary politics.

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in march 1939, my aunt helga was taken by her parents to the Friedrichstrasse train station in Berlin and put on the Kindertransport to London. This was the spring following the disastrous Kristallnacht of November 8/9, 1938, when Helga, her mother, and her father watched from their apartment window as drunken crowds ran through Berlin (as, that night, they also ran through other cities in Germany and Austria) assaulting anyone they thought might be Jewish, attacking schools and hospitals, and looting Jewish businesses, including the pharmacy on the first floor of the family's building. The next morning, Helga passed a burning synagogue and stores with smashed windows on her way to the improvised Jewish school she was forced to attend; then, on a Thursday four months later, with just one week's notice, her parents, having failed to obtain exit visas for themselves, wrote her name and number on a manila label, tied it to her overcoat, and put her on the train with her suitcase, her stuffed monkey, and two hundred other Jewish children who were also leaving Berlin for a future unknown. [End Page 171]

I visit Helga as often as I can in southern California, where she now lives with the ocean, the pelicans, and that evocative scent of Mexican sage. And, recently, she recalled Berlin. She's in a car with her father. The car is stopped to allow a parade to pass, and there, right in front of them, in an open-topped Mercedes, is Adolf Hitler, and that mass of people, their eyes shining, lining the sidewalks, saluting, and roaring his name. How, I asked her, did she feel on the train from Berlin? "I knew pretty much for sure that I would not see my father again," she replied. "I knew he was a very sick man. I'd lived with that for a long time. At that time, when I left, we did not know about death camps, they had not started then. But we did know about concentration camps. I thought in a way … I was very sad. I was very sad when I left my dog. But I was also a little bit excited." In Berlin, she was banned from the public swimming pools and from performing with her gymnastics team at the 1936 Olympics. At the Hook of Holland, she was transferred to the boat to England and given a cabin to herself.

Helga arrived at Liverpool Street station as a 13-year-old who spoke no English and knew no one, and she discovered that the family with whom she expected to stay was unable to take her in. My grandmother, who was active in aiding refugees, was also at Liverpool Street, expecting a 10-year-old boy she had imagined as a playmate for my then-eight-year-old mother. But, for some unknown reason, that boy failed to arrive on the train from Berlin, and it was in this way that Helga became my aunt.

Almost 10,000 children, three quarters of them Jewish, arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport from Nazi-controlled Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in the nine months between December 1938 and the outbreak of war. "The British," as the historian Anthony Grenville has written, "have come to celebrate the Kindertransports as evidence of their humanity and generosity, as part of the story of their 'finest hour' in the war against National Socialism. This conveniently ignores the fact," he adds, "that the Kindertransports took place against the background of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement [End Page...