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Virtue in Despair: A Family History from the Days of the Kindertransports

From: History & Memory
Volume 17, Number 1/2, Spring/Summer 2005
pp. 323-365 | 10.1353/ham.2005.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

History & Memory 17.1/2 (2005) 323-365

A Family History from the Days of the Kindertransports

Michael Geyer

Ruth Theiner and her younger sister Esther left Prague on 30 June 1939, to arrive in England on 1 July on a so-called Kindertransport. Ruth was fifteen going on sixteen and Esther had just turned eleven the day before she left. They were on the sixth of altogether eight transports, which departed from Prague between 14 March and 2 August. Another transport was ready in early September, but was canceled due to the opening of hostilities between Germany and Great Britain. While Ruth remembered five hundred children, there were actually 241 according to the Scrapbook of Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker, who was overseeing the Czech operation. The earlier, fifth transport carried 123 children, the others delivered anywhere between 15 and 76 children into safety. In all, Winton and his staff facilitated the departure of 664 children between March 1939, the German occupation of the Czech lands, and the beginning of the war in September.

This was a small portion of the grand total of nearly 10,000 children, between two months and sixteen years of age, who departed for England under the auspices of several organizations that merged in March 1939 to become the Refugee Children's Movement. Still, it is not an insignificant portion of 1,000–2,000 children who managed to leave Czech lands before war started. In all, the 10,000 Kinder constituted about a third of up to a maximum of 30,000 children who, unaccompanied and alone, made it out of Nazi reach. Youth Aliyah was the other mainspring of the exodus, organizing the flight of around 5,000 youths from Germany before the war and of another 10,000 or so during the war, and 1,600 children managed to reach France with the Organisation pour la Santé et Education. However, even the maximum number of "rescued" children pales in comparison with those who were ready to leave but were unable to do so. No less than 10,000 children were still listed for the Kindertransport in September 1939. Nicholas Winton himself calculated another thousand children desperate to get out of the Czech lands. Overall estimates mention up to 60,000 children. The sad truth is that by far the majority of these children perished.

The special circumstance of the Kindertransport children was that they left their parents behind and were adopted by British foster parents or ended up in temporary homes and orphanages. Occasionally they joined relatives or, especially in the case of earlier transports from Germany and Austria, were reunited with one or both parents. For the most part, though, the children came alone and entered an alien world. They had to cope with the abrupt departure from their parents and the things, places, and people they were familiar with, as well as with the arrival in an unknown land that, legally and politically speaking, was not supposed to be a new home and yet was the only one to accept the children en masse. The mass immigration of ten thousand children to Great Britain more or less within a year, whether wanted and accepted or not, was an exceptional humanitarian act. But making a home for them was also an extraordinary humanitarian problem. It is this effort that I want to capture in the lives of the two sisters, Ruth and Esther Theiner.

We know relatively much about the two siblings because of a trove of letters written by their parents, mostly by Mirjam Dorothea Theiner, née Sophar, who was also known as Thea, Imah (mommy) or TTT (Tante Thea Theiner) and, occasionally, by Hugo Theiner, who was called Ab[b]a (daddy) by everyone. There are other such collections of letters, which, at least as far as Kindertransport children are concerned, are often underestimated as a font of information about them. An adventurous historian even reconstructed an entire wartime family history from letters accumulated from around the world and aptly called the enterprise "human beings becoming letters." The Theiner letters appear special—given the disruption of communication due to war—in that parents and children maintained a...