“My child is gone…”

Marcel Krueger on Hertha Nathorff and Berlin’s Kindertransport program…

At six in the morning we brought our boy to Schlesisches Tor to be taken on the Kindertransport to England. How horrifying it was! […] And the people I met there this morning! A colleague in deep mourning – her husband died three days after being released from the concentration camp. She is sending her boy away. A patient of mine brings her little four-year-old daughter…

—Hertha Nathorff, Diary, March 2, 1939

When exiting Friedrichstraße S-Bahn station from its southern side, it’s hard to miss the large bronze monument at the intersection of Georgenstraße and Friedrichstraße: On a stone pedestal resembling a small perron stand two groups of children, numbering seven all together.

Züge in das Leben – Züge in den Tod; trains to death – trains to life 1938–1939″, and was created by German-British-Israeli sculptor and architect Frank Meisler

Two of them, a boy and a small girl, seemingly made from a lighter, more reddish tone of bronze, face towards the west with smiling faces. He is carrying a fully packed suitcase; she has a teddy bear in her arms and a school satchel over her shoulder. On the other side of the monument stand the other five: two tall girls and three smaller boys, all set in darker bronze and facing the east; behind them lies a pile of discarded, empty suitcases.

This monument is called “Züge in das Leben – Züge in den Tod; trains to death – trains to life 1938–1939”, and was created by German-British-Israeli sculptor and architect Frank Meisler (who died in 2018). It was erected here in 2008 as a memorial to the years when the station served as a starting point for the capital’s Kinderstransporte program.

During the night of November 9th, 1938, almost 100 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned, almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools vandalised. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps (in Berlin, around 3,000 Jewish men were deported to Sachsenhausen and many more were detained in jails for days).

Jewish areas like Ku’damm and Alexanderplatz were trashed, all part of a nationwide pogrom organised by the Nazi leadership and executed by local SA gangs. The pretext for this murderous rampage was the killing of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on November 7th, by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew, in Paris.

The pogrom was a turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews in that it moved from a policy of economic, political, and social exclusion to one that included physical violence and murder. It also marked a turning point in the international reaction to the persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria, annexed by Hitler in March 1938—especially in the United Kingdom.

Shattered storefront of a Jewish-owned shop destroyed during Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”). Berlin, Germany, November 10, 1938. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The international reaction to the increasingly disastrous plight of German Jews had been slow until then. Even before the November Pogrom, the German annexation of Austria had caused a flood of visa applications and created a major refugee crisis. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had convened a conference in Evian in France in July, but despite the participation of 32 countries—including the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia—no permanent solution to the crisis was found, especially for adult Jews hoping to leave Germany.

But on November 15th of that same year, a delegation of British, Jewish, and Quaker leaders appealed to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to permit the temporary admission of Jewish children into the U.K., a notion that was brought to and passed by the British parliament on November 21st.

The bill stated that the government would waive certain immigration requirements to allow the entry of children from infants up to the age of 17 into the U.K. Their parents, however, would not be allowed to accompany them, and every child would need to have a guarantee of £50 to finance their eventual re-emigration, as it was assumed that they would return to their parents as soon as the situation in Germany had changed.

An association named the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later called the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), sent representatives to Germany and Austria to prepare the transport—what would become known as the Kindertransporte or ‘children’s transport’—together with Jewish organisations on the ground.

Jewish refugee children look out of the train window as they leave Berlin. Schlesisches Tor train station, Berlin, Germany, November 29-30, 1938. Image (c) Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library Limited.

Hertha Nathorff was a paediatrician and lived with her husband Erich and her 14-year-old son Heinz on Spichernstrasse in Wilmersdorf. Erich had been a senior physician at Moabit Hospital until 1933 when the Nazis pushed all “non-Aryans” out of work, but the couple were allowed to continue working part-time at their own private practise (also in Moabit) up until the November Pogrom.

Erich was finally arrested on November 10th and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside of Berlin for five weeks. Increasingly worried for their lives, with more and more restrictions raining down on them (and after an employee of the Foreign Ministry had tried to blackmail her), Hertha visited the Children’s Evacuation Point on December 12th, where Jewish parents could register their children.

She records her feelings in her diary, which was published in German in 1987 as “The Diary of Hertha Narthorff, Berlin – New York notes 1933 to 1945”: “There, in a confidential conversation with the director […] I urged her to include my child in the next transport for fear of our lives. And so I sever my own lifeline indefinitely. No work, my husband in the concentration camp, my child in a foreign country soon! What is left to me?”

In hindsight, sending your own children away in the face of impending doom seems the logical thing to do, but who knows the future the moment you’re faced with such a decision? Even if the pogrom made it clear that Germany would increasingly harshly persecute the Jews in the country, no one thought the Holocaust possible in November 1938.

Thousands and thousands of parents across the Reich faced the agonising if not almost impossible decision of whether to send their children away to a country that, in most cases, they had no connection to and previous experience with, or to keep them by their side, uncertain of what would happen to them in Germany.

The first Kindertransport left Germany on December 1st 1938, carrying 196 children from Anhalter Bahnhof. Jewish communities and charities in the German Reich and the receiving countries (alongside the UK, the transports went to the Netherlands, Belgium, and France) took care of the immigration requirements including the £50, means of travel, accommodation for the children, and often also arranged foster homes.

The Nazis welcomed the emigration of Jewish children, but didn’t let them to take anything of value out of the country: they were only allowed a single suitcase, a pocketbook, and 10 Reichsmarks. Young Heinz had to wait until spring 1939 before he was allowed to leave. On February 25th, 1939, he had a small leaving party with his friends, and Hertha reflected on the extreme pressure that the children faced:

“My boy has invited five friends to say goodbye. How serious the young faces have become, and the themes they talk about! Where do they go? To America, to Chile, to Bolivia, to Shanghai, each of them to a different place. But all have the same goal: to help mum and dad as quickly as possible. 14- and 15-year old boys, and they’re already discussing how they can best support their parents.”

A few days later, on March 2nd, Hertha said goodbye to her son and watched him and the children leave. Block visas for the UK were issued to the travel groups; each child was given an identification number on a bit of cardboard, which the younger ones carried around their necks. In order to prevent tearful—and thus media-effective—farewell scenes, parents and relatives were forbidden to enter the platform when the children departed.

Hertha recalls: “And the children, they all queue with their suitcases which they have to carry themselves. Each child receives a number, and the children feel too important and interesting, while we watch and our hearts break.”

Identification tag for the Kindertransport of Beate Rose (born 1927), image (c) Jüdisches Museum Berlin

The children travelled in groups by train and ship, and were accompanied by adults and older children until they arrived in their new country. As the eponymous narrator in W.G Sebald’s “Austerlitz“, himself a child of the Kindertransport, recalls:

“I merely saw myself waiting on a quay in a long crocodile of children lined up two by two, most of them carrying rucksacks or small leather cases. I saw the great slabs of paving at my feet again, the mica in the stone, the grey-brown water in the harbour basin, the ropes and anchor chains slanting upwards, the bows of the ship, higher than a house, the seagulls fluttering over our head and screeching wildly, the sun breaking through the clouds, and the red-haired girl in the tartan cape and velvet beret who had looked after the smaller children in our compartment during the train journey through the dark countryside.”

Young refugees of the first Kindertransport after their arrival at Harwich, Essex, in the early morning of 2 December 1938. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0928-501 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Over the next months 10,000 children just like Heinz made their way to the UK from all over Germany and Austria, and, after Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939, also from Prague. Among the people organising these life-saving transits were such distinguished individuals as Nicholas Winton, who personally organised and supervised the transport of over 600 children from Prague, and Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, who organised the last transport out of the Netherlands as German tanks were already rolling into the country in May 1940.

Some of the refugee children were able to live with relatives who had already emigrated, but most were sent to foster families or group homes, where the younger ones continued school and some of the older ones started to work. After arriving in the UK, the children could only stay in contact with their parents via letters. When the war officially broke out in September 1939, pre-printed forms provided by the Red Cross had to be used, which often took a long time to reach the addressee.

In many cases communication broke off completely, especially after the deportations of Jews to the killing pits and extermination camps began in the autumn of 1941. Over the next years and decades, many of the children became citizens of Great Britain, and over time—much like Jacques Austerlitz, the protagonist of Sebald’s novel—deliberately or unconsciously lost all ties to their former lives in Germany. Many also emigrated to Israel, the United States, Canada, and Australia, but despite the diversity of these fates, one thing was true for most of them: they never saw their parents again.

Hertha Narthoff, however, got lucky. Having been deprived of all their assets by the Nazis, she fled with Erich to London in late April 1939, where they were reunited with Heinz. Afterwards they all emigrated to New York and continued to live and work in the city, never returning to Germany. Heinz died in 1988 and Hertha in 1993—by then she was a well-respected member of the Jewish emigrant community and had received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1967 for her work as psychotherapist and for her literary work as a chronicler of the dark years of Nazi terror in Germany.

Today, as reminders of the tragic and hopeful journeys of the children, there are Kindertransport monuments not only in Berlin, but also in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Vienna, the Hoek of Holland, Harwich and Liverpool Street station.

All Hertha Nathorff quotes translated from “Das Tagebuch der Hertha Nathorff. Berlin – New York. Aufzeichnungen 1933 bis 1945”, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2010