This is the text of my introduction to the performance of Carl Davies’s composition, The Last Train to Tomorrow, at The Roundhouse on 9 November 2014, to mark the 76th anniversary since Kristallnacht (see http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2014/last-train-to-tomorrow/).
On this date of 9th November 1938, 76 years ago, came Kristallnacht. The full violence of the Nazi regime broke forth; Goebbels recorded in his diary with a glee one can still sense today the growing number of synagogues in flames. Jews were beaten in the streets, tens were murdered, and tens of thousands sent to the concentration camps.
The onslaught, which Goebbels described as the ‘boiling spirit of popular feeling’ had been carefully orchestrated. The shooting in Paris of Ernst von Rath by Herschel Grynspan, in revenge for the misery of his parents who had been dumped with thousands of other Jews at the Polish border at Zbaszyn to starve, was a convenient pretext. Foreign governments had shown at the Evian Conference on refugees how little interest they had in taking in more Jews. The Nazis therefore felt they could act with impunity.
The following day, my grandfather who’d served as a rabbi in Frankfurt all his working life, was summoned by the Gestapo to come with the keys to the synagogue on the Boerneplatz. As he walked through the crowd of onlookers, he heard it said that in the city’s beautiful Westend-Synagoge, the inside of which had been destroyed, the Eternal Light remained burning. This was taken as a sign from God.
Though many lights were shattered on Kristallnacht, others began to burnt more strongly. In Frankfurt, the wife of the British Consul, Robert Smallbones, telegraphed him in London saying that the consulate was full of desperate people to whom they were giving refugee. ‘Do something’, she urged. His actions led to the scheme under which thousands of temporary visas were issued, on condition that the applicants would not seek work in Britain. On the promise of such a visa many, including my grandfather, were released from Concentration Camps.
In Britain, the spirit of appeasement was largely over. Parliament debated the fate of Germany’s Jews. “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents”, noted the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare. Permission was given for an unlimited number of children to enter the country. Lord Baldwin, the former Prime Minister broadcast an appeal to the nation: ‘They may not be our fellow subjects, but they are our fellow men. Tonight I plead for the victims who turn to England for help.’
Jewish organisations, supported especially by the Quakers, had been urging such a response and were prepared. News of the Kindertransport spread quickly across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. In thousands of homes a single bag was packed: How does a parent express with a picture, a prayer book, a cuddly toy, an unfathomable, measureless love? Partings took place in the foyers of railway stations; children saw the diminishing figures of their parents, often for the last time. They travelled across Holland, then by ferry to Harwich; at Liverpool Station they encountered the arms of strangers, some uncomprehending, many deeply kind. ‘Here you shall be loved’ Vera Gissing was told, when she reached her new ‘family’.
I sometimes wonder about those lonely walks home in Germany to flats or houses which must have felt desolate in their emptiness, a sadness born bravely because mothers and fathers knew that at least their child, to whom they had given life, now had a chance to survive.
Those children, many of whom are here today, embraced the future with courage and determination, creating lives and families of their own. But the heart, whether it surrounds memory with silence, or gives it words, does not forget. Nor must the world forget the pain, the courage and the generosity of the Kindertransport.
Ner Hashem Nishmat Adam: ‘A lamp of the Lord is the human soul’, says Proverbs. As we now light memorial candles, we think of the spirit of the parents who sent their children away to safety, of those children who ‘came alone’ to an unknown country, and of the dedication of all who helped them.