‘Forgive me’, he said, and wept. I leant close to hear his words in the windy night. ‘It was when you mentioned the name of Gertruida Wijsmuller-Maijer. If it hadn’t been for her I wouldn’t be alive today. I was on the last group of Kinder to get through. We were stranded in Germany; she hired a bus and collected us. The main roads were blocked but she guided us across on country lanes. Then she phoned the port and told them to hold the ship till we arrived’. We reached Britain on 1st September 1939.
We were standing in Hoek van Holland near where the Rhine finally meets the North Sea, within sight of where thousands of children had boarded ship bound for safety over seventy years ago. I don’t normally gate crash, but I’d begged to be allowed to attend and speak at the dedication of a statue in memory of the Kindertransport. The monument, similar to those already in location at Liverpool Street Station here in London, and in Berlin and Gdansk, was created by Frank Meisler, himself one of theKinder. It showed a group of children carrying backpacks and suitcases. Situated about a kilometre from the port, it was decided to place the statue not precisely where the children had embarked but here by the sea, that girdle of safety which the Nazis had, thank God, been prevented by the British from crossing.
Tens of Kinder came from all over the world, amidst numerous guests. Children from local schools lit the path to the statue with candles, then presented each Kind with a white rose.
I found myself caught between waves of feeling. I looked from the bronze children in the statue to the Kinder now in their late seventies or eighties and then at the rows of young schoolchildren. I thought about the meaning of the phrase ‘in the image of God’, which describes the sanctity with which every human life is endowed. Does this ‘image of God’ refer to the heart, which seeks to love and be loved? Or does it signify the intelligence, eager to engage with the mystery and beauty of the world? Or is it about the creativity waiting in every child to make and fashion, imagine and design? For every life is a world.
Then I thought about those suitcases. With what anguish did their parents choose their contents and steel themselves to pack them? As the children sat in the those trains, now five, now fifty, kilometres from the station, the parents were slowly walking back to an empty home. What courage, to part with their children! What terrors, that made it their best, their longed-for, option in those unthinkably awful times! What burning love could no longer put its arms around their offspring now, but only post letters to a foreign, unknown address! Yet still today we allow families to be split apart by war and hatred. ‘Do you hear from your family?’ I recently asked a man from the Congo. He turned his face away. Silently those suitcases command us to respect the holiness of the bonds of parent and child.
Then I thought about the chesed, the kindness which had brought those children across the seas, the women offering hot chocolate and white bread (‘like cotton wool, we’d never seen anything like it’, one Kind recalled); of the courage of Gertruida Wijsmuller-Maijer (it was she who persuaded Eichmann in Vienna to allow children from Austria to travel too); of the English woman who took in Vera Gissing and whose first words were, ‘Here you shall be loved’ (though many Kinder were far less warmly received).