Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 22

The Holocaust and England

Yesterday we went to Aegis Trust, an organization in Nottingham, England dedicated to education and memorialization about genocide from Armenia to Darfur and an action agenda of political action to ‘close the impunity gap,’ as director Dr. James Smith says.

Aegis has created major memorial sites in Rwanda, including one I visited in Kigali in 2005. That center, in the heart of the Rwanda’s capital city, is also a burial place for 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. Aegis also has a Holocaust Education Centre in Nottingham that is visited by hundreds of people every week.
The staff sets up and supports student chapters in universities throughout England, offers programs and workshops to educators, police officers, and city officials, and is working on legislation to enable prosecution of perpetrators of genocides who are living in the UK.

Today I went to the Imperial War Museum. One of the major exhibits is the history of the Holocaust, with a particular focus on Britain’s role during the war. There is also a very compelling display about the children of the Kindertransport.

In 1938, with awareness of the atrocities happening in Europe, the British government agreed to let 10,000 Jewish children under the age of 17 to enter the country. This was to be temporary, with the commitment that the children would be returned and reunited with their families when conditions returned to normal. A further stipulation was that private individuals or organizations had to agree to pay for the children’s support and care and to return the children to their countries of origin.

No adults were allowed entry. Infants and very young children had to be looked after by other children on the transports.

Jews, Christians, and Quakers worked to arrange the exits. There were many brave individuals involved in making these arrangements. One of the most remarkable stories is that of Sir Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who arranged for nearly 700 children to escape from occupied Prague.

His story is documented in our new version of Upstanders, “Ten Who Dared.” For a copy of this play, contact us at

The children, about 10,000 in total, crossed the ocean alone, without parents or guardians.

This photo is of the children aboard one of the ships.

Kindertransport children. It’s impossible to imagine the heartache of parents who parted with their children, hoping to keep them safe, while knowing that they might never be together again.

The children arrived in London and were dispersed to private homes throughout the British Isles, to boarding schools, or for those old enough, they went to work in agriculture or domestic service. Many joined the British armed services when they became old enough and fought against the Nazis.

In 1988 Bertha Leverton, who had been on the Kindertransport and lived in London, planned a 50th anniversary reunion of the Kindertransport children and in June 1989, over 1,200 people attended from the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

There is a very touching statue, “Children of the Kindertransport,” outside of the Liverpool Street train station in Hope Square, a memorial to the children who arrived there alone with only their suitcases and their hopes for eventual reunion with their families.

The sculptor, Frank Meisler, is himself a child of the Kindertransports. This poignant sculpture, five children alone without adults, train tracks in the background and names of the European cities from which the children fled around the base, is heart-wrenching. Notice the young boy’s violin case and the little girl’s teddy bear; in spite of these iconic symbols of childhood, they lost their youth and innocence.

Of the 10,000 children who found a safe haven in the UK between 1938 and 1939, the year the transports were forced to end, nearly all became orphans of the war. Their parents, almost without exception, perished in the Holocaust.

The Museum also features a brilliant exhibit about British children during World War II. In parallel to the story of the kindertransports, the exhibit highlights the removal of more than a million children from urban areas targeted in the bombing blitz to safety in the countryside and to Canada, and the deaths of innocent children who remained behind.

There was also an outstanding film on genocide and crimes against humanity, addressing conflicts from Armenia to Darfur, as well as an exhibit of conflicts around the world since 1945. There has rarely been a day without war somewhere since that time. And unlike World War I, when 90 percent of wartime casualties were soldiers, in today’s wars 90 percent of all casualties are civilians.

Theatre and War

London theatre is unparalleled in both quantity and quality, with productions ranging from Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theatre to the newest and most innovative in contemporary drama.

The tragedy of war is often the subject of great theatre. I saw “War Horse,” about the brutal trench warfare of World War I (a subject also examined at the Imperial War Museum), “Danton’s Death,” dealing with the brutality following the French Revolution; and “All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s brilliant play set immediately after World War II. When Joe Keller, the main character, finally faces up to his culpability in the deaths of 21 American pilots during the war, he says that ‘they are all my sons.’ This is the climactic moment in the play, the assertion that we all bear responsibility for others.

Concluding thoughts

I’ll be back in the US tomorrow. This trip has been a ‘trial run,’ of sorts, for a trip that World Without Genocide will sponsor in June 2011 called “A Journey To Witness and Remember: The Holocaust.” We explored some locations for that trip over the past few weeks and planned the itinerary of study and travel.

We hope you’ll consider joining us. The tentative locations are Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czech Republic; Krakow, Poland; and Vilnius, Lithuania. The trip will combine the historical and the contemporary as we look at the legacy of the Holocaust and World War II in these locations and the challenges facing Jews and other communities today. We also will enjoy the vibrant art and music in these beautiful European cities, each of them exciting places to visit.

Please be sure to sign up at our website to receive updates on events and programs.

Thank you for sharing these past few weeks in Croatia, Bosnia, Austria, and England with me!

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