December 1938

The Council for German Jewry

Eighty years ago this month, the Council for German Jewry met - as they did twice a month throughout 1938 - to discuss the plight of Jews in Germany and Austria. These meetings were especially crucial now because so many Jewish men had been imprisoned in German concentration camps during November 1938. The Council was determined to find a way to rescue as many of these men as possible.

The Minutes of the Council's meeting on 12th December outline the ambition to provide a place of safety in the form of refugee camps in Britain, and thus a way out of imprisonment and the terror of fascism for tens of thousands of people - as can be seen in the extract below.

Council for German Jewry, Minutes, Leo Baeck, 12 December 1938
Council for German Jewry, Minutes, Leo Baeck, 12 December 1938
Originals of the Minutes of the Council for German Jewry can be viewed at the London Metropolitan archives and at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust

Even by this stage, however, the Council was struggling to fund refugees' onward migration costs, let alone taking on further vast expenses for visas, travel arrangements, food, and housing for tens of thousands more: indeed, "at the present time there was no liquid cash which would enable the work of the Hilfsverein to be carried on. That body owed Rm 500,000 to the shipping Companies, and this sum had been provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee. The ICA had placed at the disposal of the Reichsvertretung the sum of Rm 1,000,000 out of the investments which it had in Germany, which would last the Hilfsverein about 6 weeks" (Minutes, 12th December 1938).

The next few items discussed at the meeting relate to the distribution of further sums for the Kultusgemeinde, Vienna, and for other costs of emigration to be disbursed by the Reichsvertretung.

The meeting then turned to the establishment of refugee camps in Britain.

"The Chairman reported that a deputation of members of the Council had been received by Lord Winterton on the 7th December, but that the result was a statement to the effect that the Government would not be prepared to establish camps or to contribute towards the cost of such. It was decided that, in view of the statement made by Dr Baeck, the emigration of 30,000 Jews from Germany into different countries should be considered. A sub-Committee was appointed to inquire into the steps which were being taken by the refugee countries, such as Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, France, etc., to place German refugees in camps, and to report what similar action could be taken in this country (Minutes, 12th December 1938).

[Editor: Lord Winterton was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster - a key office in the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain]

This sub-committee was to include two names well known to readers of Professor Ungerson's book on Kitchener, Four Thousand Lives (2014) - Sir Robert Waley-Cohn and Professor Norman Bentwich.


The next Council meeting was held on 29th December 1938, by which time the sub-committee was to report back. Time was very much of the essence because many thousands remained imprisoned in appalling conditions in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. They desperately needed a place of safety to which they could emigrate in order to obtain release from the camps.

"Dr Hirsch of the Reichsvertretung, who was present at the Meeting, stated that, in his view, the establishment of such camps was the most urgent thing which could be done at the present moment, as people could only be got, and kept, out of concentration camps in Germany if the authorities were satisfied that an effort to arrange for their emigration was being made. The Chairman reported that he understood that the Home Office were rather uneasy regarding the suggestion of the establishment of transit camps in this country, as they feared that a pool of refugees might be formed in England. ... After further discussion it was decided that the principle of the establishment of transit camps be accepted, subject to the approval of the Home Office. The Committee was authorised to proceed with the preliminary investigations after having ascertained that the Home Office did not object, and provided also that the selection of the persons to be received in such transit camps should be in the hands of the Officials of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland. It was also decided to ask the American Joint Distribution Committee to join the cost of maintaining these camps" (Minutes, 28th December 1938).


The next instalment about the establishment of a refugee camp in Britain is to be found in the Council for German Jewry Minutes for 5th January 1939 - taking us to the crucial year in which the Kitchener camp rescue got underway. More of that in 2019 ...

For now, it is worth bearing in mind the time-scale from this point onwards: that is, from this decision to establish a sub-committee to look into the practicalities and the political difficulties, to the first refugees arriving at Kitchener, was only a matter of a few weeks.

Although with the benefit of hindsight we now know that the Kitchener rescue was in some respects 'too little, too late', it was nevertheless also an extraordinary achievement in terms of the time and funds available, its eventual scope, and its ambition to help when no-one else was prepared to intervene.

On being offered a means to leave the country - a condition of their release from the German camps - several thousand men gradually arrived at Kitchener camp throughout 1939. Although many of the men had injuries and ongoing poor health resulting from their incarceration, the hard physical labour required to refurbish Kitchener got underway immediately, despite the cold and muddy winter weather.

This work was carried out by the refugees themselves in the knowledge that for each hut made safe and habitable another 72 could be rescued.


World Jewish Relief commemoration

This Kitchener rescue saved the lives of our fathers and our grandfathers, our uncles and our cousins - and it is the reason many tens of thousands of descendants are alive today to commemorate this history together.

An interesting suggestion for commemoration of the rescue has arrived from one of our many well-wishers for the Kitchener project.

Kay recently received the following email from World Jewish Relief -

World Jewish Relief has been holding a series of events to commemorate 80 years since the Kindertransport and there is more to come.

After the success of last year’s event, we will be running one more Berlin to London Kindertransport Bike Ride on 16-21 June 2019, which emulates the 600-mile route that was taken by the children.

We will be matching each rider to a kinder so that they can ride in commemoration of that person’s unique journey. The certificate below is an example of how their story will be represented. If you would be happy for one of our riders to cycle in honour of your family member, please do let me know.

Additionally, if you are interested in taking part and would like to ride to commemorate the journey made by your own family member, we would be extremely happy for you to join us!

According to one of last year’s riders “It was a magnificent and unforgettable experience, bringing this important historical event to life through the ride and the stories it revealed”.

To learn more about this emotional and exhilarating challenge event, or to register, please visit www.worldjewishrelief.org/berlin2london.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to your response.

Kay's suggestion is that someone might like to offer to undertake this amazing commemorative cycle ride for one of our Kitchener men or boys. As has been outlined on this website in a number of places, there were boys under the age of 18 in Kitchener - from the Berlin ORT and other German Jewish training schools, and from the Kindertransport as part of the group of 'Dovercourt Boys'. I'm sure, if anyone is interested and able (!), that WJR would be happy to hear from you and to give you further information.

If someone does decide to volunteer to ride for a young Kitchener campman, please let us know and we will of course help you fundraise!


Kitchener Camp in 2019

The committee of the Kitchener Descendants Group is working hard to arrange an exhibition for 2019 to mark the handover of these materials and history to London's Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust. The committee is continuing to explore options and promises to let you know the date as soon as a space is confirmed.

We are acutely aware that families living overseas would like to get flights booked: please bear with us. Finding a large enough 'free' space in London is proving to be something of a challenge!

We'll get there.

There should also be some announcements over the course of next year about ongoing efforts for a new public memorial to commemorate the Kitchener Camp rescue, as well as information about other public acknowledgements of the Kitchener rescue in its 80th year.


We Remember campaign

You may have heard about a World Jewish Congress campaign - #WeRemember.

Most - probably all - Kitchener families lost close family members in the Shoah. In some cases, the male relative rescued at Kitchener was the only survivor.

Because of the scale of this loss among Kitchener families, we thought you might like to participate in the #WeRemember campaign as part of a Kitchener group. It will also help raise much-needed awareness of our history - as the rescue remains largely unknown across the world.

https://youtu.be/u3ISBKS9eS4

I am mentioning this now because families often come together at this time of year, and it would be wonderful to have some photographs of Kitchener family groups - although feel free to take a 'selfie' if that's more your thing.

It doesn't need to be anything fancy - just you / your family holding up a hand-made sign with the #WeRemember logo and some wording about our project: 'Kitchener camp, 1939' or the website address, www.kitchenercamp.co.uk. If you send the photo to me in the usual way (Contact), we will find a way to put them all together to send to WJC.

"In 2018, the #WeRemember campaign reached 650 million people in 155 countries. In 2019, with your organization's participation, we will educate more people and inspire new generations."

https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/weremember


Our thanks to Kitchener author Clare Ungerson

As our first full year of the online Kitchener project draws to a close, this seems a good time to say that without Professor Clare Ungerson's diligent research - in Four Thousand Lives: The Rescue of German Jewish Men to Britain, 1939 - we would not be where we are today.

Clare's much-needed narrative of this important rescue has clarified this history for many families.

Without Clare's book, I would not have found out much about the Kitchener rescue - which included the rescue of my own dad - and my imagination may never have been fired to design the online Kitchener project.

Simply put, we would not be where we are today without Four Thousand Lives - collecting an extraordinary amount of material among us, building this important research base for the future, and in the process bringing about the peace of mind that a fuller understanding of these events instils.

People sometimes ask me what my dad would have thought of all this.

At first, I was unsure - and did not know what to reply. But over the months, having had time to consider, I like to think he would have felt, as I do, that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and that this supportive community with its shared history is far, far better than the silence, absence, and trauma that went before.

We all have Clare Ungerson to thank for starting us off on this journey towards the discoveries, the realisations, and the peace of mind that flows from this better understanding of the history that has had such a profound influence on all our lives.


This is my last Kitchener post for 2018, which just leaves me to wish all Kitchener families and supporters a peaceful holiday period and a very happy 2019.

See you in the new year!

Editor - Clare Weissenberg