Following the violent pogrom staged by the Nazi authorities upon Jews in Germany known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) of 9–10 November 1938, the British government eased immigration restrictions for certain categories of Jewish refugees.
Spurred by British public opinion and the persistent efforts of refuge aid committees, most notably the British Committee for the Jews of Germany and the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, British authorities agreed to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter Great Britain from Germany and German-annexed territories (namely, Austria and the Czech lands).
Passport issued to Gertrud Gerda Levy, who left Germany in August 1939 on a Children's Transport (Kindertransport) to Great Britain. Berlin, Germany, August 23, 1939.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Private citizens or organizations had to guarantee to pay for each child's care, education, and eventual emigration from Britain. In return for this guarantee, the British government agreed to allow unaccompanied refugee children to enter the country on temporary travel visas. It was understood at the time that when the “crisis was over,” the children would return to their families. Parents or guardians could not accompany the children. The few infants included in the program were tended by other children on their transport.
The first Kindertransport arrived in Harwich, Great Britain, on December 2, 1938, bringing some 200 children from a Jewish orphanage in Berlin which had been destroyed in the Kristallnacht pogrom. Like this convoy, most transports left by train from Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and other major cities in Central Europe. Children from smaller towns and villages traveled from their homes to these collection points in order to join the transports.
Jewish organizations inside the Greater German Reich—specifically the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany, headquartered in Berlin (and after early 1939, its successor organization the Reich Association of Jews in Germany), as well as the Jewish Community Organization (Kultusgemeinde) in Vienna—planned the transports.
These associations generally favored children whose emigration was urgent because their parents were in concentration camps or were no longer able to support them. They also gave priority to homeless children and orphans. Children chosen for a Kindertransport convoy traveled by train to ports in Belgium and the Netherlands, from where they sailed to Harwich. (At least one of the early transports left from the port of Hamburg in Germany, while some children from Czechoslovakia were flown by plane directly to Britain).
The last transport from Germany left on September 1, 1939, just as World War II began, while the last transport from the Netherlands left for Britain on May 14, 1940, the day on which the Dutch army surrendered to German forces.
In all, the rescue operation brought about 9,000–10,000 children, some 7,500 of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to Great Britain.
Circular label removed from the suitcase used by Margot Stern when she was sent on a Kindertransport to England. Germany, December 1938.
After the children's transports arrived in Harwich, those children with sponsors went to London to meet their foster families. Those children without sponsors were housed in a summer camp in Dovercourt Bay and in other facilities until individual families agreed to care for them or until hostels could be organized to care for larger groups of children. Many organizations and individuals participated in the rescue operation. Inside Britain, the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany coordinated many of the rescue efforts. Jews, Quakers, and Christians of many denominations worked together to bring refugee children to Britain. About half of the children lived with foster families. The others stayed in hostels, schools, or on farms throughout Great Britain.
Refugee girl, part of a Children's Transport (Kindertransport), shortly after arrival in Harwich. Great Britain, December 2, 1938.
In 1940, British authorities interned as enemy aliens about 1,000 children from the children's transport program on the Isle of Man and in other internment camps in Canada and Australia. Despite their classification as enemy aliens, some of the boys from the children's transport program later joined the British army and fought in the war against Germany.
After the war, many children from the children's transport program became citizens of Great Britain, or emigrated to Israel, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Most of these children would never again see their parents, who were murdered during the Holocaust.