I am very glad that Samphire have asked me to contribute to their blog. I admire the awareness raising work they are doing in Dover, and I believe they are right in thinking that my own experiences as a child refugee have some bearing on the dire situation confronting Europe now. The UK government has been distressingly reluctant to admit refugees now arriving into Europe from conflict and repression in the Middle East and Africa. Its commitment to admit 20,000 Syrians over the next 5 years is minimal, and so far there has been a marked reluctance to agree to the proposal to admit 3,000 unaccompanied children. Although some progress has been made with the government agreeing to take children from camps around Syria, there is still no support for those who have made it to European countries but who are not being adequately cared for and are subject to trafficking, abuse and exploitation.
This niggardly attitude is in stark contrast with that of the Chamberlain government in the late 1930s, which – admittedly after much pressure from Jewish and non-Jewish groups and individuals, including the Dutch Quakers – decided in November 1938 to allow an unlimited number of children into the UK following the terrible anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany and Austria. There were some strings attached: each child had to be unaccompanied and to be supported by the sum of £50, and the children were to leave the U.K. as soon as that became practicable. In practice, nearly 10,000 children arrived between December 2nd and the outbreak of war, which put a stop to the so-called Kindertransports. It was an act of unparalleled generosity. I was one of these children, having been nominated for the first transport by the director of a Jewish boys’ orphanage in Berlin to which my parents had sent me in 1936, when the persecution of Jews in the town of my birth in Pomerania had become unbearable and I was no longer able to attend my school.
There can be no doubt that this saved my life, for many of the boys in the orphanage, together with their teachers, were sent to Ausschwitz concentration camp and my parents and my older sister were shot in the woods near Riga in October 1942. I am eternally grateful to the orphanage director (who himself died in Ausschwitz) and to my parents for letting me go, as well as to the UK government for offering me refuge. Like most other Kindertransport refugees I have done my utmost to repay my adopted country to the best of my ability. On reaching the age of 18, in the middle of 1943, I volunteered for military service in the Warwickshire Regiment and was demobbed in 1947 with the rank of Captain. I am of course far from unique, and I don’t know a single person who came to this country in a Kindertransport who has likewise not done his or her best to repay Britain’s hospitality in one way or another. The condition of entry concerning permanent residence in the UK was of course quietly forgotten, although many did move on to other countries, especially the U.S.A. and Israel.
Thanks to a Ministry of Education ex-servicemen’s grant I was able to study Zoology after my release from the army and became an immunologist, working in the field of transplantation immunology, in which I was involved in some groundbreaking studies that in 1960 led to the award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology to the leader of the three-man team (Prof. P.B. Medawar) of which I was the junior member. I have had a very satisfying career, having spent the last 20 years before retirement as Professor of Immunology at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and have been very active in local politics and in community relations. I married and had three children who have successfully (if not notably well rewarded financially!) followed their chosen professions as a forester, a circus aerialist and an actor and I was happily remarried 26 years ago. I continue to be active (though unpaid!) in my field and, sadly, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time writing obituaries for friends and fellow scientists!
The Kindertransports are constantly in the news and Prince Charles has consistently shown a great and empathetic interest in our fate. The reasons for this are, I imagine, that they came about through such a unique act of governmental generosity, that quite a few of us are still around to tell our stories, and that the conduct of Nicholas Winton – who together with one or two others organised the Kindertransports from Prague and saved more than 600 Czech children – has become so well known. Understandable as this is, I sometimes feel that the Kindertransports receive too much attention, at the expense of the great majority who could not be saved. We “Kinder” were undoubtedly the lucky ones, even if some of us had less than happy experiences when we arrived in this country. I was not one of those. In fact I was very lucky at several vital stages of my life: to be nominated for a Kindertransport, to have been taken in by a German-Jewish co-educational boarding school in Kent (Bunce Court) – that had been brought to the U.K. from southern Germany by an extraordinarily farsighted headmistress as early as 1933 – and where I was as happy as my circumstances allowed, surviving the war as a soldier, the award of a university grant and the offer of a Ph.D. studentship by my university professor (P.B. Medawar). No wonder I called my autobiography “Sunday’s Child? A Memoir” (Bank House Books, 2009) although the question mark is significant in view of the loss of my family.
I have little doubt that refugees admitted to this country in the present crisis would likewise do their utmost to repay their adopted country.
Leslie Brent (Emeritus Professor)