From the Archives: Quakers and the Kindertransport

This is the first in a series of guest posts from the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers archive project at the Library of Birmingham.  Now that the project is complete, you can explore the archive catalogue online. Look out for more guest posts in the coming months.


Quakers and the Kindertransport

10, 000 children, the majority of whom were Jewish, were brought to Britain from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to escape persecution by the Nazis between 1 December 1938 and 1 September 1939. What came to be known as the Kindertransport was the result of the combined efforts of Jewish and Quaker organisations in successfully persuading the British government, in the days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, to ease its immigration restrictions for refugee children. The children were permitted to enter Britain on temporary visas without their parents if a guarantee of £50 per child were provided to cover the costs of care, education and re-emigration from Britain once the war was over. If the children were over 14, they were to be found work in agriculture or domestic service. The first group of children arrived at Harwich on 2 December 1938 and was accommodated at Dovercourt Camp for Refugee Children until suitable accommodation could be arranged with a host family or in a hostel.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book 1936-1939, 13 December 1938, minute 581 [ref. SF/2/1/1/3/13/1/1].

Led by Bertha Bracey, Secretary of the Friends Germany Emergency Committee (later Friends Committee on Refugees and Aliens) in London, the Religious Society of Friends, working with Jewish and other Christian organisations, was involved in all aspects of the Kindertransport.  In Birmingham on 13 December 1938, the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends agreed that a committee should be set up locally to coordinate relief work for Jewish refugees.

The Committee worked with the Friends Germany Emergency Committee and the Birmingham Council for Refugees. Some of its objectives included setting up a clearing house for children from Dovercourt Camp and for other refugees, finding homes for refugees, seeking agricultural and industrial training, raising money to support relief work, and helping Friends House, London by undertaking some of the advisory work it carried out.

By 10 January 1939, the Committee had already been offered the use of Allendale Cottage, Wast Hills by William and Emiline Cadbury which was to be used to accommodate 6 refugee children prior to finding them more permanent housing. An advice bureau was set up at the Library in Bull Street Meeting House and each Thursday 8 volunteer Friends and 6 volunteer refugees provided advice both for refugees in need of aid, and for Friends wanting to offer their services in the relief effort. The principle objective of the bureau was to,

“penetrate the maze of Refugees organisation and disorganisation, and to master the intricacies of  case preparation for successful approach through the Refugee Committees to the Home Office”

(Warwickshire Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1939-1943, extract from Refugee and Aliens Emergency Committee annual report, 1939).

It helped refugees with obtaining visas for relatives, supported cases for emigration, obtained guarantees and found offers of hospitality, housing, employment and training.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Refugees and Aliens Emergency Committee report: list of members, 1939 [ref. SF/2/1/1/3/13/1/1].

Initially, the Committee found their work was hindered by foreign and UK regulations regarding refugees and they struggled to find enough housing for the numbers of refugees arriving. On 15 April 1939 Evelyn Sturge reported on behalf of the Committee to Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting:

“The great difficulties which regulations abroad and in this country place in the way of refugees have given people a sense of frustration but the work goes on although much more slowly than could be wished.”

(Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book 1936-1939, 15 April 1939, minute 653).

Despite this, the following month the minutes state that six Preparative Meetings, including Cotteridge, Hall Green, Northfield, Rugby and George Road were responsible for 12 refugees, and 15 were being supported by individual Friends. By June 1939, the committee reported that 54 children were being helped, of whom 21 had been found homes, 10 £50 guarantees and 40 offers of domestic vacancies had been received and,

“The hostel at Windmill Cottage which was provided by Elizabeth M. Cadbury now has 8 or 9 young children living in very happy surroundings. About three other hostels are also providing welcome accommodation for a number of young people and work has been found for several young men.”

(Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book 1936-1939, 13 June 1939, minute 681)

One of these other hostels was at Oakley, near Bromsgrove, where, under the Avoncroft College Refugees Scheme, 28 Czech, German and Austrian refugees were trained in agriculture with the hope that after a year’s training they would be able to emigrate and another scheme offered training in carpentry. Another hostel in Maple Road, Bournville, offered to the Committee by George Cadbury, housed young trainees working in Birmingham, and there was also a hostel at Offenham. The artist and sculptor, Hans Schwartz (1922 – 2003) who escaped from Nazi occupied Austria at the age of 16, was one of the children sponsored by the Cadbury family. He was offered a trainee place at Cadbury Bros Ltd. where he worked as an apprentice in the printing department, while living at the Maple Road hostel. He also attended the Day Continuation School and took evening classes at Bournville School of Arts and Crafts at Ruskin Hall.

A group in south Birmingham arranged social gatherings for refugees in the area, which took place at Fircroft College on a regular basis. In addition, the group provided classes for learning English and there was also a young people’s club set up at the Beeches in Bournville.  A Czech Committee was responsible for 25 Czech boys and girls aged 7-18 who were attending school in Birmingham and by the end of the year, 5 of these had emigrated to Canada and 4 had moved to schools outside Birmingham.

In July 1939, Bull Street Preparative Meeting suggested that a group of Friends should approach local MPs, ‘to urge the need for more vigorous action by the Government in the aid of refugees’ (Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book 1936-1939, 11 July 1939, minute 704).

This was followed up by a meeting with representatives from the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, together with Bertha Bracey of the Friends Germany Emergency Committee, and 7 MPs at the House of Commons on 13 July 1939.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book, 1936-1939, 15 August 1939, minute 717, recording their representatives’ meeting with Bertha Bracey and Members of Parliament on 13 July 1939 [ref. SF/2/1/1/3/13/1/1].

From the outbreak of war in September 1939, the plight of the refugees worsened, as they were sent before tribunals where it was decided whether or not they were ‘enemy aliens’ and needed to be interned or have restrictions on the type of work they could do and where they could travel. One of the members of the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Refugee and Aliens Emergency Committee acted as a liaison officer for Birmingham refugees in these cases.

By the end of 1939, it was estimated that there were between 1018 and 1028 refugees in Birmingham, of which 200 were children.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1939-1943, extract from Refugee and Aliens Emergency Committee annual report regarding refugee tribunals, 1939 [ref. SF/2/1/1/3/13/1/1].

The Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Refugee and Aliens Emergency Committee continued its relief work throughout the war. The rescue and relief work undertaken by the Friends and other groups as part of the Kindertransport saved around 10, 000 children from persecution by the Nazis. Though many were helped, of the 6 million Jews who died in the concentration camps, about 1.5 million were children.

January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day: let us remember those who didn’t survive, let us remember the survivors whose lives were irrevocably changed, and let us not forget those who helped to rescue them.

Eleanor Woodward, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)

First published on The Iron Room blog on 24 January 2015 as part of the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers project, 2014-2017. For permission to reproduce, please contact:

Archives & Collections,  Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, Birmingham, B1 2ND