Archive for November, 2013

November, 2013

Next week’s Saving Humans Blogger

Dr Sheelagh McGuinness


Sheelagh McGuinness is a Birmingham Fellow based in the Centre for Health Law, Science & Policy, at Birmingham Law School. Her research interests span law and bioethics (particularly reproduction, medical migration, and disability) focusing on the interplay between law, ethics, and policy.

Sheelagh’s research interests are in health law, ethics and policy. She is currently working on two main research projects, Reproductive Justice and Medical Migration and Health Crimes


November, 2013

Humanitarianisms in context

Kevin O’Sullivan School of Humanities, National University of Ireland Galway

We do it almost without thinking. If you’re British, your NGO of choice in responding to the recent disaster in the Philippines is likely to have been Oxfam, Save the Children or Christian Aid. In Ireland, it’s Concern, Trócaire or Goal. In France: Médecins sans Frontières or Médecins du Monde. I could go on. But why do we associate so strongly with our local NGOs? Is there any difference between a British, Irish, French, or, indeed, a Japanese approach to humanitarianism? Or do they all – even the British Red Cross or the Irish branch of UNICEF – speak an international language of NGO aid?

While you read this, a group of historians and representatives of the NGO sector is meeting at the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) in Potsdam to tackle those very questions. It’s part of the ‘Non-state humanitarianism: from colonialism to human rights’ network that we’ve been running since early this year, with generous funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and additional support from the Irish Research Council, the University of Birmingham, ZZF Potsdam, and the University of Manchester. We’ve met twice to date: at Birmingham in March, at NUI Galway in June. We’ve discussed the big questions of imperial legacies, the rise of NGOs, and the sources and uses of humanitarian history. Yet at both workshops we kept coming back to an important central question: How meaningful is it to talk about local, national or international traditions of humanitarianism? Can an NGO really be British, Irish or French? Or is there something more fundamental to our understanding of humanitarian aid?

For our meeting at Potsdam, we’ve decided to pursue those questions a bit further. Our title says it all: ‘Humanitarianisms in context: histories of non-state actors, from the local to the global’. And to try to get to the bottom of it, we’ve drawn together papers on everything from the Japanese Red Cross and CARE International, to the British Women’s Institute and the radical humanitarianism of Cap Anamur. Over two days we aim to explore the contexts and traditions in which ideas of non-state humanitarianism have been articulated. We want to examine how our histories of NGOs interact with international, imperial and globalising vocabularies of humanitarianism. And we want to find out where those debates have been played out: in the shifting dynamics of their local, national and international contexts.

But this is no ordinary academic meeting of minds. Alongside our group of historians from across Europe and North America sit representatives of the Overseas Development Institute and Médecins sans Frontières. In previous workshops we have also heard from representatives of Christian Aid, Save the Children and Concern. Our goal is simple: to bring new histories of humanitarianism into dialogue with the needs of the contemporary NGO sector. But our impact is potentially enormous: by understanding how and where NGOs originate, what that means for their actions (and their ability to act), what kinds of projects and approaches work in the field, and – crucially – why, we can draw on the past to generate better responses to poverty and immediate crisis today. And that, to me, seems like an objective that is well worth pursuing.

Kevin O’Sullivan School of Humanities, National University of Ireland Galway

November, 2013

Global Activists Networks: The Campaign Against Baby Formula in the 1970s

Tehila Sasson, PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, and visiting student, Department of History, University of Birmingham

In a global interconnected world, studying NGOs can teach us something new about politics. While today New Media helps forge global networks of activism, the origins of these networks can be seen in the campaigns of NGOs from the 1970s and 1980s, which helped educate the broader public and include ordinary people in international politics. An example of such a campaign was the one against the marketing and sale of baby formula in the Third World. The campaign was probably one of the most successful ones in the period, since it put pressure not only on governments but also on international organizations and multinational corporations.

The campaign against baby formula started in the UK, when the group War on Want decided to criticize the formula companies. In 1974 War on Want published a report to on the promotion and sale of powdered baby milks in the third world, and claimed that Third World babies were dying because their mothers bottle-fed them with western style infant milk, and accused the baby food industry of “promoting their products in communities which cannot use them properly; of using advertising… that persuade mothers to give up breast feeding.” The report publicized the story and turned it into a national – and later on an international – sensation. It received wide circulation in the British press and in June 1974 a Swiss organization translated the report into German though it also altered the title to “Nestlé Kills Babies”. In response, Nestlé sued the group for libel thus giving the group much publicity across Europe. However the trial highlighted the issue of bottle-feeding and placed Nestlé at the heart of the problem of malnutrition in the Third World.

In summer 1977 the issue of baby formula was taken up by a new American lobby, named the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT), which decided to start a boycott against Nestlé. In November of that year INFACT was joined by other organizations which called for a nation-wide boycott to the entire United States. In the following years the boycott spread to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, Britain and by 1983 more than 80 organizations – all in the U.S. and Europe– participated in it. While the boycott might have started as a grassroots network of local church-related hunger organization, by the 1980s it became an international movement to stop the selling of milk formula through a consumer boycott.

The main success of the boycott was to lobby for a Congressional Hearing in the U.S to enquire into the marketing strategies of the milk formula industry. The boycotters wrote letters to Senator Ted Kennedy, in order to secure public investigatory hearings. Kennedy agreed to chair the Senate Hearings, and on May 23, 1978 it was set to investigate the corporate responsibility for these issues. The Senate Hearings helped vocalize the calls for an international body to regulate the sale of milk formula, and to the creation, three years later, of a new International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

In October 1979, WHO and UNICEF sponsored an international conference in Geneva to discuss the problem of baby feeding in the Third World. The meeting called for the development of an international code of marketing, as well as action on other fronts to improve infant and young child feeding practices. In 1981 the World Health Assembly adopted these recommendations and presented the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. The Assembly endorsed the Code as a “minimum requirement in all countries” and consolidated the discussions about milk formula that started in the 1974 campaign. The success of The Baby Killer campaign ultimately forced Nestlé to change its marketing strategies in the Global South and on 25 January 1984, Nestlé signed an agreement in which it pledged to implement fully the international Code.

Although the boycott was reinstated by the end of the 1980s, it never gained the same success as it did in the late 1970s. However, the success of the boycott still stands as it led to a global pressure on multinational corporations and the creation of an international system to regulate marketing strategies in the Third World. By looking at NGOs and pressure groups we can see how a politics beyond Westminster was created to help starving children abroad. In fact through the work of NGOs a global network and an international lobby beyond Westminster or DC was forged.


November, 2013

Enamoured with Emergency: the Disaster Relief Industry

Andrew Jones  PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham

The recent destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has triggered a major mobilisation of the global humanitarian aid network. Donor governments and UN agencies have pledged substantial contributions for emergency relief. International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have gone into action, backed by the financial and moral support of donor publics. In Britain the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella body of leading aid agencies tasked with launching and co-ordinating the humanitarian sector’s response to major disasters, raised £23 million from the British public for typhoon relief in just 48 hours attesting to the groundswell of support for urgent relief operations in the Philippines.


UK official relief aid being loaded onto HMS daring for distribution in the Philippines. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

The international response to the typhoon has also reaffirmed a truism long acknowledged within the aid industry; in the business of saving humans, evocative media images of disaster and human suffering are unrivalled in their power to mobilise compassion and resources. Donor publics respond to graphic footage of human suffering (usually children) by donating en masse to leading NGOs, and exert pressure on their governments to act. The British government notably only despatched a warship to assist in relief efforts (HMS Daring) after the Philippines had become a domestic political issue, despite the international community being aware of the impending typhoon before it struck. The entire global aid response to the Philippines is now attracting criticism for its perceived slowness; this is partially the result of failures by the Philippine National Government, and the complex logistical problems involved in any disaster relief operation. It also reflects how the international community only responds to overseas suffering when dramatic images are broadcast on television. By this point, it is already too late for many of those living in disaster-afflicted regions.

Historically, this tendency has presented opportunities and restrictions for those organisations engaged in international humanitarianism. Arguably, the financial and institutional expansion which characterises the modern history of aid agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children has been fuelled by a perpetual cycle of heavily-mediated disasters in the Global South. Through their appeals and publicity, these NGOs have extracted large amounts of public funding through the universal appeal of images of vulnerable, suffering children. This in turn has enabled them to build up their capacities and public profiles, further cementing their popular association with disaster relief. The involvement of aid agencies in such major overseas emergencies as the Nigerian civil war (1968), the Bangladesh cyclone and war of liberation (1970-71), famine in the Sahel (1973-74), post-Pol Pot Cambodia (1979), famine in Ethiopia (1984-85), and genocide in Rwanda (1994) has been described as a roll-call of disasters which resembles “the campaign honours of a venerated regiment”. Mark Duffield refers to the modern NGO movement expanding on the basis of the state of “permanent emergency” which exists among the world’s most vulnerable populations[1].

However, perhaps less well known is that as early as the 1960s, a critique of this inherently short-term, crisis-oriented approach to humanitarianism was emerging within the NGO community. The stimulus for this was organisations such as Christian Aid and Oxfam recasting themselves as ‘development agencies’, promoting expert-led solutions to the root causes of suffering in the Global South. In the process, these bodies gradually took up a more overt advocacy and campaigning role, aiming to build up grassroots support for policy reforms connected to the international development agenda. In this context, emergency relief increasingly came to be seen as an outdated form of philanthropy, ineffective in the larger struggle for long-term change. This new attitude could be seen in the spread of a critique of NGO disaster publicity, which attacked the ubiquitous images of starving children as unethical, exploitative, and incompatible with development. Much of this criticism came from within the sector; Oxfam notably announced in the Guardian in 1973 that it was to stop using such imagery, and seek to “educate rather than incite pity… people have become blunted by disaster”[2].

Of course, in practice such fears of the public becoming “blunted by disaster” proved to be ill-founded, and the compelling power of such images has proved difficult for publicity-oriented NGOs to avoid. Despite the long-standing criticisms made of emergency relief, NGOs have consistently scaled up their commitments and capacities for humanitarian aid, reflecting a broader increase of relief as a proportion of all international assistance. The UK Disasters Emergency Committee is an obvious example of this process at work. Founded in 1963 as a means for leading agencies to make joint emergency appeals on television (rather than compete among themselves) the DEC’s membership and fundraising power has expanded considerably over time. The DEC now regularly extracts huge sums from the public on the basis of disaster, including a remarkable record sum of £392 million in public donations for the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

The continued rise in the importance and appeal of emergency relief aid, especially in relation to development advocacy and campaigning, raises challenging questions about non-state humanitarianism and the public attitudes which shape how some humans come to be ‘saved’. As the large response to typhoon Haiyan would suggest, the public as a whole is simply far more responsive to the visual spectacle of disasters. Indeed, opinion polls indicate that large sections of the public do not perceive any distinction between development aid and humanitarian aid, conceiving of international aid as a whole as short-term charity[3]. The huge outpouring of global compassion triggered by media coverage of the Philippines typhoon also underlines how challenging it is to mobilise popular and political support for campaigning on the causes of global underdevelopment. Issues such as debt, trade and economic interdependence are inevitably less geared to unambiguous, dramatic representation; a dilemma familiar to many employed within the NGO sector. However, it should also be acknowledged that international humanitarians have themselves contributed to creating this problem of public engagement, as NGOs have used simplistic images and narratives of disasters and disaster relief to fuel their own expansion. Saving humans is a moral and ethical imperative; it is also a complex industry, where there is often no explicit connection between the causes of human suffering, and its effects.

Andrew Jones is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of History and Cultures. He is currently completing his PhD thesis on the modern history of the British humanitarian NGO sector.

[1] Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), pp.74-75.

[2] Lindsay Mackie, ‘Oxfam changing child plea image’, The Guardian, 6 October 1973, p.4.

[3] Ida Mc Donnell, ‘United Kingdom’, in Ida Mc Donnell et al. (eds.), Public Opinion and the Fight against Poverty (Paris: OECD, 2003, pp.217-224).

November, 2013

British Women and International Development, c.1950s – 1970s

Sophie Skelton PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham

British women have a long history of participating in international developmental activities in various different guises, as the wives of Victorian missionary ‘civilisers’ and as assistants in the colonial development and welfare practices of the inter-war period. Whilst in these contexts, developmental activities had been confined to the periphery of organisational activity, by the late 1950s, development came to feature at the centre of British women’s organisation’s international programme. This post-war prioritisation of development continues to impact on the activities of British women’s organisations today.

The origins of this process date back to the immediate post-war years. Inspired by a new sense of duty and internationalism, British women’s organisations including the Women’s Institutes, the Townswomen’s Guilds, the National Council of Women in addition to smaller, more centralised organisations such as the Six Point Group, embraced the new international institutions that had formed as a result of War with a newfound sense of purpose, one which allowed them to join new organisational partners. British women’s role in international affairs was conceptualised as organisationally necessary, as vital for a new age that demanded international connectivity both in economic and political terms.

In the late 1940s, world peace was taken up by a broad spectrum of British women’s organisations as a potentially powerful means of bringing women together from diverse political, social and cultural backgrounds to co-operate on both national and international levels. According to these groups, women offered their own ‘distinctive and positive contribution to the preservation of peace throughout the world’ based on specifically on their roles as wives and mothers. Several attempts were made in Britain during the late 1940s to form a new women’s peace movement that united both middle class and working class women and linked the fight for peace directly to women’s international rights.

However, it was the failure of peace to unite women across social and political lines in the face of the ‘red scare’ following the heightening of Cold War tensions in the early 1950s, that effectively positioned international development as the convenient space for British women to act out these new post-war international commitments. To fight for peace had become synonymous with Communism and women members of these organisations worried that the issue had simply become ‘too political’. The prioritisation of the UN’s ‘technical assistance’ program in the 1950s then, was both pragmatic and deliberate. Leading members of both international and British women’s organisations agreed that the key tenets of peace could be translated – through the UN based technocratic approach – into apolitical action. Women’s organisations could work indirectly for peace by ‘promoting human relations and helping to raise the standard of living for people throughout the world’. Their work in this field during the late 1950s aimed to highlight women’s role the developmental process to ensure that they were ‘remembered’ in the administration and delivery of technical assistance projects throughout the world.

Whilst this move into development helped to make women’s role in the development process more visible, the results of this new international priority within Britain were informed directly by histories of imperial power. British women’s organisations continued to utilise the resources and approaches they had used under colonialism in a developmental context. Thus the welfare-based information courses that formed the basis of British women’s early development activities in the late 1950s and 1960s continued to conceive of women in the global South in terms of their gender and cultural ignorance and thus assumptions about priorities and Western superiority were left uncontested. Projects that aimed to combat illiteracy amongst women formed a key part of the British agenda, as did training in appropriate forms of ‘mothercraft’ and nutritional education.

The Freedom from Hunger Campaign, launched in 1961, was the catalyst for wider British women’s organisations entry into contemporary international development. The Campaign’s populist approach to the problems of hunger fitted suitably with wider organisational aims that excluded politics. The Campaign proved tremendously popular amongst women’s organisations within Britain, and helped to cement the issue of international development more firmly into organisational consciousness. Over the course of the 1970s, British women’s organisations secured membership on the UNESCO and UNICEF UK national commissions and on the Standing Conference for the Second Development Decade. The Women’s Institutes formed their own campaigns to fight nutritional blindness in India, and had forged links with Oxfam and the World Development Movement. The National Council of Women Guilds has popularised the UNESCO gift coupon scheme amongst its wider national membership since the 1960s, and was particularly vocal about the provisions made for women in the Band Aid/Live Aid Programme in the 1980s.

The involvement of British women in contemporary international development was as much of a product of circumvention as it was of history. The desire to avoid political controversy helped to set out a significant, and evidently long-lasting, international priority.

November, 2013

Just Giving.

Matthew Hilton Professor of Social History  University of Birmingham

This week sees a series of blogs by staff and postgraduate researchers on the history of non-governmental organisations and humanitarianism. They are being prepared ahead of a workshop in Potsdam looking precisely at this topic.

They appear just as aid is about to reach the victims of the latest natural disaster in the Phillipines. Governments, charities and private organisations around the world have pledged to give up to £240 billion in the massive relief effort. The British public has donated over £50 million, principally through the campaign co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee, which operates on behalf of all the leading humanitarian charities.

            Such a massive demonstration of public generosity is certainly not new. The response to the Asian tsunami in 2004 was simply staggering as was the Band Aid movement in the 1980s. But these spectacular instances of international giving are only recent examples of dozens of other key moments of mass philanthropy. In the 19th century, the British public raised millions of pounds (in today’s money) for victims of famine across the empire, especially India, and organisations such as the Save the Children Fund put aside political prejudice to rescue starving children in Saratova during the Russian famine of the early 1920s.

There is a long history of persistently high levels of charitable giving in Britain. As a historian I am interested in the different ways Britons have voluntary given up parts of their income to aid and assist others less fortunate than themselves around world (whether  suffering from natural or man-made disasters or experiencing the injustices of primary poverty).


But what does all this charitable activity amount to in the minds of the generous donors? Certainly, it reflects a care and a concern for suffering by people far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary men and women in Britain. But how far does this concern extend and to what ends? The ambiguities over the meaning of the name of the leading charity website, ‘Just Giving’ is particularly instructive on this point.

Firstly, ‘just giving’ refers to a moral action. It describes the ethical decision to donate and evokes the sense of moral obligation we have to those less fortunate than ourselves. It is understood as a politically neutral term which assumes the act of giving is in itself a moral good, irrespective of how the donation is made, to whom and for what purposes.

Secondly, the phrase also invites a political question. It implores us to ask whether the act of giving is in itself sufficient to deal with the issues that inspired the act of giving. In this sense ‘just giving’ is the starting point for a greater political understanding of the underlying causes of poverty or a humanitarian disaster.

Thirdly, it is a sociological statement that serves as a more negative answer to the above. It is an observation that the act of giving is just, or only, that: as donors we give but we do nothing else beyond it. Just giving is the endpoint of our intervention and we do not reflect on, act on or engage with the issues which provoked our compassion in the first instance.

These three aspects of just giving – in turn, moral, political and sociological – get to the heart of existing debates about charitable, voluntary humanitarianism. Thanks to the deposition and cataloging of major new archives of the leading agencies sustained historical investigation into the support for and growth of charitable humanitarianism in Britain since the late-19th century can now be made. Oxfam’s archives have been recently deposited at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, and will start to become available to researchers from the summer of 2014. These papers will complement those already available for Christian Aid and War on Want, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. And at Birmingham the massive deposit of the archives of the Save the Children Fund, brokered by the History department’s DANGO project will enable dozens of research projects to be undertaken into the ways in which the British public has donated to charitable causes.

Hopefully, such projects will enable us to better understand the nature of charitable giving and to cast further light on a central problem all humanitarian NGOs have had to face. Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children are all committed to long term aid and development projects. But they also know that appeals based on such plans hold little sway with the public. Time and time again they are brought back to the relief of disasters as they know images of immediate suffering have a strong pull on the nation’s purse strings.

Matthew Hilton Professor of Social History  University of Birmingham


Useful links:

Disaster Emergency Committee pages on the Philippines Campaign

BBC News: UK Sending Six Aid Planes

BBC News: UK Aid legacy in Asia

Guardian: Five years after the Tsunami

Antinomies of generosity: Moral geographies and post-tsunami aid in Southeast Asia

Public diplomacy as symbolic interactions: A case study of Asian tsunami relief campaigns

Band Aid

November, 2013

Diane Samuels on her play ‘Kindertransport’


Twenty five years ago, a friend told me about the 50th anniversary reunion that her father was attending. He had grown up in a Jewish family in Vienna and, in 1939, when the Nazi regime was firmly installed in power in Austria, had been given the opportunity to escape on a train to Britain. This was the Kindertransport humanitarian rescue project for 10,000 under sixteen-year-olds, mainly from Jewish families who were in danger. The reunion in 1989 was the first gathering of many of these “Kinder” (hardly children any more as the youngest were in their fifties). I was a young mother myself at the time and found myself hugely moved by the challenge that faced those Jewish parents who chose to send their children, some babes in arms, away to a foreign land to be safe. Many of those children never saw their parents ever again. I felt a deep urge to write about the emotional impact of surviving such a wrenching separation. And so ‘Kindertransport’ the play was born.

Over the last twenty years the play has been performed all over the world and is studied for A and AS Level and GCSE in the UK. I often receive messages from people of all ages about how the play has touched them deeply. For whilst this play is set within a specific context, drawing on actual life experiences of various different Kinder, to tell the fictional story of nine-year-old German-Jewish Eva and her older self in her mid fifties Evelyn who has now become an English Christian, it speaks to all about the feelings around parent/child separation and mother/daughter relationships.

“As time passes fewer and fewer remain who can really tell what it felt like to be exiled as a Jewish child from Nazi Germany. Which is why this excellent play is not only a great piece of theatrical entertainment but also a superb lesson for those of us too young to grasp an element of the devastation that Hitler’s Nazi party caused.

‘Kindertransport’ not only explores those horrors but also the impact of being plucked from your home and your natural parents. The sadness of leaving behind those you love and being thrust into an alien country. And there, not only to not be able to speak the language but to also face prejudices, this time not for your faith but simply for being German.

The play goes further and  explores the traumatic effect of finding a new life and dealing with the emotional strings that tie you to your past. A new adoptive mother, name and lifestyle become a norm that offers some comfort but  also bears scars, emotional damage that  remains and this forms the core of the play.

‘Kindertransport’ will be performed in the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts (5th – 7th December)

Further information:

Diane Samuels, Kindertransport (London, 1995)

For more information about Diane Samuels go to: 

 For more information about drama and the Holocaust, see Motti Sandak, Holocaust Theatre Online Collection (HTC): Theatre about Life and Hope:

Charlene Gould and Jeffrey Myers, ‘Performance of memory: Diane Samuel’s Kindertransport, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, and Holocaust representation’ in Christina Guenther and Beth Greich-Polelle (eds.), Trajectories of Memories: Intergenerational Representations of the Holocaust in History and the Arts (Newcastle upon Tyne,: 353-374)

 Phyllis Lassner, Anglo-Jewish Women Writing the Holocaust: Displaced Witnesses (Basingstoke, 2008)

 Claude Schumacher, Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah, Drama and Performance (Cambridge, 1998)

 Robert Skloot, The Darkness We Carry: The Drama of the Holocaust (Madison, 1988)

 Robert Skloot (ed.), The Theatre of the Holocaust, two volumes (Madison, 1982, 1999)

November, 2013

The problem of distance. Samantha Mitschke, a PhD student in Drama and Theatre Arts

The difficulties in researching a PhD in Holocaust theatre include the use of language, sensitivity (is there a ‘right’ way to interview a Holocaust survivor?), the ethics of portrayal, and, even, the perception of others (I have been asked more than once, ‘Is there any Holocaust theatre?’ though there are plays on the theme by writers such as Arthur Miller, Peter Weiss and David Edgar, among others). Initially, these issues were ever-present. My two main concerns were fear of asking the ‘wrong’ questions, and how to be appropriately respectful but this has had a function in my research: for instance, one of my thesis chapters explores how some theatre sets out to cause offence in order to make the audience look more closely at the Holocaust. In fact, these issues – which once caused me to question my (suit)ability as a researcher – are now as inherent to my work as breathing: I am not conscious of their presence, but were they to suddenly cease, I would immediately know it.

The main concern is that of emotional distance from the material. Author Philip Hallie addresses the problem in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed : ‘[…] When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster […] who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness’ (1979: 2). I made the conscious decision very early on to maintain distance. I reasoned that if I was going to spend my days with Hitler and Anne Frank, it would be very easy to become overwhelmed. The irony in my situation is that I attempt to maintain distance while writing a thesis that explores how to make audiences engage more with the Holocaust.

Preparing for 'Kindertransport' (photo taken by David Crisp, University of Birmingham)

Preparing for ‘Kindertransport’ (photo taken by David Crisp, University of Birmingham)

Like Hallie, I often find myself to be a ‘monster’: I have learned about persecution and pogroms, read accounts of the camps, even spoken with survivors – and I have looked upon it “without a shudder”. Yet it is ultimately impossible to maintain complete distance: there were tears in my eyes as a European colleague wept at the crematorium in Auschwitz, finally able to pay tribute to her murdered grandparents; there was wavering between tears and smiles as I watched a Dachau survivor embrace an American liberator nearly seventy years on and thank him for his life.

We are distanced from the Holocaust by almost seven decades, and the challenge is to find effective ways in which to maintain that distance and, contemporaneously, find ways to bridge it so that, as Alvin Rosenfeld (2011) observes, we can understand not just how the Holocaust affects awareness and cultural memory now, but the place of the Holocaust in the lives of generations to come.

November, 2013

Remembering the Kindertransport, by Dr Isabel Wollaston


Friedrichstrasse side with flowers (July 2013)

The late 20th/early 21st century has witnessed the creation of a growing number of public memorials to the Kindertransport. In 1999 a plaque was unveiled at the Palace of Westminster ‘in deep gratitude to the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom for saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish and other children who fled to this country from Nazi persecution on the Kindertransports 1938-1939.’ Two parallel, even rival, series of memorials have emerged, by sculptors Flor Kent and Frank Meisler. Should they notice, visitors pass by Kindertransport memorials by Kent at Liverpool Street Station, Westbahnhof (Vienna, 2008), The Holocaust Centre (Beth Shalom), as well as one at Hlavni Nádraži station (Prague, 2009) celebrating Nicholas Winton’s role organizing similar transports of children from Czechoslovakia to the UK. Meisler charts his journey from his hometown Danzig (Gdansk in present-day Poland, Kindertransport – the Departure, 2009); to Berlin (Trains to Life, Trains to Death, 2008); the Hook of Holland (Channel Crossing to Life, 2011), and Liverpool Street Station (Kindertransport – the Arrival, 2006). Indeed, Liverpool Street is now home to three memorials, with Meisler’s in pride of place in a plaza on the upper concourse renamed Hope Square in 2006 (dedicated ‘to the Children of the Kindertransport who found hope and safety in Britain through the gateway of Liverpool Street Station’), with Kent’s sculpture originally located here (2003) first removed, then relocated in revised form on the lower concourse. 


Fur das Kind – London (June 2011)




Meisler sculpture – Liverpool St Station






Winton memorial – Prague Station (April 2012)


A week on Sunday (01.12.13) Hope Square and the Meisler memorial will provide the setting for a Memorial Service organized by World Jewish Relief and the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) to mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first Kindertransport. Further memorials to the Kindertransport and to Nicholas Winton can be found in Harwich and Maidstone. The story of the Kindertransport also features in the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, and the Jewish Museum, London, where, intriguingly, it is part of the Holocaust section of the permanent exhibition on Anglo-Jewish history (History: A British Story) rather than its Holocaust Gallery. More controversially, it is the focus of The Journey: Children of the Holocaust, an exhibition at The Holocaust Centre (Beth Shalom) which opened in 2006 (sponsored by the AJR) and is unique in being designed for Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11; the controversy lying in seeking to educate children of this age about the Holocaust, usually considered the preserve of Key Stage 3 and above). 

This proliferation of memorials bears witness to the significance now attached to the Kindertransport, something very evident this summer in both the commemorative events taking place and the press coverage they attracted. Such overt public commemoration and celebration is in stark contrast to past decades when the Kindertransport were a marginal or forgotten footnote in British national memory and memories of World War II. It is entirely appropriate that the Kindertransport should be remembered and celebrated, but that celebration should be tempered by realism, by recognition that they were an exception in British immigration policy in the 1930s and 1940s, rather than the rule; an initiative by individuals and organizations rather than the state (most of whom, unlike Nicholas Winton, remain in the shadows, largely forgotten rather than celebrated today), and that the experiences of the Kinder once they arrived in this country varied considerably, with not all being welcomed, and some being exploited and/or maltreated.  


The Kindertransport section of Frank Meisler’s website: and Frank Meisler, On the Vistula Facing East (London, 1996) 

Flor; and Peter Berthoud, Monumental children return to their saviour at Liverpool Street (29.05.11):  

The Journey, Holocaust Centre, Laxton, Nottinghamshire, 

The AJR Journal, the KT Newsletter, the Kindertransport survey (Making New Lives in Britain), available online via the AJR website:  

Bertha Leverton (ed.), I Came Alone: The Stories of the Kindertransports (Brighton, 1996) 

Andrea Hammel and Bea Lewkowicz (eds.), The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39: New Perspectives, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Volume 13 (2012), (Amsterdam, 2012), particularly Caroline Sharples’ essay on ‘The Kindertransport in British historical memory’.

Dr Isabel Wollaston is a Senior Lecturer in Jewish and Holocaust Studies at the University of Birmingham.

November, 2013

A conversation on Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels

Today’s post is a conversation on Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels, currently in production in the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts, between Rose Whyman, Tom Mansfield (director) and Zoe Baum, Georgina Brehaut, Daniel Burke, Lorna Newman, Harriet Redfern and Hayley Robinson: 

How aware you were of the Kindertransport and its scale before working on the play?

Tom: I first became aware of the Kindertransport when I saw the play for the first time several years ago. Prior to having seen the play, I’d had no idea about the existence of the Kindertransport, never mind its scale, so for me this was a great example of how drama can be used to make the audience aware of a historical event or issue.

Zoe: I am Jewish and for as long as I can remember I have known about the Holocaust but much less about Kindertransport.

Harriet: It was the play that introduced me to it.

Daniel: My understanding of the scale of the operation has grown as a result of working on the play.


What do you think the significance of the play is today? 

Tom: In a sense the play is about every child forced to abandon their home by conflict, natural disaster and economic necessity. The discrimination that Eva is faced with is a real experience for many newly arrived children and adults in this country. As Helga, Eva’s mother, points out, the story is experienced ‘not only by our ancestors but as if it happened to us. Not legend but truth’. While we must not forget the evils that led to the Kindertransport, it is equally important to remember that comparable experiences are taking place as we speak.

Zoe: 75 years on we are reaching a time where the Kindertransport generation are sadly dying. This play is a way of representing the survivor stories so that younger generations can learn about the Holocaust.


Is it important for historical events to be used as subject matter for plays and what the problems/ possibilities are? 

Hayley: Definitely – it is important to learn not only about the terrible events of the war but also the good actions by ordinary people that saved hundreds of lives.

Tom: Seeing the play may encourage audience members to do more detailed research into the history; it seems to me though that our primary responsibility in telling this story is to create something that communicates how the Kindertransport was experienced emotionally.


How do you think the experience would have been for children and young people? 

Lorna: The experience of Kindertransport may have been frightening and overwhelming, though children do bounce back.

Georgina: Some of the children were excited, as they did not know at that point that they were not going to see their parents again.


How you are approaching the emotional demands of the roles? 

Georgina: I have found it helpful to research current political issues in order to try to understand what is happening to the children –just seeing the terror occurring in places like Syria and seeing photos of pure devastation.


Kindertransport will be performed in the Department of Drama and Theatre Studies (5th – 7th December 2013)


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