Western responses to the current refugee crisis, particularly that caused by the civil war in Syria, are shaped not just by governments, international charities, aid organisations and the media, but also by ideas. This blog post examines the role played by memory of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust in informing such responses. We look at Britain, Germany and Poland. We argue that national memory frameworks still strongly influence memory of the Holocaust. In so doing we question whether we are really living in an age of transnational memory. In 2002, scholars Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider set out a theory they call “cosmopolitan memory.” By this they mean that shared memories of the Holocaust can transcend ethnic and national boundaries and create the cultural foundations for human right politics. This is clearly something to be welcomed, but is it actually happening?

British memory of the Kindertransports

In the case of Britain, memory of the Kindertransport (1938-1940) has repeatedly been used to encourage sympathy for Syrian refugees, and has even influenced refugee policy. In 2016, former Kindertransportee Lord Dubs pioneered an amendment to the Immigration Act offering unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain through legal routes to sanctuary. On the 15th November 2018 Lord Dubs, along with Barbara Winton and Safe Passage held the “80 Years On” commemoration of the Kindertransports at the Friends House, London. The event brought past and present refugee stories together in hope that our generation would not be the generation that would stand by. Rather Safe Passage’s “Our Turn” campaign is asking the British government to commit to resettling 10,000 at-risk unaccompanied refugee children from Europe and conflict regions over the next 10 years. So far local authorities around Britain have pledged over 700 places. Safe Passage has used memory of the past to actively inspire and encourage us to act today and it seems that local councils are responding to the campaign. Commemorative initiatives like this one and the showing of plays such as Kindertransport (Diane Samuels), The Pianist of Willesden Lane (Mona Gobalek), and Central (Story) Line (Fingers Crossed Theatre Company) can help use to empathise with refugees today. Thus in 2017 and 2018, the annual Wrap Up London campaign launched by Hands On London with the support of the Association of Jewish Refugees and World Jewish Relief led to the draping of the figures in Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport memorial outside Liverpool Street Station, London. These red parkas draw attention to the need to support incoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Past and present issues around different refugee crises are connected.

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Image of the Frank Meisler Kindertransport memorial ‘The Arrival’ outside Liverpool Street Station, London, UK dressed in red winter coats by the charity Hands On London. The memorial was dressed in these coats for their Wrap Up London Campaign which was supported by the Association of Jewish Refugees and World Jewish Relief. Copyright Hands on London

Yet arguably all these efforts have been limited in their effect. Originally, it was envisaged that some 3,000 children would be brought to Britain under the Dubs Amendment, but the scheme was all but abandoned in 2017 after only 480 had been offered sanctuary. This is not to overlook the tremendous work of Safe Passage, a Citizens UK project, which has helped some 1,700 refugee children to come to Britain. But it is to question the political will of the British government to help refugees. Moreover, while memory of the Kindertransport in Britain is crucial for generating empathy for those in need of sanctuary today, it is perhaps a too limited memory. Why, for instance, do we not also remember the Basque children (Los Niños), who were taken in by Britain in 1937 to escape the Spanish Civil War? We should also remember these children because the more we are aware, historically, of the full range of child refugees the greater our sensitivity to the issues of flight, adaptation and separation will be.

Also, because British Kindertransport memory focuses on children only, it encourages a view of children as “desirable” immigrants and, at least by implication, of adults as “undesirable” immigrants. This replicates the very divisions that were at the heart of the Kindertransport itself. Images of refugee children with teddy bears, and particularly the figure of Paddington Bear, evoke ideas of cuddliness, cuteness and innocence. But such ideas clearly apply, at least in the popular imagination, far more readily to children than their parents. Important as Kindertransport memory in Britain is, it could serve to discourage sympathy for adult refugees. This works against the cosmopolitan aspirations underpinning memory of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust.

 German memory of flight, expulsion, and exile

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Graffiti image of toddler Aylan Kurdi, located in Frankfurt Germany, done by German artists Oguz Sen and Justus Becker. Copyright Wiki Commons.

In the case of Germany, the figure of the child has also been central to attempts to awaken empathy for refugees: the death of Aylan Kurdi in 2015, for instance, is now commemorated in the form of graffito art around the city of Frankfurt. In Germany, the Kindertransport has also been a memory reference point in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis. But it has been an unofficial reference point, in contrast to Britain. In 2018, the Centre for Political Beauty (CPB), known for its provocative style of commemoration, staged a protest at the site of Frank Meisler’s Berlin Kindertransport memorial against the German government’s reluctance to continue taking in refugees. The CPB also started up a mock Federal Emergency Programme, which, they claimed had been launched by the German government to bring in 55,000 Syrian children. The CPB pointedly called this “Federal Kindertransport Aid.”

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Frank Meisler Kindertransport memorial ‘Trains to Life – Trains to Death’ in Berlin, Germany. Photocredit Bill Niven.

Yet here too, the emphasis was on children. Moreover, in Germany generally, memory of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust has not really played much of a part in the mobilisation of empathy for Syrian refugees. Memory of German flight and expulsion from Poland and Czechoslovakia at the end of the war as well as of German refugees from the German Democratic Republic has, if anything, been more important. This is not the fault of Holocaust memory per se, but of Germany’s still complicated relationship to it. Because responsibility for the Holocaust is central to Germany’s national self-understanding, there is a fear that comparing the Nazi period and the Holocaust to other events may relativise the crimes against the Jews. Fear of incoming antisemitism among Muslim refugees, especially in a climate of increasing antisemitism within Germany, also works against comparisons between today’s refugees and Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Whatever the legitimacy of such fears, it is clear that the Holocaust cannot really work as a “cosmopolitan” memory as long as they are strong.

Poland: Can memory discourage empathy?

That remembering the Holocaust can discourage empathy towards refugees is demonstrated by the responses of Poland’s current ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). In June 2017, Beata Szydlo, who was Prime Minister at the time, said that “in today’s troubled times, Auschwitz is a great lesson that everything must be done to defend the safety and the lives of citizens”. Szydlo was understood to be referring to Poland’s decision to resist its allocation of refugees under the EU solidarity plan. She seemed to be implying that the EU, and perhaps particularly Germany, was pursuing a policy comparable to that of the Nazis at Auschwitz. Refugees were seen as a threat to the nation, just as Nazism was once a threat to Poles and Polish Jews. Szydlo, as a representative of a Polish nationalism opposed to multiculturalism, used the Holocaust to warn against the admission of refugees, not to support it. The introduction in 2018 of a law making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust – although it has subsequently been watered down – will also do little to encourage a “cosmopolitan memory” of the Holocaust as a means of sustaining human rights discourse.

Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport memorial, ‘The Departure’ in Gdansk-Danzig, Poland.  Copyright Wiki Commons.

Ideally, remembering Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust is an important way of sensitising people today to the fate of incoming refugees. But it is important to be conscious of limitations. Of course it is vital, for instance, to remember the mainly Jewish children rescued on the Kindertransport, but we should not forget the fate of those siblings, parents and other family members whom we did not rescue – and, arguably, could have done in 1938. We must also beware of believing that memorials can speak for themselves, or letting them become a substitute for action: the memorial activism of Hands On London and the Centre for Political Beauty offers new ways of engaging productively with memorials. Above all we must be aware that national memories of the Holocaust can sometimes be restrictive, even distortive. If memory of the Holocaust is to serve as a transnational platform for the strengthening of human rights, then we need to work to overcome such problems.


  1. Do we remember the Kindertransport in all its complexity?
  2. How do we engage with memorials?
  3. What are the different national memories of the Holocaust and the Kindertransports?

Bill Niven is Professor for Contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University, UK. He has written widely on Germany’s attempts to come to terms with the Nazi and GDR pasts, and, more recently, on European memory of the Holocaust. His monographs include Facing the Nazi Past (2001), The Buchenwald Child (2007), Representations of Flight and Expulsion in East German Prose Works (2014) and Hitler and Film: The Führer’s Secret Passion (2018).

Amy Williams is a PhD researcher in History at Nottingham Trent University, financed by the Midlands4Cities/AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. She is working on a study of the Memory of the Kindertransport in National and Transnational Perspectives exploring the way the Kindertransport has been represented in novels, museums, memorials, testimony and autobiography.