In an unassuming suburb of Berlin lies a testament to a truly remarkable tale. A temporary exhibition entitled Am Endes des Tunnels (‘At the End of the Tunnels’) commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransports from Berlin. Between 1938 and 1940, up to 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied territories were transported to Great Britain. Of these, it is estimated that some 7,500 of those rescued were Jewish.
The exhibition is the product of a collaboration between Professor Bill Niven and Amy Williams from Nottingham Trent University, Dr Andrea Hammel from Aberystwyth University, and Norbert Wiesneth of the creative media agency PhotoWerkBerlin. The exhibition was also made possible by the generous support of the Global Heritage Fund, the Berlin-Charlottenburg Cultural Office, the Kommunale Galerie Berlin, and the Kindertransport-Organisation Deutschland. Archival material was drawn from a number of sources, including The Wiener Holocaust Library.
Am Endes des Tunnels provides a welcome contribution to the growing field of Kindertransport memory, which has been somewhat underrepresented in wider narratives of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Indeed, on 26 September, The Wiener Holocaust Library hosted the launch of Jennifer Craig-Norton’s significant new book The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory, which seeks to question existing celebratory narratives of the Kindertransport.
Display and Setting
The location of the exhibition is in itself striking. Placed immediately outside the entrance of the bustling Bahnhof-Charlottenburg railway station, the narratives of transport and transit contained within the exhibition are afforded an added sense of poignancy. Surrounded by residential streets and local businesses, the exhibition is especially effective at conveying the everyday lives that the Kinder were forced to abandon. The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2019 was ‘Torn From Home’: the position of Am Endes des Tunnels in the whirring cogs of Berlin society allows for particularly strong interaction with such a sentiment.
The exhibition takes the form of several cylindrical display boards, more commonly associated with advertisement displays elsewhere in the city. Nonetheless, the aesthetics of the exhibition are engaging, with large font and plentiful images providing an attractive interface for visitors. The display columns of the exhibition are also effective in promoting a sense of community amongst visitors. In order to study the exhibits, attendees often find themselves face-to-face not only with the history in front of them but also with other visitors to the site.
Am Endes des Tunnels is an example of public history at its finest. In bringing the history of the Kindertransport to an everyday district of Berlin, the exhibition challenges the parochialism of conventional museums. As an open-air, free-to-visit exhibit, Am Endes des Tunnels encourages participation from commuters and tourists alike, and therefore broadens the reach of the important messages it contains within.
The exhibition is divided, helpfully, into three discrete sections. ‘Departure’ considers the lives of the Kinder before their transportation away from Berlin. Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) marked a decisive intensification in levels of violence and persecution directed towards Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany. It is detailed how, from 1938 onwards, Jews would form queues outside embassies in desperate attempts to secure visas to allow for an escape from the increasingly inhospitable surroundings. The paradox of the circumstances is also noted. Although the National Socialists were keen for Jews to emigrate, they also made this process difficult. Parents were forced to make the agonising decision to send their children abroad alone. With the authorisation of the British government and support from British refugee organisations, including the Jewish organisations, Kinder departed by train, plane and boat to Great Britain and other British territories.
Significantly, Am Endes des Tunnels is keen to stress the complexities within the realities of the Kindertransport narrative. It is recorded how “non-Aryan children”, alongside Jews, were also rescued. As is found in Jennifer Craig Norton’s new work, conventional impressions of the Kindertransport are also contested. Whilst the Kindertransport narrative is one of rescue, it should not necessarily be considered one of triumph.
The ‘Arrival’ section of the exhibition illustrates the difficulties the Kinder faced when adapting to their new surroundings. Siblings were separated, and the new arrivals were unfamiliar with British customs. Financial strains were also incurred by the demand of the British government of a guarantee for every Kindertransportee. It should also be noted that up to 1,000 Kinder, upon arrival, were interned in ‘enemy alien’ camps in Canada, Australia and the Isle of Man by the British government. Am Endes des Tunnels has coincided with another temporary exhibition, hosted by the Jewish Museum in London, on the Kitchener Camps for Jewish refugees.
The most moving section of the exhibition contains the personal stories of individual Kindertransportees. For example, the tale of Ruth Barnett (born Ruth Michaelis in 1935) recounts how her escape to Britain in 1939 also saw her Jewish father travel to Shanghai, whilst her mother left Berlin for southern Germany. Having settled into her British foster family, Ruth was left deeply unhappy by the reunification of her birth family after 1945, until her natural parents allowed her to stay in England with her new guardians. Barnett’s extraordinary story formed the basis of Ursula Krechel’s novel Landgericht (2012) and illustrates the profound emotional struggles that underpinned the Kindertransport movement, alongside its political and logistical difficulties.
Throughout, Am Endes des Tunnels strikes a skillful balance between detail and accessibility of information, which should ensure its appeal to an academic and public audience alike. Broader historical analysis of the period is complemented by individual case studies, whilst the small-scale of the exhibition is deceptive, given the depth of information it contains.
Am Endes des Tunnels provides a new dimension to attempts within Germany to grapple with problematic pasts. As the exhibition notes, “in Germany, because the children were regarded as ‘the lucky ones’…their often-traumatic experiences have also been overlooked”. As such, the exhibition has captured the attention of the German public, and Ruth Barnett has featured in recent reports aired by national television networks. It is regretful that Am Endes des Tunnels is a temporary exhibition: the stories it relates are deserving of a more permanent position within Berlin’s remembrance of the past.
Am Endes des Tunnels carries more educational currency than most existing Kindertransport memorials. Whilst both the Kindertransport memorial at Liverpool Street Station in London and the Kindertransport memorial at Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse railway station – both designed by sculptor Frank Meisler – commemorate the events of 1938 to 1940, they do little to provide passers-by with historical information. Am Endes des Tunnels draws strength from its ability to both inform and commemorate at the same time. Throughout its showing, the exhibition has also been accompanied by a number of talks and panel discussions by leading figures in the field of Holocaust memory.
In the turbulent waters of the Brexit period, Am Endes des Tunnels is a striking reminder of the importance of transnational cooperation in the name of education. Exhibition curator Bill Niven captured this sentiment in his address at the opening of the exhibition on 15 August: “We feel it is important that Britain and Germany remember the Kindertransport together. It’s an event that links the history of our two countries. This bilingual exhibition, which resulted from British-German collaboration, is a step in that direction.”
The challenging intricacies within histories of episodes such as the Kindertransport rescues offer modern society the chance to work towards a more constructive and collaborative future. The Kindertransport reminds us of the difficulties faced by refugees across the world, and the perils of turning away from the needs of the vulnerable and the displaced.
Suggested further reading:
The forgotten haven: Kent camp that saved 4,000 German Jews. The Guardian, 24 August 2019.
Britain remembers the Kindertransport but is in danger of forgetting its lessons by Amy Williams and William Niven. The Conversation UK, 10 September 2019.
The Wiener Holocaust Library holds a number of books and documents relating to the Kindertransport, some of which are listed below:
- They Found Refuge by Norman Bentwich
- If Home Is Not Here by Max Bornstein
- The Children of Willesden Lane; Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
- I Came Alone; The Stories of the Kindertransports by Bertha Leverton
- Rescue the Perishing: A Summary of the Position Regarding the Nazi Massacres of Jewish and Other Victims and of Proposals for their Rescue: An Appeal, a Programme and a Challenge by Eleanor Rathbone
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Kindertransport; Testimonies; Refugees; Interviews; Evian Conference; Immigration; Personal Narratives.
The Wiener Holocaust Library also holds the Refugee Voices: the AJR Audio-Visual Holocaust Testimony Archive, which includes testimonies of Kindertransportees.