The Germany Emergency Committee of the Religious Society of Friends was set up in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. This committee, alongside other groups, was responsible for helping Jewish children escape Nazi persecution in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland. It then supported them in the countries to which they had fled.

The Germany Emergency Committee (GEC) was founded as part of 'substantial British Quaker work' done after 1933 in Nazi Germany. The work of the GEC, in conjunction with the Friends Service Council, involved: reporting on conditions inside Germany, providing assistance to prisoners and families, supporting the small community of German Quakers, assisting Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Poles and others suffering persecution, prosecution, imprisonment or exile for political, racial, and religious reasons, and helping refugees and dependents arriving in Britain with employment, sponsorship, training, education, and re-emigration matters.

Bertha Bracey, who had been responsible for relief operations in Germany and the Netherlands since 1929, was appointed Secretary for the Germany Emergency Committee in 1933.


    Post-Kristallnacht lobbying of the British government

    The violent events of Kristallnacht signalled that German Jews were in immediate danger. Unable to travel to Germany to assess the situation, British Jews arranged with the Friends Service Council for a team of six Quaker volunteers to travel to Berlin. During this period, Bertha Bracey met with Wilfred Israel in Berlin. He introduced her to the heads of Jewish women's organisations from across Germany. The crucial meetings between Bertha and these women led to the setup of the Kindertransport.

    The report produced by this visit was presented to the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, petitioning him to allow unaccompanied children entry into the country. Chamberlain refused the request. On 21 November a joint Quaker and Jewish delegation, which included Bertha Bracey, Ben Greene, Norman and Helen Bentwich, Wyndham Deedes, and Lord Samuel, successfully lobbied Home Secretary Samuel Hoare to allow unaccompanied children to enter Britain, provided the Home Office's only responsibility would be 'to give the necessary visas and to facilitate their entry into this country'.


    I ask you to come to the aid of victims not of any catastrophe in the natural world, nor of flood, nor of famine but of an explosion of man's inhumanity of man.

    - Stanley Baldwin, radio appeal, 1933


    Ten days after Kristallnacht, the House of Commons debated, and the government announced its decision to permit "an unspecified number of children up to age seventeen from German-occupied lands to enter the United Kingdom as 'transmigrants'". They specified that a fifty-pound bond had to be posted for each child. On 8 December, former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin issued a radio appeal: “I ask you to come to the aid of victims not of any catastrophe in the natural world, nor of flood, nor of famine but of an explosion of man's inhumanity of man."

    Getting the word out across Europe

    A network of Quaker and refugee organisations quickly issued statements in as many communities as possible throughout cities in Central Europe. Parents were able to register their children for the transports in various offices, and they would be issued with the requisite travel papers for the Kindertransport to pass to Britain through the Netherlands.

    Quaker organisations collaborated with the Refugee Children's Movement and notices were issued in cities from Stuttgart to Prague. Jewish Community Centres were also crucial to getting the news of the transports to parents and communities. The Judische Kultusgemeinde in Vienna and the large Jewish community in Prague were integral in coordinating the evacuation of children in these areas. Within days of the announcement, thousands of children were signed up to leave on the first transports.

    The transports

    Kindertransports ran from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and France, travelling through multiple countries to reach the Hook of Holland by rail. Quaker volunteers chaperoned each stage of the journey to ensure the safety of the children. Despite the British government assuring the safe passage of the transports, the personal safety of the children making the journeys was not guaranteed:

    “The Nazis made sure the journey was humiliating and terrifying. Trains were grimly sealed. Parents were sometimes not permitted to say goodbye in public. The children had to take trains to Holland so that they would not “sully" German ports. Their luggage was torn apart by guards searching for valuables." (Taylor, 2010)

    Quaker volunteers helped send transports from Berlin and met them in the Netherlands and England. Meeting the transports at London's Liverpool Street station, Quakers received the children, organised refreshments, passed children into the care of foster parents if this had been arranged prior to arrival, and arranged temporary accommodation for the children who were not met.

    Children were rehomed with Quaker families and communities throughout Britain and with 120-250 children on each transport it was a large organisational undertaking. The first transport to leave Austria departed on 1 December 1938, with 250 children on board. The majority of the children were from Vienna and were rehomed in the north west of England with Quaker families.

    The transports brought ten thousand refugee children to Britain during the next nine months. A survey of Kindertransport children, undertaken in 2009, reported that of the 1,025 respondents, fifty-four per cent of Kindertransport parents were believed to have been killed in the Holocaust.

    Evacuation to Shanghai

    Where possible, Quakers also assisted in the evacuation of refugees to the free port of Shanghai. Before 1939, the port city was a destination for refugees able to escape from Italy. Shanghai was the only city in the world where refugees could enter without a visa. Funds for refugees were provided by Jewish relief organisations and Quaker individuals, but by August 1939 restrictions began to be imposed, and when Italy entered the war in 1940 safe passage to East Asia ended indefinitely.

    Work in local Quaker communities in Britain

    Ayton School

    Throughout the 1930s, Ayton Quaker School (one of twelve in England) accepted refugees from Germany and occupied territories. In 1935, the school was a refuge for forty children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. By 1938 this number had increased substantially. Ayton became known as an established destination for scholars fleeing persecution, as scholarships were arranged through refugee aid organisations including the Germany Emergency Committee. Hans Reichenfeld, one of the children to arrive in 1938, travelled via Switzerland and France, and was just one such refugee helped by this process.

    Dovercourt Holiday Camp

    Dovercourt Camp near Harwich, was visited by Lady Marion Philipps of the Women's Voluntary Services in January 1939. The Butlins holiday camp was taken on by Quaker and Jewish groups to act as a first lodging for newly-arrived refugee children until future arrangements could be made. The organisations paid for all provisions and accommodations for the children at Dovercourt, agreeing that Butlins would provide the food.

    Phillips reported on Dovercourt that at the camp, "leaders are very keen, full of human kindness, vitality and emanating a cheerful atmosphere. Great efforts are made to stress the future hopes of the children… the children seemed wonderfully happy, considering all they had been through." The visitors also noted that "the arrangements for heating, clothing, sanitation and health were good, and the occupation of time as regards leisure seemed fairly satisfactory", though they criticised the Butlins camp's "profiteering on catering, which should be remedied".

    Anna Essinger and Bunce Court School

    Seeking exile from Nazi Germany, Anna Essinger, the headmistress of Landschulheim Herrlingen school in Blaustein, Baden-Wurttemberg, raised funds from British Quakers to rent (and later purchase) Bunce Court, near Faversham in Kent. Essinger had been placed under Nazi investigation in April 1933 when she was denounced for refusing to fly the Nazi flag and swastika at the school. Essinger informed the parents of her desire to move the school to England and received permission to take 65 children with her.

    The old school was seized by the Nazis and was used as a home for Jewish seniors forced to relocate from Wurttemberg until 1942. When the Kindertransports began, with the help of local Kent Quakers, Bunce Court took in as many of the refugees as possible, children from Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. When the transports stopped in 1939, Bunce Court continued to take in refugees where possible. Orphaned children who had survived Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and Czestochowa were brought to Bunce Court in 1946. Over 900 children passed through the school before its closure in 1948.

    Cheadle Hulme hostel

    Cheadle Local Meeting in Merseyside opened the first of a number of refugee hostels in north west England for Kindertransport children. Similar hostels were opened in Madison Street Liverpool, Manchester, Blackpool, and Southport, where refugees were given as much freedom as possible to pursue employment and university studies. Despite the 'alien' restrictions (including curfews) which were strictly enforced by the police, many children were able to pursue their studies and adults were able to find employment.

    Hilde Rujder, who had travelled to Britain as part of a Kindertransport in 1938, remembered her time staying at Madison Street succinctly: "the Quakers had no conversionist intent in this relaxed hostel, [when] in the evening the residents would gather in the lounge to solve the problems of the world". Hilde later enrolled at Liverpool School of Art and regularly attend Cheadle meetings.

    Bloomsbury House training schemes

    Supporting the 60,000 Jewish refugees in Britain was an immediate concern. Refugees were often destitute and, whether classified as enemy aliens or not, all required support. A Quaker response to this was to form the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany.

    The team rapidly expanded and the Palace Hotel on Bloomsbury Street was purchased to become Bloomsbury House. Multiple refugee organisations operated from Bloomsbury House to set up training schemes that would help refugees qualify for jobs and registration processes. By 1945, the overwhelming majority of refugees were self-supporting.

    End of the Kindertransport

    Home Office correspondence on 30 August 1939 confirmed that the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany committee would no longer be prepared to accept responsibility for refugee children sent from Germany. The letter instructs the official to notify the Dutch Government that a transport of children travelling that same day "would not be admitted to the United Kingdom at the present time", remarking that he were to "presume that in these circumstances the Dutch Government will refuse to allow the children to enter their territory."

    The letter also details that there were a further 300-400 issued travel documents for children in Berlin which would now be invalid. Within hours of this letter being written the transports ended completely. No further refugee children were evacuated to Britain in this way.

    Post-World War II Germany

    In the immediate post-war period, British Quakers continued to carry out aid relief programmes across Europe. The Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) continued its aid work and joined the teams entering liberated concentration camps in Germany and Poland.

    Thirty relief workers were based in Germany, principally in Brunswick and Goslar, under the authority of the British occupying forces and working alongside the Red Cross. The teams made frequent requests and appeals to British Quakers, primarily to support their action and attempt to prevent forced repatriation orders. The FWVRC volunteers viewed their role as a duty. As one member stated:

    "Our inspiration lies in Christ's words that by 'feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless and visiting the sick' we give expression to our love for God himself. And providing that we remain faithful, always remembering that it is in his power that we work, we may become a channel through which his love comes into the world."

    Contact us

    For the stories of those who came on the Kindertransports:

    Anne van Staveren
    Advocacy and Public Relationships
    020 7663 1048

    For historical information:

    Library of the Society of Friends
    020 7663 1135