Seven years ago, Jennifer Craig-Norton uncovered a cache of original correspondence about a group of Kindertransport children from Poland.
A Ph.D. candidate in England at the time, she had no idea that voices of child refugees from the past would end up shining a light on the global child refugee situation of today.
But that’s exactly what happened when the stories of World War II’s “kinder children” became the inspiration for “The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory,” published last summer.
The Holocaust historian’s first book challenges the long-accepted and celebrated narrative of these children as lucky youngsters who went on to live normal lives in the kind embrace of strangers in England.
Instead, what the former Sacramento State University graduate student discovered was that no matter the type of care these children received, “they were deeply unhappy, psychologically broken, couldn’t adjust to the loss of their family, couldn’t rebond with their family if they were reunited, and that they were proselytized by foster families.”
Her conclusion: “Family separation is disastrous.”
Craig-Norton’s findings offer parallels to the migrant child-parent separation issues of today and provide valuable lessons, many of which she will be addressing in a March 1 talk in Sacramento.
Titled “The Plight of Refugee Children: Then and Now,” Craig-Norton’s presentation will occur at the KOH Library and Cultural Center, a Jewish learning and enrichment venue, and will benefit the Central Valley Holocaust Educators’ Network. The event includes a lecture, dessert and a book signing.
Craig-Norton spent two decades as an advanced-placement history and English teacher in Amador County, developing a Holocaust and genocide studies elective in 2006. Shortly thereafter, she returned to school and, in 2010, earned a master’s degree in European history from Sacramento State with a thesis on the history of the Kindertransport.
After that, she relocated to Southampton, England to start work on her doctorate, and while doing research in 2013, she struck academic gold.
Looking for archival material belonging to the head of Great Britain’s Jewish community, who helped organize the Kindertransport, she came across a comprehensive file on one of the children transported from Poland, covering the child’s activity through 1945.
That discovery led to more.
During six weeks of poring through 1,080 boxes (with about 1,000 papers per box), Craig-Norton found 100 or so files that included documentation from the major stakeholders and organizations that brought the Kindertransport children to England: refugee organizations, hostel managers, foster parents, parents and the names of the children themselves.
She began to see a pattern of the children’s experiences that was at odds with what had become the Kindertransport canon of rescue and salvation.
“No matter how contented they might look outwardly, they all hold a deep well of sadness that saddles them,” she said in a Skype interview. “Children younger than 8 when they were separated never recovered. The experience was so traumatic, they blocked it out.”
We do a huge disservice to history when the tragic outcomes of family separation are not discussed.
For example, she pointed to two Kindertransport sisters who were eventually reunited with their parents. The older one talked openly to Craig-Norton about her experiences, but the younger sister, who was barely 8 when she was deported, didn’t want to talk about anything.
“She has never gotten over it,” Craig-Norton said.
“These children couldn’t process why they were being sent away. She understood it as abandonment. When these children grew older and understood, they then felt guilty for being angry.”
That’s why Craig-Norton became concerned when some people began floating an idea: that the Kindertransport blueprint should be followed to help child refugees in Syria.
“You can’t hold this [Kindertransport] up as a model refugee response,” she emphasized. “What should have been done is to allow children to come with their families. The fundamental question is: ‘Why are we allowing children in, but not parents?’ What is the rationale?”
As her research progressed, Craig-Norton, who used to teach workshops for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, began combing through oral histories from the USC Shoah Foundation so she could compare testimonies from later in people’s lives to case files from the 1940s.
She ended up interviewing people whose files she had found, which led to startling discoveries: stories of suicides, of children’s desires to stay with their parents (regardless of the inevitable outcomes) and of deeply burdened lives.
“We do a huge disservice to history,” she said, “when the tragic outcomes of family separation are not discussed in terms of the Kindertransport and similar rescue operations, such as in Cuba.”
That would be Operation Peter Pan, in which a covert U.S. government action facilitated the transport of some 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States between 1960 and 1962, allegedly to save them from the dangers of Fidel Castro’s communist revolution.
“It’s easy to say that if Britain hadn’t saved the children, they would have died, but that’s not true for Cuban children,” she said.
Because the Kindertransport did save lives, there has been a reluctance over the years to examine the operation critically, Craig-Norton said.
“Had more lessons been derived from the lessons of the Kindertransport — I’m not saying it would have made a difference on the [U.S.-Mexican] border, with parents being willing to hand over their children to get [them] to safety, but it’s a government forcing the choice because of its policies,” she said.
“I hope the book opens discussions about how we remember and how we apply these lessons to others instances where child refugees are involved.”