I WANT you to remember a number. It is 9,354. That is the precise number of unaccompanied (largely) Jewish children the British Government let into the UK as refugees from Nazi persecution, in the final months before the outbreak of the Second World War. In recent days, as public indignation has risen over the Conservative Westminster government’s callous indifference to the plight of Syrian refugees, David Cameron has mounted a dubious defence. He claims that Britain has a glorious record in helping persecuted foreigners when compared to other nations. Witness how we opened our doors to Jewish children fleeing Germany by train in the 1930s – the so-called Kindertransport.

The Prime Minister is very enamoured of making references to the Kindertransport episode of late 1938 and early 1939 as an example of official British concern to help refugees. Last year he organised a gathering at Number 10 Downing Street for survivors of the Holocaust. This meeting included a few survivors of the original Kindertransport. Cameron’s message was clear: noble, selfless Britain had been the nation that had rescued those Jewish children from the gas chambers.

There is one little problem with Mr Cameron’s sanitised version of history: it is a tissue of lies. In fact, the original Kindertransport episode reveals an exact parallel with the callousness, incompetence and borderline racism that underpins the present Tory government’s unwillingness to help the mass of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. A conflict, let me remind you, which Britain helped foment and into which Mr Cameron now wants to dispatch British warplanes.

Back to 1938. Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just returned from a conference with Herr Hitler waving a piece of paper that supposedly guaranteed peace in Europe in return for Germany grabbing large chunks of Czechoslovakia, including its border defences. Of course Hitler had no intention of honouring the agreement and the Nazis went on to occupy the whole of Czechoslovakia when it couldn’t defend itself. Flushed with success, Hitler launched Kristallnacht – the night of smashed windows – against the Jews trapped inside his enlarged Nazi empire. This was the true start of the Final Solution.

On November 9-10, 1938, about 30,000 prominent male Jews were rounded up and put in concentration camps. Jewish homes and schools were ransacked in a hysterical orgy of violence by young Nazi thugs. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned to the ground.

Then a strange thing happened. Almost overnight, pictures and newsreels depicting the Kristallnacht pogrom transformed sleepy British public opinion. The wave of pacifism that had followed the Munich Agreement over Czechoslovakia hardened into an understanding that the only way Hitler could be stopped was by force. At the same time, ordinary Britons demanded that the Chamberlain government do something to rescue Jewish refugees trying to flee Nazi persecution.

Since Hitler had come to power in 1933, Tory-led governments had been doing their utmost to block the rising tide of refugees from Germany – mostly Jewish – from entering the UK. Sadly, and piteously, history has a way of repeating itself. Britain before the war was highly anti-semitic. Indeed, Chamberlain wrote to his sister Hilda after Kristallnacht: “No doubt Jews aren’t a loveable people; I don’t care about them myself…” That passed for enlightened thinking at a time when Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were cracking Jewish heads in the east end of London.

The formal arguments used to refuse Jewish refugees admittance to the UK then are much the same as those used today to keep out Syrians and others. For starters, there is the alleged burden on the public purse. “But do we have the resources?” I keep hearing well-paid TV commentators ask. In the 1930s, only Jewish refugees who could prove they had independent wealth, a guaranteed job or a British sponsor were eligible for a visa. As a result, only 11,000 German Jews were admitted into Britain between 1933 and Kristallnacht in 1938. Even then they were only allowed in subject to agreeing to leave for America as soon as possible. By 1939, 4,000-5,000 had indeed left.

Yet far from Depression Britain losing economically by taking in these refugees, we actually gained. In 1939, home secretary Sir Samuel Hoare was forced to admit in the Commons that Jewish immigrants been responsible for setting up businesses that employed 15,000 Britons. Much of Britain’s post-war toy industry was the creation of those Jewish immigrants. I don’t doubt that Syria’s teachers, doctors and engineers would make a similar positive contribution to the economy.

After Kristallnacht, Chamberlain came under huge public pressure to open the doors to German Jewish refugees. Still the Tory government hesitated. In a debate in the Commons in late November 1938, there were lots of suggestions as to how to deal with the problem, or at least palm it off to somebody else. There was talk of shipping Jewish refugees to the “empty” colonies in South America or Africa. The only British colony to which Jewish immigration was strictly limited was, in fact, Palestine – for fear of inciting further conflict with the local Arab community.

FINALLY, in a “compromise” worthy of David Cameron, Chamberlain agreed to open the doors to German refugees – but only to unaccompanied refugee children. And he rejected calls for the public purse to fund refugee children once they arrived – the Nazis forbade them to take cash out of Germany. Instead, they would have to find private sponsors or work. That in the end is what limited the numbers that arrived to only 9,354.

Neville Chamberlain believed he was being truly magnanimous, as only the British Establishment can be. Surely, the parents of these blessed children would emigrate to the United States, and the kiddies would join them. Instead, most of the parents ended up in gas chambers or worked to death as slaves. As for the children, by July 1939 no fewer than 1,300 had been put to work as domestic servants (the girls) or in special agricultural camps (the boys). Their fate was to pay their way as skivvies and cheap labour, many in unsympathetic non-Jewish households. As for other kinds of ill-treatment, in 1939 the sexual abuse of minors was a taboo subject.

The truth is that the privileged British Establishment – then and now – has never felt comfortable towards helping refugees, despite disingenuous claims to the contrary. One obvious reason is that the causes of these migrations frequently have a lot to do with the greed, cupidity and stupidity of that same Establishment. Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis led inexorably to the Kindertransport. Continual British meddling in the Middle East – right down to David Cameron’s involvement in the civil war in Syria – has resulted in the current mass exodus of refugees from that ruined land.

Of course, there was also great kindness shown to the Kindertransport children by ordinary Britons, just as there is now towards Syrian and other refugees. But alas the Kindertransport came too late and was too little to save the mass of German and European Jewry. Yet it can still serve as a negative lesson in how to meet our political and human obligations. Let us learn that lesson and offer sanctuary to Syria’s fleeing population – adults as well as children.

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