Friday is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The pogrom of 9 November 1938 in Nazi Germany demonstrated to the Jewish population their lives were in urgent danger and that they must leave if they could. But where to go?(1)
One answer—if not for the escape of the parents—was for the children to be sent out of the Reich on what became known as the Kindertransport. The United Kingdom accepted 10,000 evacuees.(2)
Another 669 children from Czechoslovakia were rescued singlehandedly by the remarkable English stockbroker Nicholas Winton:
[H]e made lists of the children, took their photographs, got them Home Office entry permits, found them foster families and organised their departure on trains, via the Netherlands, to Liverpool Street. After just three weeks in Prague, he went back to Britain and carried on the work from there.(3)
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, but he never considered himself a hero.
But an even larger evacuation of children in the twentieth century took place from a land I (and, most likely, you) would never have guessed—Finland.
During World War II, the Finnish government evacuated about 70,000 children to protect them from the danger, stress and uncertainty of war. Their parents agreed to send them to foster homes primarily in Sweden.(4)
The program may have spared those children the dangers of war, but there were apparently long-term costs due to their separation from their parents. Indeed, as Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of the Times article notes, “[Y]ears later, some would consider the program a grave mistake.”
Studies conducted some four decades after the children returned home discovered both psychological and health differences between those children and a control group who were not evacuated. Among the findings:
Men evacuated as children, Finnish scientists found, were more likely to have mental health and substance abuse problems than men who weren’t. Both sexes were more likely to suffer from depression if separated. . . .Illness and death from heart disease were more common in the separated group. They had about twice the risk of heart disease and a 40 percent increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. They had slightly higher blood pressure — particularly women.
Why bring all this up now?
Because, as Velasquez-Manoff points out,
This research, which is ongoing, helps us understand the long-term consequences of another mass separation of children from their parents — the one orchestrated by the Trump administration.
More than 2,500 migrant children were taken from their parents and detained. Most have since been reunited, but 12,800 migrant children — a record, as we learned last week [i.e., in September]— remain in detention.
And his conclusion is damning:
The Trump administration probably intended the separation of children from their parents to be cruel. Conceived as a deterrent, it was meant to hurt. But was it supposed to impair cognitive development and cause heart attacks, diabetes and mental illness decades later? This may be its more sinister legacy: a subtle but lifelong derangement of mind and body.
Stephen Moss, the author of the Guardian article, tells of two Kindertransport children, now a married couple in their nineties, who go
into schools to talk to young people about what they and their parents suffered, testifying both as an act of remembrance towards their parents but also as a warning to the next generation that intolerance, hatred and scapegoating of minorities are ever-present threats.
While we keep learning about the consequences of warfare that extend beyond the piles of the slaughtered (both military and civilian) and the daily agonies of the wounded and the maimed, perhaps the testimony of these survivors can prevent peacetime from producing its own evils.
(2) The Guardian is telling the story of six of those children (see above footnote).
Note: The title of this essay comes from another of Stephen Moss' articles on the Kindertransport children: