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Norbert Wollheim’s Involvement in Organizing the Kindertransporte

Arrival of 250 Jewish children and teens from Germany in Dovercourt near Harwich (England)'on December 2, 1938'© bpk, Berlin
Arrival of 250 Jewish children and teens from Germany in Dovercourt near Harwich (England)
on December 2, 1938
© bpk, Berlin

 a  “So Otto Hirsch told me kindly help us, because our social workers are very devoted and excellent workers but unfortunately they have no experience in technical matters. I said but I have never done something like that. Certainly I have participated in the organization of summer camps in England, and in Sweden and Denmark. He said still kindly help us. I said but don’t forget I am in the middle of my preparations also to leave Germany, and he said well, I can give you my promise that when this will be done and will be successfully done, it will be our commitment and our obligation to help you and your family to get out of Germany. Well, it’s a promise to which he couldn’t live up because in early in 1941, I think, he was taken again into custody, was shipped to the concentration camp of Mauthausen and murdered there in cold blood.”

(Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript, pp. 35–36 [edited].)


 b  “So when in the morning when such a transport was due to leave, as I say, I was there and it was a very, very, very...I remember that very distinctly the atmosphere, you know. It was...there was tension in the air. There was an atmosphere of expectation. There was concern by the parents. There were...there were kiss...there were tears of laughter and tears of joy and the concern and pain and it was a very, very special atmosphere which was difficult to describe. And then when the when the hour of departure came closer, I ascended a chair, some kind of a lectern, and told the parents: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the time has arrived to say goodbye, because we are under strict order not to let you accompany your children to the platform. The escorts will take over and the baggage handlers had to do their work before to handle the baggage, but you cannot come and don’t...please cooperate and don’t make our work more difficult. But this is the time you have to say goodbye.’ And there were, you know, last kisses and last hugs and...but in general I still admire these people, how courageous they were. Nobody broke down, but also there was the expectation that sooner or later they would be reunited again. Very often I asked myself the question later, where did I take the courage to do that you call it chutzpa, where from? I was young. I was only twenty-five in these days, and I thought that this is a job to be done in order to help these children and I also I must say that at this time I and nobody else could have thought for a moment that this would for many, for almost ninety percent, the last goodbye. Nobody could expect that let us say a year and a half later after these transports had rolled to the west into freedom, that transports would leave for the east into the into the slaughterhouses of Hitler in Auschwitz or Majdanek or Treblinka. I said nobody could foresee it in the worst of your vision, and then thus I say this probably also...yes, gave me the justification to say to these parents and many I talked to the children who were safe...I said that this is a moment, one of the most important moments in their lives which they still remember vividly, and I was involved in that. But I came to terms with that by saying this is the contribution which we had to make and in the long run, at least for these children, it turned out for the good.”

(Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript, pp. 44–45 [edited].)


 c  “This first transport still is very vivid in my memory because when we came to the border, the SS guards who were doing custom duties and they were not all of them, or none of them was trained in this respect...they ascended the coaches and they behaved like vandals. They did not attack the children, but they treated the was completely vandalized, the luggage. Were tearing it apart looking for jewels and for foreign currency and for things like that. Couldn’t find a thing, but at least this is what they did, and any attempt to talk to them and so certainly was in vain. And then it was so bad that they separated the coaches with the Jewish children from the other train and the train left for Holland and when this train without the children arrived in Holland, the authorities there were waiting and saw the children were not there. And amongst the people who were serving...I mean who were the cause, were two ladies whose name should be remembered in gratitude. Both non-Jewish. One was Ms. Fontaine and the other Mrs. Weismiller who even had dealings with Mr. Eichmann. Very courageous, wonderful lady. She was the wife of a banker, a prominent banker in Holland, had no children and had devoted all her time to help especially children, Jewish, non-Jewish, and she all of a sudden came from Holland. She had made her way from Holland to Bentheim and when she saw and she heard what has happened... don’t forget, it was before the beginning of the war...she lashed into these SS people. It was...I was so grateful, and so, to such an extent that one of these SS men said, I have the feeling you don’t like us very much and she said well, personally I might but as a group you are impossible. But then, interesting enough, by her interventions she...they stopped their vandalism. The two coaches were then attached to a later train which still made in time for the ferry.”

(Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript, pp. 41–43 [edited].)


 d  “During these transports, parents gave their children all kinds of goods to take to a foreign country. Valuable goods because money couldn’t be taken out, the limit was ten marks which was almost nothing. But you could take out Leicas, cameras and so on. So children came with all sorts of valuable things and the British had made us understand that there had to be a stop to this because after the children reached England, there were all of a sudden hundreds of Leicas thrown on the market and the economy was affected and they didn’t like that. So, certainly you had to have the cooperation of the parents but you also understood that was the only way to give these kids something which they could convert into money. On one of those transports I accompanied we found a kid who had taken along a violin. And on inspection it turned out that it was a very valuable violin, not a Stratavarius [sic] but a valuable violin. So we were a little bit concerned. And I asked the boy, ‘Do you know how to play the violin?’ And he, being a real Berliner said, ‘Sure, sure, no doubt.’ So I said, ‘Listen, you might have to prove it.’ And he said, ‘Let them come!’ We came to Harwich and in general the British customs officials and the immigration officials were very, very helpful, cooperative and nice. And so we came and certainly when the boy passed with his violin, the customs official stopped the boy when he saw it was a very valuable violin, he asked me since I was accompanying the boy. And I said, ‘It’s probably a violin the parents gave the boy because he likes to play.’ So the customs official asked the boy and I helped him somehow in the translation: ‘Do you play?’ And he assured him yes. So the customs official said to him, ‘So please let us hear it.’ And I didn’t realize immediately what had happened but that boy started to play and within a half of a minute or so the customs official and everybody around him stood to attention and didn’t move until I realized this boy had started to play ‘God Save the King.’ And certainly it was a holy moment for them, they didn’t move, the officials. That boy didn’t stop, he played all three verses. He didn’t stop and he could have played until today he enjoyed it so tremendously. After that, there was a moment of silence, the customs official turned to me and said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and that was it!”

(Norbert Wollheim, Interview with Nikolaus Creutzfeldt [Eng.], New York 1986–88 (Heinlyn Productions; produced by Leslie C. Wolf). Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, transcript, pp. 73–74.)


 e  “From Germany we had been able to get out between six or seven thousand children. Austria also a couple of thousand. As I said before, we didn't have any contact with Austria. We were not allowed to corroborate with them, so that was extra, extra operation and then after that, still a few transports, small transports, left for Denmark, for instance, of chalutzim [Zionist pioneers], for training there, but that was all. The children immigration stopped by the beginning of the war and that was the end of that.”

(Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript, pp. 49 [edited].)

In Berlin, Norbert Wollheim had witnessed the pogrom on November 9 and 10, 1938, and in the ensuing weeks he assisted Jewish men whom the Gestapo had taken away to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp at that time. Now they had been released, but in many cases they were injured, mistreated, and ill, and trying to get back home to their families. “Then I realized that Rabbi Leo Baeck, who was my teacher and spiritual mentor, was right when he said that the historical hour of German Jewry had come to an end.”[1]


In his preparations for his own emigration, Norbert Wollheim was interrupted by Otto Hirsch, director of the Reich Confederation of German Jews (Reichsvereinigung deutscher Juden), who requested him to take on the task of arranging for the emigration of thousands of children,[2] to whom Great Britain had offered a safe harbor in the wake of the pogrom.  a  Wollheim let himself be persuaded to accept this job in the spirit of the Jewish youth movement, in which he had grown up: “In the youth movement we had been educated to try to help where we could. That was one of our major beliefs. It’s not enough what you do for yourself. You have to try also to do something for people who are less lucky than you are or need your help and support. So I started to work.”[3]


After a delegation of prominent British Jews, including Viscount Samuel, Lord Bearsted, Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz, and Chaim Weizmann, had obtained the agreement of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to accept the children, the charitable organizations and helpers involved faced numerous organizational problems in both England and Germany. In England, the Refugee Children’s Movement collected donations to finance the entire undertaking and started looking for foster families, be they Jewish or Christian. It was precisely the task of finding such families that proved difficult, so that many children, after arriving in England, at first had to be housed for some time at the reception camp set up for them in Dovercourt.


In Germany, the first task was to identify, throughout the country, Jewish children who met the criteria: below the age of 18, healthy, and with their parents’ consent, because the parents certainly could not go along. Then the organizers had to take care of the formalities entailed in leaving the country, and decide when the refugees should travel from Berlin to England. While charitable organizations in the local Jewish communities chose the children and sent their documents to Berlin, it was Norbert Wollheim’s job to compile the lists for the individual transports and coordinate them with the organizations in England. That frequently required night-time telephone conversations for which he had to wait several hours at times, owing to the poor connections.


The children had to undergo a health check, and then the local Jewish communities either chose or rejected them for one of the transports. Among those picked were youths who had been arrested by the Gestapo on November 9 and 10 and released only on condition that they quickly leave the German Reich: This was a means of moving them safely out of the country. Parents brought their children from all over Germany to Berlin,[4] and from there they set out in special passenger cars. Norbert Wollheim did not deal directly with the children and parents until the leave-taking at the train station in Berlin. For this purpose, he rented a separate room in the Schlesischer Bahnhof, as the Gestapo had forbidden the parents to accompany their children onto the platform, to avoid farewell scenes that would draw public attention. In this room, it was his task to give a short speech that would preface the final parting between parents and children.  b 


Other helpers were recruited to accompany the children, at first only to the Dutch border, but soon they succeeded in convincing the German authorities that it was in the interest of all concerned to escort the children all the way to London. The Gestapo assented to this only with the proviso that all the escorts had to return immediately from England to Germany; if any one of them had taken advantage of the trip to England to escape from the German Reich, the Germans would have put a stop to the Kindertransporte immediately. In the choice of the escorts, therefore, a great responsibility fell on Norbert Wollheim. He himself accompanied four or five of the approximately 20 transports of children to England, and several to Sweden as well, for Sweden also had decided to accept Jewish children from Germany. Wollheim also used the trips to England for organizational consultations with the staff of the Refugee Children’s Movement there.


The trains went from Berlin to the Dutch border, where the refugees once again were exposed to harassment by the SS, which frequently rummaged through all the children’s luggage and terrorized them.  c  In Holland, the children were provided for by relief organizations, and then they continued by ferry to Harwich in England, where the first Kindertransport arrived on December 2, 1938. After being checked by the immigration and customs authorities  d , the children either went to the reception center in Dovercourt or traveled on to the Liverpool Street Station, where their foster parents were waiting for them. For many children, this disruption in their life was a traumatic experience. Often they had problems adjusting to their new families in England, who frequently were very different from their families of origin. In many cases, the families who took them in were not Jewish, or, if they were Jewish, they often observed the religious traditions to a degree unfamiliar to some of the children. There were children who made many efforts to get their parents and siblings to England as well, and find jobs for them there that would make immigration possible; some even succeeded. But the parents of most of the children brought to safety by the Kindertransporte were murdered in the Nazi extermination camps; only a few were lucky enough to see their parents again years later, after the war.


In summer 1939, the Refugee Children’s Movement experienced increasing difficulty with the financing of the transports, and in August the money ran out completely. After the German Wehrmacht marched into Poland in September 1939, there was no longer any possibility of bringing more children out of the country. By that time, according to Norbert Wollheim, about 6,000 to 7,000 children had been taken from Germany to England and Sweden.  e 


One last Kindertransport, actually scheduled for early September, had managed to travel to England in the waning days of August; Norbert Wollheim did not accompany this transport, because he feared he might not be able to get back to his pregnant wife, Rosa Wollheim (née Mandelbrod), in Berlin. There was no longer any way for him and his family to emigrate, and in March 1943  they were deported to Auschwitz, where Rosa and their son, Uriel, were murdered immediately after arrival. Norbert Wollheim was put in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp.

(MN; transl. KL)


Norbert Wollheim, Interview with Nikolaus Creutzfeldt [Eng.], New York 1986–88 (Heinlyn Productions; produced by Leslie C. Wolf). Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, transcript.

Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.


Dyck, Richard: “Gespräch mit Leo Baeck.” In: Aufbau, December 21, 1945, pp. 1–2.

Harris, Mark Jonathan / Oppenheimer, Deborah, eds.: Into the arms of strangers. Stories of the Kindertransport. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

[1] Norbert Wollheim in: Mark Jonathan Harris / Deborah Oppenheimer, eds.: Into the Arms of Strangers. Stories of the Kindertransport (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), p. 66. Leo Baeck had said in 1945, a few months after he was freed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in an interview with Aufbau: “The history of German Jewry is definitively at an end. The clock cannot be turned back.” (Richard Dyck: “Gespräch mit Leo Baeck.” In: Aufbau, December 21, 1945, pp. 1–2, here p. 1. (Translated by KL)) Moreover, Baeck explained that he had come to this realization even before the war and as a result had advised young Jews in particular to emigrate.

[2] “The cabinet committee on refugees subsequently decided that Britain could accept unaccompanied refugee children under the age of seventeen years. No limit to the numbers of children was ever publicly announced. The Jewish refugee agencies initially saw 5,000 as a realistic target, but after the British Colonial Office turned down a request from the Jewish Agency to allow the admission of 10,000 children into Palestine, this number seems to have been adopted informally as an appropriate goal for Britain herself to meet.” (David Cesarani: Introduction. In: Harris / Oppenheimer, eds.: Into the arms, pp. 1–19, here p. 10.) Wollheim himself spoke in interviews of 10,000 children whom England was prepared to accept. (Norbert Wollheim, First Interview, May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript, p. 34; Norbert Wollheim, Interview with Nikolaus Creutzfeldt [Engl.], New York 1986–88 (Heinlyn Productions; produced by Leslie C. Wolf). Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, transcript, p. 69.)

[3] Norbert Wollheim in: Harris / Oppenheimer, eds.: Into the Arms, p. 78.

[4]Kindertransporte also went to England from Vienna, as well as from Prague in March 1939, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the German Reich.