Teaching tolerance through the stories of Wales’ Kindertransport stories

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Teaching tolerance through the stories of Wales’ Kindertransport stories

To date, more than 100 oral histories have been recorded, "all of them are urgent and relevant; these are declining communities so it's a race against time."

Emelye Clifford
Emelye Clifford

A one-of-a-kind campaign to train teachers to teach about child refugees who fled to Wales to escape the Holocaust has launched.

The scheme is being run by former lawyer Emelye Clifford, who grew up in Wales and is now based in Bristol. She met her Jewish husband at university and they lived a Jewish life “pretty much from that point”. Eventually, she converted to Judaism. Clifford now teaches cheder at Bristol and West progressive synagogue.

Spurred on by a growing interest in heritage and museums, Emelye found her calling as a volunteer for the Jewish History Association of South Wales (JHASW), which this year celebrates its fifth anniversary.

Its current project, recently covered by Jewish News, is to provide free teaching materials built around video testimonies from child refugees who came to Wales in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution.

Photograph of Inge Hack, a Kindertransport refugee, with Edith Gordon (who looked after Inge when she moved to Wales), taken in Cardiff, 1939. Image from Inge Hack’s interview from the archive of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education, 1997. For more information: http://sfi.usc.edu/.

The aim of JHASW is to preserve and share the cultural religious heritage of the Jewish communities of south Wales; at the time of the Industrial Revolution, there were around 5,500 Jews in Wales; that number has since dwindled to around two thousand.

While describing it as “a really small charity”, Clifford says “it punches way above its weight. It’s project based and completely dependent on the next round of funding.”

Whether they only lived in Wales for a short time, or their family history reaches back to the late 1800s, each story contributes to the overall tapestry of Welsh-Jewish life.

In addition to preserving and digitising the archives of Cardiff Reform and Cardiff United synagogues, and “recording oral histories of members of the Jewish community”, Clifford says it’s “really collating and curating these different sources of history and then communicating them; developing touring exhibitions, a series of talks, reaching out to teachers and schools.”

To date, more than 100 oral histories have been recorded, “all of them are urgent and relevant; these are declining communities so it’s largely a bit of a race against time.”

Whether they only lived in Wales for a short time, or their family history reaches back to the late 1800s, each story contributes to the overall tapestry of Welsh-Jewish life.

Clifford tells Jewish News that a good proportion of Welsh Jews settled in the valleys of south Wales in the 19th century – some drawn by economic opportunity and others arriving having escaped persecution and pogroms in Russia. Later in the 1930s, Jewish refugees settled in Wales – about a third of the original members of Cardiff Reform shul had fled from Nazi occupied Europe.

Teachers often tell her they are surprised to discover there are Welsh historical elements to the Holocaust narrative, in particular the story of the secret military group set up by the British Army in 1942 and dubbed the X Troop by Winston Churchill.

Made up of nearly 87 Austrian and German Jewish refugees, some of whom were Kindertransport, ‘X’ troop’ trained in Aberdovey in Wales, and their exploits included reconnaissance and undercover work in France.

One troop member – George Henry Lane – was captured by Johannes Rommel, the German field marshal known as the Desert Fox, and interrogated. While imprisoned, Lane was able to radio back details of the location of Rommel’s headquarters and a few months later RAF Spitfires attacked, leaving Rommel with serious injuries, and effectively ending his part in the war.

Clifford says there are “crazy X Troop stories, really integral to some of the operations around D-Day, the invasion of Sicily, that challenge the idea that there wasn’t Jewish resistance. But there was Jewish resistance in Wales! That’s exciting for teachers and they can really connect. In the scheme of Jewish history it’s relatively brief, but it’s fascinating to me just because of having that connection myself.”

The JHASW project is built around video testimonies from child refugees who came to Wales in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution, collated from the USC (University of southern California) Shoah Foundation visual history archive.

The visual aspect ensures that the power of the personal story is “front and centre of the educational packs”.

Having had the “privilege” of listening to many stories from the visual history archive, Clifford says they “tackle that disorientating truth…. that there isn’t a nice neat lesson here. There isn’t a nice morality tale with the ‘baddy’ small group of Nazis.”

Ellen Davies, a Welsh evacuee saved by Kindertransport programme. Pic: Wales Online

She cites the testimony of Ellen Davis, who arrived on the Kindertransport from a Jewish orphanage in Nazi Germany, was adopted by a Jewish family in Swansea.

Having been transported all the way from their hometown of Hoof in Germany, her mother and six siblings were shot in Riga, Latvia when they arrived in the ghetto.

“When we combine that testimony,” says Clifford, “which is extremely powerful, with maps, to show how far they had to travel and testimony around how they were transported, the complicity involved, it’s challenging those definitions of who were the perpetrators and who were the bystanders.”

In another extraordinary clip from her testimony, Davis describes how she and her family were forced to move out of their home.

“One minute she was friends with everyone as a four year old child in this village, and the next she was having stones thrown at her and being called a Jew,” recalls Clifford. “They moved to the synagogue for safety and one night before Kristallnacht, the family was attacked and the shul set on fire by a group of Nazi youths. We use this testimony to illustrate the power of propaganda and Nazi youth movements.”

Kristallnacht, 1938. Credit: Yad Vashem

Juxtaposed is the fact that Davis and her family were rescued from the synagogue by a non Jewish family and hidden that night.

“Ultimately,” says Clifford, “she was the only one to survive the Holocaust but I think it’s just an extraordinary powerful example that these were individual moments of decision and action that people had and took that had this impact on Jewish lives. You have one group of Nazi youths and one group of non-Jewish people who made the decision not to join the mob. That tackles the whole idea that propaganda just brainwashed the whole population, which I’ve always found deeply unsettling and far too simple.

“People make choices. And this is what I want the materials to try and encourage – it goes beyond what historically happened. What does this tell you about human behaviour and what your responsibilities in society are? This wasn’t a fanatical small group of Nazis that suddenly just decided to kill six million Jews and it happened just like that.”

Decades later, in a unique parallel, Clifford herself is taking the decision, to ensure she is not a passerby.

“My children tease me that I’m always quoting from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on the importance of education. It’s very hard not to think that there is an extraordinary obligation on us all to do what we can. Not to pay lip service, or to sentimentalise. It’s much more nuanced and complex.”

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