Refugees in small boats are much in the news, with governments determined to stop them coming, send them back, or keep them incarcerated in camps. In the summer of 1940, there were refugees in small boats in the English Channel. This is the story of one such refugee family.
Amsterdam, early 20th Century
Simon had already been a refugee twice. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in about 1900, his parents sent him to Leipzig to escape conscription, and a few years later his relations told him to go to Holland. ‘The land of the free,’ they said. He found work in a firm of tailors’ accessories and married the owner’s niece, Maria. As the representative of “Double-weave underwear” Simon took Maria to Germany but after a few years they returned to The Netherlands with their two small children. ‘In Amsterdam nobody took any notice what religion you were,’ remembered their daughter Josephine. ‘Whether you were Jewish or gentile didn’t make any difference.’
In the late 1930s cousins from Germany stayed with the Kleins en route for America, travelling on through Belgium and France. But by May 1940, that route was blocked.
Josephine, 13, and her brother Eli, 15, were asleep on the night of 14 May 1940, when their mother told them to dress quickly and grab their gas masks. With their uncle Ralph, the Klein family took a taxi twenty miles west to the fishing town of Ijmuiden. In the dark harbour, crowds of people were trying to get away from the advancing German army. Mr Klein had struck a deal with a man who owned a small rowing boat, and then given extra money for water and food. The Kleins climbed on board, as more people swarmed down the steps and jumped in.
It was soon full but even so, there were more desperate people. ‘Take me…’ ‘For mercy’s sake, take my son!’ ‘Let my wife come with you!’
|German invasion 1940, from The Second |
World War, W. Churchill, 1948.
As Mr Klein pushed off, tears were streaming down his face. The boat was about 15 foot long, and there was only just room to sit down. None of the dozen people on board were sailors, so Eli and another boy, both Boy Scouts, took the oars. As they rowed into the dark water they could see the flashes of guns behind the town of Ijmuiden. Mr Klein’s plan was to row out to sea, where they would be picked up by a passing ship.
Day came, and night again, and another day, with a rising wind at night and waves that crashed against the boat. They had been tricked and they had only one orange between them and a small tank of water, which they drank from a thimble. There were no passing ships.
On the third morning Josephine noticed the water rising in the boat, and quickly used her gas-mask box to bail out the sea water. The next day they sighted land. They believed they had rowed the hundred miles to the east coast of England. But they had simply drifted down the coast of Holland, towards another invaded port, possibly The Hague. Starving and parched with thirst, the Kleins and their passengers turned out towards the open sea again, and kept bailing.
|Dunkirk in 1940|
More than week after they left Holland, a British destroyer sighted the tiny boat. By then they were semi-conscious, and their feet were swollen from the sea water. The British sailors carried them on board and they were taken to a hospital in Maidstone. The hospitals in Kent were all on stand-by for the imminent evacuation from Dunkirk: fully staffed but still empty.
The Kleins were soon recovering from ‘trench foot’ and when the evacuation from Dunkirk began, they were sent to a refugee hostel in Chelsea filled with Belgian fishing families and run by English lady aristocrats.
The Kleins wanted to go
to America, but they couldn’t get passports, so they settled in Chester.
They were welcomed by neighbours with fresh vegetables, school uniforms and support.
Josephine made friends through the local Girl Guides and then the Sea Rangers. European
Girl Guides arriving
in Britain were called not ‘Refugee Guides’, but ‘Golondrinas’, or ‘Swallows’.
Other refugees from The Netherlands in London, May 1940. Princess Juliana of the Netherlands pushing her daughter Princess Irene, with her heir Princess Beatrix beside her. Her friend Elizabeth Van Swinderen points out London barrage balloons.
Josephine Klein wrote Our Need for Others
and Its Roots in Infancy, 1987, and
Doubts & Certainties in the Practice
of Psychotherapy, 1995. .
When refugees arrived in Britain in small boats 75 years ago, they were welcomed. Nobody described the men who sold the boats as ‘people traffickers’, nor the refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’. They too were escaping war and persecution, just as people from Syria and Mali are today. The 20th Century refugees contributed to Britain, and helped make it the country it now is.