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A cri de coeur - but nowt to do with immunology

Having had my life saved by the Chamberlain government in late 1938, when it gave permission for unlimited numbers of Jewish unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to enter the UK – in the Kindertransports as they came to be known – I have felt especially upset by our present government’s unwillingness to act on the proposal by Lord Dubs to facilitate the entry of up to 3,000 refugee children to come to this country. I therefore attended two public demonstrations in November in support of this cause and, to my surprise, I was invited to speak briefly on both occasions.

It is of course true that the Chamberlain government had to be pressurised by both Jewish and non-Jewish organisations and individuals and that, just as now, the tabloids were intensely hostile. But eventually it caved in, as I hope our present government will do before long. It is shocking that so many refugee children are in Calais and in France generally – unprotected, destitute, starving, and prey to traffickers and abusers.

Almost 10,000 children arrived in the Kindertransports from December 1938 to the outbreak of World War Two, which put a stop to the evacuations. I was 13 at the time, but children up to the age of 16 were admitted. Certain conditions were insisted upon – a guarantee of £50 per child, the children were to be unaccompanied and required to move to other countries after the war. (The latter condition was totally forgotten about and most remained in the UK.) My life and that of the others was thus saved: my parents and sister and most of my relatives were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis in 1942.

I was nonetheless fortunate in many respects: once in England, I was selected to continue my education in a Jewish boarding school that its farsighted head mistress (Anna Essinger) had brought from Germany to this country as early as 1933. Having volunteered for the infantry in the middle of 1943, when the war was far from won, I had ‘a good war’ in that I survived and was demobbed in 1947 with the rank of Captain. My other great fortune was that Peter Medawar, then Professor of Zoology at the University of Birmingham and in whose department I had obtained my BSc, offered me a studentship that involved the study of what became the phenomenon of ‘acquired immunological tolerance’. No wonder that I called my autobiography “Sunday’s Child? A Memoir”… Well, the rest is history.

I don’t know ANYONE who came to the UK in a Kindertransport who has not made a solid contribution to the life of their adopted country, and not a few who did so with great distinction – for example Frank Auerbach, the celebrated painter, who like me was a pupil of Bunce Court School. I have little doubt that refugee children admitted now would likewise contribute to the life of the country, rather than be a burden on the state, as is so often claimed.

At one of the recent demonstrations I gave an interview to a reporter from the Socialist Worker and some of my rather fierce comments were published by them. It was at the demonstration in Parliament Square and with all the noise around me I hadn’t understand which organisation the interviewer belonged to. When I read their report I said to my wife: “Damn, there goes my OBE!” Her reply: “It went ages ago, my dear.”

Leslie Brent

Emeritus Professor


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