PARIS — On the shores of northern France, hundreds, but possibly thousands, of unaccompanied migrant children live in muddy squalor. By day, they kick around soccer balls; by night, they cough in makeshift tents. Mostly, they wait — typically for what they hope is asylum in Britain.
Nobody can say for sure exactly how many of these children there are; to date, there has been no systematic attempt to count them. In Calais’s infamous “Jungle” encampment, a British charity counted 305 unaccompanied minors last month, and French child-protection agencies registered roughly 1,600 throughout the country in 2015. The real figure is likely to be higher, because not all will necessarily register.
In recent weeks, the idea of destitute children just more than 20 miles from the cliffs of Dover has struck a nerve in Britain. Among those expressing concern have been opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and actor Jude Law.
But the reports and the images from France have carried a particular significance for survivors of the “Kindertransports,” the convoys that brought nearly 10,000 predominately Jewish children to Britain from Nazi-occupied Europe in 1939 and 1940.
One survivor, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, proposed an amendment to the Immigration Bill to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from across Europe. On Monday, the amendment passed in the House of Lords by a 306-to-204 vote. It follows a September letter signed by more than 100 British rabbis that urged Prime Minister David Cameron to admit at least 10,000 children over a six-month period.
As the rabbis wrote: “Let the Kindertransport be our inspiration.”
In a recent interview, Dubs, 83, cited his own experience — he was one of the 669 Czech-born children saved by the stockbroker and humanitarian Nicholas Winton — as motivation for the bill.
Born in Prague in 1932 to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Dubs was counted as Jewish under the Nazis’ racial laws. He arrived at London’s Liverpool Street train station at age 6 and has lived in Britain ever since.
“I owe it to Britain — and to the children — to do as much as I can to get this provision into the law,” he said. “Children are the most vulnerable, the most likely to be trafficked.”
Vera Schaufeld, 86, is another survivor of the Kindertransports. She remembers waving goodbye to her parents at the train station in Prague. “None of us realized that nearly all of us would never see anyone in our families ever again,” she said recently, recounting how her primary fear was that no one would pick her up in London.
Someone did: Schaufeld was adopted by a family from Bury St. Edmunds, about 80 miles northeast of London, and became a teacher — one who specializes in educating students who speak English as a second language.
“I think there are places in Britain where there are families who would accept them,” she said of the children in Calais and elsewhere in Europe. “The children would have the chance to make the kind of life I had a chance to make.”
Winton, who died in July at 106, has become something of a British national hero, and the Kindertransports are remembered as part of what Winston Churchill famously called Britain’s “finest hour.”
“I call it a light in the deepest, darkest night of humanity,” said Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi. “The act of rescue of 10,000 children created 10,000 stories of hope.”
Seventy years after World War II, that is a narrative that the British government itself has adopted, a special point of pride.
Last year, for instance, Cameron unveiled plans for London’s first Holocaust Memorial Museum. “In commemorating the Holocaust,” the museum’s commission report read, “Britain remembers the way it proudly stood up to Hitler and provided a home to tens of thousands of survivors and refugees, including almost 10,000 children who came on the Kindertransports.”
Europe in 2016, of course, is not Europe in 1939. The children stranded in France have the option of applying for asylum there; they will not be arrested and murdered if the British government refuses to admit them, which was the case for Jewish children during World War II. For survivors, though, the past can at least inform the present, even if the two are fundamentally different.
“We all say it should never happen again,” Dubs said of the Holocaust history that necessitated the Kindertransports. “But it must never happen again.”
Despite their outspoken pride in Britain’s wartime past, the country’s current leaders do not seem as enthusiastic in applying past to present. Although Cameron promised to admit 20,000 refugees by 2020 — and although the campaign to accept 3,000 children has gained significant traction — the prime minister ridiculed Corbyn in January for making promises to what he called a “bunch of migrants in Calais.”
For Sacks, Britain’s wartime rescue of Jewish children provides a powerful template for a course of action in the midst of the “sheer, extraordinary insolubility of the situation in Syria, where an entire people is being driven to desperation, starvation and exile.”
“The Kindertransport is eternally relevant,” he said. “Not every problem in the world can be solved politically, but they can be solved at the level of individuals and families.”
This is also the message of the bronze statue that commemorates the Kindertransport program at the Liverpool Street station. Designed by the Israeli architect Frank Meisler, who benefited from the program, it depicts a group of children sitting on suitcases and clutching teddy bears, gazing with wide-eyed wonder at the city around them.
The statue bears an inscription from the Talmud: “Whosoever rescues a single soul is credited as though they had saved the whole world.”