The Role of Dress in the Cultural Assimilation of Kindertransport Refugees

The Role of Dress in the Cultural Assimilation of Kindertransport Refugees

With the consolidation of power by Adolf Hitler in 1933, the political, social and economic situation of European Jews grew progressively bleak. As rights were stripped, property destroyed, and lives taken, the need for non-Aryans to escape was becoming increasingly clear. In an unprecedented move, Great Britain agreed in November 1938 to open its borders to unaccompanied minors from German occupied territories, a program which became known as the Kindertransport, or ‘Children’s transport’. Within weeks thousands of children were preparing for the journey. Upon meeting stringent aptitude, health and personality tests, children approved for the transports crossed the Channel. The transports ended abruptly in 1939, almost one year after their inception. On September 1, the same day that Hitler invaded Poland, what became the final Kindertransport ship set sail for England. Before its unanticipated end, the program evacuated nearly 10,000 children.

Most Kinder were allowed a single suitcase on their journey. For some, these bags were packed by parents, while older children sometimes packed their own. Ubiquitous amongst every child’s effects, however, was clothing. These garments offered one of the final tangible links to a cultural identity most Kinder were unknowingly abandoning forever. These garments, influenced in style, quantity and quality by the social, cultural and economic circumstances leading up to departure, informed first impressions of foster families, guardians and communities across Great Britain. The impressions and assumptions formed from these sartorial judgements often coloured the earliest memories Kinder have of their time in the United Kingdom. Yet despite proving frequent identifiers of foreignness or ‘otherness’, Kinder garments often became venerated objects later in life as a rare connection to lost families and heritage.

The role of dress in this story illuminates several unique aspects of the assimilation experiences of transportees. It reveals expectations of Kinder and their parents as to what life was like in Great Britain. One Kinder recalled seeing a picture in 1937 of the coronation of King George VI, from which she concluded everyone in England must wear ermine and crowns. Assumptions of British style increased the demand for tweed across Greater Germany as earnest parents sought out fashions intended to ease their children’s assimilation. Some Kinder and their family had the time, means and access prior to their trip for such specialised wardrobe shopping in preparation for the journey. Many others, however, left their homes quickly, even under duress or threat of violence, which left little time to prepare or pack. These children made the journey with whatever clothing they managed to collect before escape, and some only with the clothes on their backs.

Across the Channel, clothing worn by arriving children faced a new set of sartorial assumptions and expectations. For example, children hoping to establish a good first impression donned their best clothing for the voyage. While fashioned from fabrics recognisable across Great Britain, some Kinder travelled in tailor-made garments of high quality, meaning they arrived better dressed than their new working-class guardians. Foster parents expressed disbelief that these children, dressed so richly, were in fact ‘real’ refugees, and sometimes stole or confiscated their wardrobes. Stylistic differences in clothing also betrayed Kinder as ‘other’, leading even Anglo-Jewish families to avoid these children on the street or in the synagogue. Young boys who wore long stockings with garters rather than the British knee-high version, or girls dressed in dirndls and the traditional apron, for example, were often subjected to teasing, exclusion, and harassment. The disrupting effect of Kinder’s continental clothing led one foster mother to burn her ward’s conspicuously Austrian wardrobe. Those children whose new circumstances afforded them the means or access, were able to adopt new, regionally congruent garments shortly after their arrival. This quick sartorial substitution aligned well with popular contemporary thought which urged immediate assimilation for the benefit of the children and the state. Some children, however, expressed reticence to relinquish their continental garb, while others did not have access to alternatives. Regardless, all Kinder were eventually required to don British fashions when age and growth meant garments from home could no longer be worn.

Despite the pressures to adopt a new cultural identity, some children kept their garments from home even after accepting newer, better fitting, or more stylistically appropriate wardrobes. The limit of a single suitcase as well as invasive luggage searches at the Dutch/German border, meant typical family heirlooms usually remained at home or were confiscated in transit. Consequently, clothing and other utilitarian items such as toiletries and travel papers, comprised most of the tangible mementos of family and origin with which Kinder arrived in Great Britain. As such, some Kinder saw surviving clothing as an invaluable link to their past, a memorial of sorts to lost loved ones as well as their irrecoverable former self. In being denied even a grave at which they could mourn or honour their relatives, many transportees turned instead to the surviving pieces of their past for solace and commemoration. The tangibility of garments and the memories they carry offered some emotional comfort in this way, as they allowed the child to maintain a connection with loved ones over distance and time, while also reassuring them that the parent who bought or made the garment did in fact exist. The intangibility of a traumatic childhood parting, in tandem with the vague uncertainty of the death of one’s family, made it especially difficult for many Kinder to part with their few physical connections to their past. In addition to emotional comfort, the garments themselves also offered elements of physical and psychological protection through their enveloping nature. Clothes are especially suited to hold memories of past personal identity, as they physically represent the space, size and shape of one’s prior self. As such, adult Kinder can engage with clothing as a tangible container of the person they once were.

The intimate nature of clothing makes it a uniquely personal lens into the lives of these child refugees. From clothing that reflected the region or values of their birth culture, clothing that represented the child and childhood left behind, or clothing that communicated ‘otherness’ and triggered exclusion, dress history reveals the potential to illuminate the refugee acculturation experience.

Further Reading:

Blend, Martha. A Child Alone. The Library of Holocaust Testimonies. Edited by Antony Polonsky, Martin Gilbert CBE, Aubrey Newman, Raphael F. Scharf and Ben Helfgott. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1995.

Fast, Vera K. Children's Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2011.

Harris, Mark Jonathan, and Deborah Oppenheimer. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Leverton, Bertha, and Shmuel Lowensohn. I Came Alone: The Stories of the Kindertransports. Paperback ed. Sussex: The Book Guild Ltd, 1996.

Körte, Mona. "Bracelet, Hand Towel, Pocket Watch: Objects of the Last Moment in Memory and Narration." Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 23, no. 1 (2004): 109-20.


Image citation: Kindertransport refugees from Greater Germany arrive in London on the Warsaw, February 1939. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S69279 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, wikicommons.com.

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