In the second of our guest blogs marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, former child refugee Lord Alf Dubs reflects on his remarkable life.
The story of one Kindertransport refugee
In March 1939 Hitler invaded Prague. My Jewish father left immediately for London. At school we had to tear out the picture of President Beneš from our school books and replace it with a picture of Hitler. There were German soldiers everywhere but of course at 6 years old I didn’t understand what was happening though I suppose I noticed the general sense of anxiety.
My mother applied for permission to leave the country but this was refused at Gestapo Headquarters where they simply said no and threw her down the stairs. To her surprise they threw her passport after her so she still had a little hope.
My mother then managed to get me on a Kindertransport and after an interminably long journey I arrived at Liverpool Street where my father was waiting. I was luckier than many as most were met by foster parents. Somehow my mother managed to escape and arrived in London on 31 August, the day before the war started with Germany’s invasion of Poland.
Within a year my father died of a heart attack and my mother started scrubbing floors in a British restaurant in Cheetham Hill in Manchester, while I went to a boarding school run by the Czech Government-in-exile.
It was years later that I learned of my huge debt to Nicky Winton who had organised the Kindertransports from Prague. We met frequently and became good friends.
I soon developed a passionate interest in politics, perhaps through trying to understand what had happened to me. By the time of the 1945 General Election I was instinctively drawn to the Labour Party and was excited by the nationalisation of the mines and then the creation of the NHS.
My political views took me to LSE and in 1971 I was elected to Westminster City Council. In 1979 I was elected to the Commons as MP for Battersea South, by a majority of 332 after 2 recounts! My mother had died many years earlier so she never knew how my life had developed.
In the Commons I served on the Home Affairs Select Committee and after 1983 was an opposition frontbencher on the Home Affairs team with responsibility for race relations and Immigration.
I also served on the Standing Committee [now called the public bill committee] dealing with the British Nationality Bill. I remember feeling surprised that a naturalised British Citizen could serve on a small committee determining the future law governing British Citizenship. In what other country could this have been possible?
In the 1987 elections I was defeated in the Battersea constituency and found myself on the dole. After about a year I became CEO of the Refugee Council. We were involved in helping newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers as well as campaigning for more humanitarian refugee policies in the UK and the wider world. We helped provide work training for refugees, gave them advice and support, and together with the Red Cross, arranged for the reception of some 3,000 Bosnians released from the Serb detention camps.
In 1994 I was appointed to the House of Lords and in 1997, after Labour’s election victory, I was appointed a minister in the Northern Ireland Office spending much of the period till December 1999 shuttling between Belfast and Westminster. It was an optimistic period leading to the Good Friday agreement, the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the establishment of the executive. Not only was I responsible for 2 Government Departments in Northern Ireland [13,000 civil servants] but I also had to see through the legislation dealing with the peace process and the new political institutions. It was an exciting period and although terrible incidents such as the Omagh bombing still happened from time to time there was the real prospect of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
From 2000 onwards I was able to resume Parliamentary life as a backbencher. This gave me a chance to continue with my Northern Ireland interests as a member of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Also there was a chance to do more on human rights, refugee policy, and on EU policy. It was a privilege to be associated with campaigns against immigration detention especially detention of children. We persuaded the Labour government to take a leading position in the banning of cluster bombs and ammunition, building on earlier successful campaigning to ban anti-personnel landmines. We secured a pardon for the several hundred British and Irish soldiers who were shot at dawn during the 1914-18 war for alleged cowardice when it was clear that their actions were the result of severe trauma for which they had needed medical treatment rather than execution.
More recently I have been directly involved in campaigning for the UK to accept unaccompanied child refugees from Calais, Greece and Italy. Nearly 1,000 have arrived here, some directly as a result of the amendment to the Immigration Act. We can do better than this and the pressure on the Government will continue.
As another Holocaust Memorial Day approaches we must ensure that the horrors of 1939-1945 leading to the extermination of 6 million people, many Jews, are remembered and understood by younger generations. Millions of refugees are living, perhaps I should say existing, in the most terrible conditions and that should be a stain on all our consciences.
Let me however finish on a more positive note. There are many people, mainly young, who have given up their jobs and careers to help and support refugees. Their commitment, energy and integrity stand out in a bleak world.