Virginia Barton

14 December 2018: Refuge

14 December 2018


Hey up! It’s that time of year again: The Big Spend.

Daft, isn’t it, when you think of that draughty stable in Bethlehem; smelly too most likely, with all those animals standing about. And the Christmas Child lying in a manger with straw, shepherds and a star.

Christmas is the children’s feast and the average British family spends £821.25 on it, what with presents, food, decs and maybe a tartan jacket for the dog. Whopping great overdrafts are ignored till New Year to make sure the must-haves are under the tree, the novelty hats and Santa jerseys to put on, and the fridge and freezer so stuffed the doors will barely shut. It’s a once-a-year beano of a celebration and we all fall for it. I do and I bet you do, too.

Yes, it’s a far cry from Bethlehem.


There are hints of the true Christmas spirit of course. Charities pull in their biggest donations at this time of year. People are very generous when it comes to giving cash for good causes.

The TV news reminds us that:  “Some viewers may find the following scenes distressing”.

And how.

One wonders what difference £821.25 would make in Yemen, or Cox’s Bazar, or Zaatari. A drop in the ocean of human misery. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are 68.5 million displaced people in the world – that’s more than the population of the UK.


The Kindertransport statue, Liverpool Street Station, London


Have you ever thought about being displaced? Refugees are a stark reproach to us. Perhaps we should remember that almost all of us came from somewhere else; that we are all immigrants one way or another. We “Brits” (hateful word) are a proper hotch-potch of peoples and how lucky we are! Let’s be open-minded, less fearful in our welcome to people standing on our doorstep stranded by appalling circumstances.

Lord Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in a letter to the Guardian that this country “hosts just a fraction of the world’s refugees – 0.2% in 2017.” He reminds us of the thousands of children who “languish in war zones, camps and detention centres.”

We are assured that these unfortunates are safer detained in camps rather than crossing the high seas in dinghies and the like. This despite the camps being well-known for abuse, beatings and starvation.

I blushed with shame when I read that this country contributes to the maintenance of these places. Let them remain far away, out of sight. Lord Williams wasn’t the only one. Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenburg wrote movingly in the Times: “Open your Heart, Britain, as you once did for the Kinder”.


Have you been displaced? Slung out of your home with just half-an-hour to collect your things? BH knew all about it; and about arriving here to an uncertain welcome.

The events of Kristallnacht, or the “Nights of Broken Glass” in Vienna in early November 1938, galvanised the UK into accepting some ten thousand Jewish children from a Europe on the verge of war. Without doubt their fate would have been very different otherwise.

Not 200 yards from my flat in Oxford there lives an elegant, petite lady who knows all about being displaced. She can just remember the noise and uproar of Kristallnacht. Her father was a doctor, Jewish by race and a convert to Catholicism, as was her mother, a German. Her husband was forbidden to work when the Nazis invaded Austria, so she became the breadwinner – and his protector. With great courage they decided to send their small daughter to the safety of England, on the Kindertransport. The little girl, Agnes was her name, was told that this was an “adventure”.

They parted in May 1939, late at night at the Westbahnhof station in Vienna. She was not to see her parents again until 1946.


Viennese children arrive in London on the Kindertransport, 1938


The Red Cross and the Quakers were responsible for the care of the children during the journey. Each child had a label round the neck, like a parcel, and each was allowed one toy and a suitcase of belongings. The small Agnes, clutching her doll Beatrix, was bedded down on the floor of the packed train. Next stop Holland, mysteriously referred to as “Orange land”. Then across the sea to Harwich and finally London, where she was met and taken to an aunt’s flat.

She slept like a dormouse until the following day. Still with her label round her neck. Agnes was put in charge the guard of the train bound for Rugby. Passed from hand to hand, at last the little girl arrived at her final destination.

Apart from There was a little girl who had a little curl… and another rhyme about birds, Agnes had no English to speak of.


The Head girl of Princethorpe, the Benedictine convent boarding school where Agnes was to stay, met her at the station. She was learning German but spoke very little, so could only smile – and examine the label curiously. Agnes mistook her for a nun and wondered at her queer habit. (It was school uniform.) Unfortunately, Mère Raphael, the Sister who came from Regensburg and who would in future guide Agnes’s first steps within the school, had ‘flu and was laid up in the infirmary. She would have been able to talk in German to the newcomer.

Everyone was kindly in the enclosed life of a girls’ school; there was no shortage of food what with the vegetable garden and farm and multiple ration books. When the bombs fell on nearby Coventry, the girls hurried to the shelters with their teachers and the Sisters to theirs just as fast.

Agnes had made her First Communion in Vienna but not her first Confession. A crib sheet was compiled in German – English listing the various simple sins she might need to own up to. At the end she proudly announced to the priest:
“I have told a lie!”

Meaning that, in fact, she hadn’t committed any of the peccadillos on the list.

Very occasionally a Red Cross card would arrive for Agnes with just 25 words. One told her of the birth of her baby sister. She could send one in return with her 25 words of news.


The little girl grew up and enjoyed the education, the safety and the friends she made in England. In due course she married and had children. The Vienna she goes back to nowadays is very different to the city she left as a child, as is the England she came to in 1939.

Her memories are remarkably vivid both good and bad. Like many of us she will be saddened and shamed by the recent withdrawal of the rescue ship Aquarius from the Mediterranean which has become “a lightning rod for the controversy surrounding Europe’s policies on accepting migrants.”

No room at the inn for them then.







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