Lord Dubs on how politics can be a force for good
Having escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as a young boy, Lord Dubs is still fighting for child refugees
Lord Dubs - image credit: Paul Heartfield
Labour peer Alf Dubs was just six years old in 1939 when his mother took him, late one night, to the train station in Prague, where she bundled him and a small suitcase onto a train bound for London. All around them was a cacophony: there were German soldiers with swastikas crowding the platform; there were inconsolable parents waving and crying as they said anguished goodbyes to their youngsters and the bare wooden seats lining the carriages of the Kindertransport were quickly filled with weary children looking just as lost and alone as Dubs, albeit slightly older, with their faces pressed against the windows of the departing trains, trying to get one last glimpse of fast disappearing parents. The words ‘see you soon’ echoed down the platform, but most of the parents – who nearly all perished in the Holocaust – would never see their children again.
The hundreds of unaccompanied children, including Dubs, were on that train for two days. There were no adults to supervise and for six-year-old Dubs it was the first time he had ever been away from his mother. He sat quietly and upright for almost the entire journey – a small package of food left unopened on his lap – a sign, perhaps, of the trauma he was really feeling. At various stops along the way, German soldiers would board the train and stalk up and down the carriages, staring at the children and stopping to kick open suitcases occasionally and tip the contents on the train floor.
As the train crossed the Dutch border late the following evening, Dubs remembers the older children erupting into cheers and clapping. He didn’t know why, but later understood it was because they realised they were now safe from the Nazis.
Dubs is one of the 669 child refugees who owe their lives to former London stockbroker and Kindertransport mastermind Sir Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Winton – the so-called British Schindler – who despite ever stringent UK immigration laws, as the outbreak of war encroached arranged for trains to ship out unaccompanied Jewish children from Czechoslovakia and bring them to safety in Britain.
Winton organised eight children’s evacuations from Prague during the spring and summer of 1939, the last leaving in August. A final planned transportation of 250 lone children was stopped on the 1st of September, the day Germany invaded Poland, and most of the children on board, placed there by their parents for their own safety, later died in concentration camps.
Dubs talks about his 11th-hour escape with great humility. He downplays his own experience and always talks within the context of those thousands of others, including his own family and friends, that were left behind and perished in the Holocaust. He says that he was just a small boy “who got on a train.”
Dubs strikes you as a man without grievance. A man who tries to see the good in anyone or any situation. A man perhaps grateful for his lot. But nothing, not even his attempts at minimising what he, as a tiny boy, must have gone through, can disguise the inevitable psychological effect that the horrific backdrop to his early life has had on shaping who he became, a Labour politician and chair of the Refugee Council, and the unbridled energy he now has as a member of the House of Lords in his mid-80s trying to ensure that unaccompanied refugee children can still find sanctuary in Britain.
The ‘Dubs amendment’ to the 2016 UK Immigration Act was a rare shining beacon in the UK’s recent risible approach to the thorny issue of immigration. During the passage of the act, Lord Dubs had managed to persuade the then prime minister, David Cameron, into a surprise U-turn on refugees and to accept 3,000 unaccompanied children as the UK’s response to a mounting refugee crisis. The Dubs scheme brought some humanity to an increasingly inhumane situation. But amid a country torn apart by an EU referendum that had negative views on immigration at its heart and seemed to legitimise racism and xenophobia in its wake, under the new prime minister, Theresa May, the scheme closed quietly in February. Just 350 children had been admitted and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, described the scheme as a “pull factor” encouraging traffickers to bring children to Europe. She later blamed the decision on councils not having the capacity – a claim since denied by local authorities. The decision provoked an outcry from religious leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who warned that the halting of the initiative would see more children being trafficked, exploited and killed. Dubs himself delivered a petition signed by 50,000 people to Downing Street calling for the reinstatement of the scheme and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, told her party conference only last week that the decision “was inhumane and must be reversed.” Her ministers are in discussion with Lord Dubs about what Scotland can do to help.
Lord Dubs and I meet in the House of Lords on the day that his fellow peers approve the bill to trigger Article 50 allowing for the process to begin for the UK to exit the European Union. For a man whose own story of survival is woven into the fabric that defines the UK’s relationship with Europe following the Second World War, it is no doubt a moment for reflection.
Dubs was born to a Jewish father in Prague in December 1932, just a month before Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. And while anxious to emphasise that he was very young and does not want to invent memories of those early years lived under Nazi occupation using the knowledge he now has of that time, such as the fact that one of his father’s cousins carried a cyanide pill in case of capture, and his mother had meetings in cars with the engine running in case conversations were overheard, he still paints a vivid picture of a country and its people in turmoil. He says he can clearly remember the streets being filled with German soldiers and the picture of President Benes, the then president of Czechoslovakia, being torn from his school books and his mother having to replace it with an image of Hitler, which she did with “the most gaudy, cheapest thing she could find”. He was told by his parents not to repeat anything at school that he heard at home which he didn’t really understand at the time so he just didn’t talk about anything. He was aware of a huge number of troops on the streets, and he has a memory of Hitler coming to visit the school but his mother saying he was too young to go and keeping him at home. And while he didn’t understand the significance of all of this and can’t remember being frightened, as such, he says he just had a feeling of being more apprehensive as his whole life was being turned upside down.
His father had left Prague for London in March 1939 as soon as the Nazis occupied Prague, and while this was hard for the young boy to understand, he had already experienced his father leaving the family home in 1938, at the time of the ‘Munich Agreement’ when parts of Czechoslovakia were annexed by Nazi Germany, when Dubs believes his father had gone in search of a safe place for Jews to live, so he just grew reconciled to it as ‘something that his father did’. Indeed, he has many unanswered questions of his father, who died not long after the family were reunited in Britain.
Dubs arrived at Liverpool Street Station after a two-day train journey. He was one of the few to be met by a parent, although his father was initially pushed away from embracing his small son until the bureaucracy was done with and officials had put a name tag around the boy’s neck, verified who the father was and eventually ticked ‘Alf Dubs’ off the list as ‘collected’. His father then took him to a small bedsit in Belsize Park, north London, where he had set up ‘home’ and where they were joined some weeks later by Dubs’ mother, who managed to get out of Prague and arrive in London on the day before the war began. His father died of a heart attack not long after the family were reunited and Dubs says now he believes his father was deeply disturbed by what was happening.
“My father was initially beset with anxiety because my mum was still in Prague and at that point she wasn’t allowed out, but I think he had suffered so many anxieties as to what was happening and it was only later I understood how awful it must have been for him. He’d been called up to the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War and in the first winter when they stopped fighting he was actually opposite the British on the Western Front and he told me he swapped cigars with a British officer. He became very anti-war and as a result of that as a child I was never allowed guns or tanks or any war weapons, whereas all my friends had them, so I felt a bit odd about this. But when the war started he handed me a box of tin soldiers to play with. I think it was despair. I think he’d just given up and that was the end of it. Yes, I’m sure he was in despair, depressed. First of all, that he had to flee because he was Jewish, secondly, because his friends were all in danger and thirdly, that there was another war. I think he must have been very depressed and I think it was a gesture of despair that he gave the soldiers to me. Of course, at the time I was delighted as a six-year-old to be given a box of tin soldiers, but since, as I got older, it has had a sort of symbolic significance which has sort of haunted me.
“I was seven when he died and there were a million conversations I should have had with him which have left many questions: what did he know, why did he leave, why didn’t the other Jews, why did it all happen and so on. It’s a permanent puzzle. Books have been written about all of this, as to why people allowed some things to happen – you know, there were two to three thousand Jews marched to Budapest station with just three German soldiers escorting them, they must have known what was happening and yet they didn’t run. There is a little story that a man called Bruno Bettelheim wrote in a book called The Informed Heart. He was taken to a camp and being a psychologist from Vienna, he gave himself a project to watch other people and he came up with the not surprising conclusion that the best survivors were those who had strong political or religious views, fairly obvious, but at one point, the Germans were either going to shoot or gas a group of women and one of the women was a dancer in her previous life and she was told to dance for the guards. Bettelheim’s supposition is that when she danced, she went back to her former personality, which the camp sort of knocks out of you, and she realised they were going to kill her, so she danced all the way up to the commandant and took his gun out and shot him dead.
“Where does that strength come from? I guess if you have strong beliefs, I suppose that resilience helps you, but otherwise it’s almost an accident, and I think some people have that inner strength and some people don’t, but it puzzles one a bit. I do think there was a sense of fatalism in the Jewish community.”
On his own survival, as a small foreign boy who spoke no English landing in England just as war broke out and attending a strange school [coincidently, the one my father was at] he says: “Well, the playground is a hard place but you survive, you have to survive if you’re different and you deploy whatever you can. I remember at one point when the bombing started and the other children were shouting at me that I was an evacuee, I shouted back, ‘I’m not an evacuee, I’m a refugee’. I suspect that nuance was completely lost on them but it stopped the shouting for a while.”
Despite Dubs’ efforts to downplay it, he concedes that all of this must have had some effect on him, but again he counters it with the caveat that others experienced much worse.
“Well, I suppose these things do affect one, but it seems to me in odd ways, and I know it sounds very silly, but one of the things I dislike is being seen off on a journey. I love being met, but I hate being seen off. Now whether that’s to do with what happened, I don’t know…I suppose it must shape one, one can hardly go through experiences like that and it not have some effect, but don’t forget, I was one of the lucky ones.”
Being one of the ‘lucky ones’ has given Dubs a unique insight into the plight of refugees, but also given strength to the argument that the UK should accept more unaccompanied children, particularly Syrians caught up in the current refugee crisis in Europe. He has described the UK Government’s decision to end the scheme to accept more as “a disgrace”.
For a man that does not easily turn to anger, Dubs seems completely at a loss to understand the government’s stance. He visited the refugee camps in Calais and Greece and worries about the psychological damage done to the children and he believes his experience has given him some understanding of how they are feeling. “Some of them were helped to flee by their parents or by traffickers, because they feared death, war, bombings – not totally different motivations from mine. I see them, and I think, there but for the grace of God...
“Some of them had spent a year travelling across the world, and they were, pretty understandably, marked by their experiences,” he says in his understated way – there is little need to use additional superlatives for emphasis in what he describes. “Somebody said they had spoken to a Syrian boy who had seen a bomb blow up in Damascus and his parents – his father, his mother – had died in front of him. These are terribly shocking things to happen to a young person, terrible. Then they go on this long journey across Europe and heaven knows what happens to them on that journey; traffickers, pimps, thieves, all kinds, and then they get to Calais, or other places like Calais, where they’re vulnerable to traffickers and not knowing what’s going to happen. Every night they are trying to get on the back of a truck, because if they hear a lorry stop somewhere ,they will try and get on it to escape to get to Britain and maybe to relatives. It’s desperate.
“At one point in the Jungle in Calais, I was introduced to some Afghan boys and I was given the details of about seven or nine of them to take to the Home Office in the hope of getting them over here, and by the following week three of them had made it on the back of a truck, which in one way is good, but in another way incredibly dangerous because some of them died in the process. It’s incredibly dangerous and all quite shocking.
“The whole experience of the camps has left me with conflicting sets of emotions. One is the awfulness of what people had been through; I mean, you meet girls, coming across Africa to live here, and most of them have been raped, beaten, abused – absolutely shocking things happening that you can’t believe one human is doing to another. But then years ago, I despaired when the Bosnians came over here and some of them had lived next to Serbs and been neighbours for years and then the neighbours raped their daughters and the neighbours tried to kill them and so on. People that had known each other for years – might have been friends – and turned on each other. I thought, where does that hatred come from?
“I do sometimes despair a bit that we aren’t learning, that awful things that happened decades ago are happening again.
“It is important, politically, to remember that Britain had a strong humanitarian instinct in 1938, which undoubtedly saved the lives of many people who would otherwise have ended up in the gas chambers,” he says. “I wanted the argument for doing what we can now to help to stand on its own merits and not just because I was putting it. However, what happened to me clearly informed me and made me perhaps more emotionally committed, because I thought about my own background. Britain has given me fantastic opportunities and I would like to think that others who flee could have similar opportunities.”
Dubs takes his inspiration from Sir Nicholas Winton, the man that orchestrated his escape – a fact that Dubs only discovered when he watched a television programme about him. They later met and became great friends.
“It was a matter of luck that Nicky was persuaded to give up a skiing holiday to go to Prague and he saw for himself what was happening. And he went and he saw and he said: ‘It’s not in me to walk away’. He could have. He had this comfortable life in England and so on, but he didn’t walk away, and that’s an inspirational thing. What a wonderful, terrific man he was and I felt very privileged to know him. He was great company and what people didn’t always know was that he was a constituent of Theresa May’s. In fact, the first time I met Theresa May was at one of his birthday parties, because he lived in Maidenhead – ironic that I first met her there with him, really, considering where we now are.
“After Nicky died, his daughter was arranging a memorial event at the Guildhall and she asked me about who should be the speaker on the government side and I said Theresa May, who was home secretary at the time, and she said: ‘Really, with all her policies on refugees and so on?’ And I said: ‘Yes, it’s important’. Anyway, Theresa May was invited and she made a brilliant speech – I would have given her a Labour Party membership card on the strength of it – and when she became prime minister, I wrote to her and congratulated her. It stuck in my throat a bit, but I congratulated her and told her I remembered that great speech she had made about Nicky Winton at the Guildhall, just to remind her of what was going on. Since then we have seen the end of the scheme.”
I ask Dubs why he thinks that has happened. “Well, you know, it’s surprising to me as well,” he says. “It’s quite a complicated issue, I mean, back in the 1930s Britain took ten thousand unaccompanied child refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Britain was the only country that took them, even the Americans said this is extra to the immigration quota and we can’t. So people did it and there were some dissenting voices of the sort we hear today, but it happened. I suppose immigration and refugees have all gotten mixed up today and the numbers have gotten larger and it’s all become part of the politics of this country. It’s become part of the politics of Europe, and it’s a bit sad.
“My understanding is that the Scots are much more positive about welcoming refugees and Scotland has taken it on board and is better than parts of England and I think London is also better than other parts of England. It’s not a coincidence that both of them voted to remain in the referendum.
“I was up there in Scotland during the referendum and I’ve canvassed for Labour MPs up there and I found everyone was friendly and welcoming, in fact, they were much more polite on the doorstep than many people in England. They would say: ‘Yes, we’ve always voted Labour, but this time we’re voting SNP,’ and I would then ask them if they had to make a choice between a Labour or a Tory government, what would they prefer and they would say ‘Labour’, but that they were ‘definitely going to vote for the SNP’ and then ‘thank you for calling’.”
How does he square his understanding of Scotland and nationalism with the words of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who said that supporting independence for Scotland was no different from separating people because of their race or religion?
“Well, I don’t agree with what he said. Look, I’m a friend of Sadiq’s and I thought that by becoming elected as the most significant Muslim mayor of any city in the world, any city in the West anyway, I thought he sent out some positive signals. His first public event as mayor was a Jewish event in North London, but I’m rather sorry that he said what he did about the SNP.
“I don’t like the sort of right-wing nationalism that we are seeing across some parts of Europe with parties who are using an anti-refugee, anti-immigration, anti-Islam mood to get support. I think that is shocking, but I don’t think that is what the SNP are about at all. I do understand that the main strand for Scottish nationalism is a different thing. It is about Scotland having a sense of itself and wanting to create its future independently of Westminster and independently of England. I hope that doesn’t happen, because I value Scotland being part of Britain and I think the Scots have such an awesome contribution to make and I think England would be a much poorer place without Scotland.
“I know Angus Robertson [SNP deputy leader] quite well and I’ve had some help from members of the Scottish Parliament in terms of the refugee thing and as far as I’m concerned, that is support which I welcome, and I’m sorry Sadiq said that and I think he was very wrong. I’ve got to be careful, though, because I’m a Labour person and I want the party to win seats back in Scotland but you know, one has to say what the position actually is.”
I ask Lord Dubs how he remains optimistic about the future when he sees the mistakes of history being repeated again and again.
“Well, you have to be optimistic a bit,” he says. “I have battled on various campaigns in my lifetime and none of them ever got the publicity that this one about child refugees has, so one has to be optimistic.
“I once said my amendment was actually the ‘Nicky Winton amendment’, because I think really that if he could do what he did, then in a much lesser sense I have to do what I can. I couldn’t have walked away from this, and while I don’t like to rationalise after an event, I think this campaign is something Nicky Winton would want me to do.
“And you know, Nicky’s guiding principle is fundamental to some of the big issues of the moment, as to whether people see they’ve got a responsibility to do something or they simply walk away.”
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