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Expert Blog: Her Majesty The Queen’s lifelong solidarity with refugees

By Dr Amy Williams, a historian with expertise in national and international memories of the Kindertransport

People holding hands
A generic image of refugees

Expert Blog: 'Introducing Jewish refugees to two British princesses' - Her Majesty The Queen’s lifelong solidarity with refugees

Hanna Zack Miley writes in her autobiography “A Garland for Ashes: World War II, the Holocaust, and One Jewish Survivor’s Long Journey to Forgiveness” that Kinder (Jewish refugee children who journeyed to Britain to escape Nazi persecution prior to the Second World War) received a picture book introducing them to their new lives in a new land. In the book was a picture of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Hanna describes how the girls looked like fairies to her as they were so graceful and had delicate features. This book gave Hanna the impression that rulers could look gentle, even shy. They could be kind and humane. She had fled a country (Germany) where leadership meant loud harsh voices and violence. Some 83 years later Hanna, a Holocaust survivor who now lives in America, pays tribute to the Queen’s life, dignity, grace and the encouragement and revealing faith she showed throughout her life.

As Hanna was receiving the book the then fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth was making her first radio address. In 1940, Elizabeth gave a compassionate message of solidarity with child evacuees and migrants. Speaking on the BBC’s Children’s Hour radio slot she reflected upon how children living in Britain had been separated from their families due to the dangers of the Second World War. This author’s Grandma was one of the British evacuee children she addressed. Elizabeth showed true sympathy towards the evacuees, many of whom were also Jewish refugees who became displaced twice over due to the bombings. Hanna was one of these children. Princess Elizabeth also thanked the foster families who welcomed the evacuees into their homes. From an early age she was aware of the complexities of being uprooted. While she was at home during this period she constantly thought about those who were displaced throughout Britain as well as those who had travelled to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and America to seek shelter. Elizabeth spoke about how she would not forget those who were dislocated from their homelands. She may not have been aware though that some Kinder would be recollected for a third time as they were sent to Australia and Canada as enemy aliens. Overall, Elizabeth’s speech gave the children courage and thanked the sailors, soldiers and airmen for their brave service. Remarkably, some 1,000 Kinder later served in the British and Allied Forces while others became nurses and worked on farms and in factories, helping on the Home front. The sadness of war was echoed in the young Princess’ speech. In the her concluding remarks there seems to be a hint at her future royal and personal responsibilities. For example, she stated that “when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place” which suggests that she wanted to bring separated people together. Elizabeth also championed the notion that children can and do make a difference. That she called upon her little sister to join her in saying good night to the children at the very end of the broadcast also showed far-reaching family bonds and unity between herself and the evacuee and refugee children.

The children (now adults) Elizabeth supported during the war now feel her loss. Elizabeth’s bond with Kindertransport survivors continued as many Kinder and their rescuers were knighted by the Queen. Just as the Elizabeth’s first address discussed her awareness of the plight of migrants one of her final TV appearances, during her platinum Jubilee celebrations, reinforced her lifelong commitment to refugee causes. In 2022, the Queen spoke to Kinder just as she did in 1940 because she shared her home and feelings of solidarity with them. This time she was not accompanied by her sister but one of the most famous unaccompanied Kinder, Paddington Bear. Paddington is based on the story of the Kindertransport. That the Queen chose this moment to celebrate the contributions that Holocaust survivors as well as refugees today make to this country was apt. In doing so she also paid tribute to British and Commonwealth subjects who cared for refugees during the Second World War, the servicemen and women who liberated the concentration camps, and those today who continue to aid people in need. She reminded us of our commitment to upholding universal human rights during a time when the government was resting on its laurels. The Queen seemed to joyfully engage with Paddington’s dynamic personality as she wholeheartedly engaged with causes close to her heart. Paddington’s thanks to the Queen for her steadfast and dignified service to Britain and the Commonwealth was fitting given that he is a British citizen with heritage in a distant land – Peru.

That the Queen chose to have tea with Paddington was also significant in that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the voiceover of the Paddington Bear film in Ukraine. It was reported that the Queen made a rare private donation to Ukraine’s refugees. The UK charity, Disasters Emergency Committee announced that the Queen made a donation to support their fundraising efforts. Though the Queen was bound to strict neutrality in political matters and rarely commented on them she nevertheless expressed her humanity. In the words of the late Queen: “reconciliation is the peaceful end to conflict”. Her presence at commemorative events to the First and Second World Wars, for example, reminded us of the importance to reach out and remember. As she honoured those who sacrificed their lives for us to have a better future she dedicated her life to her duty. This duty enabled her to give a voice to causes that may have been overlooked or even forgotten. For many younger children the Paddington Bear sketch for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations is perhaps their first encounter with the Queen. This image may inspire the next generation to help refugees and continue to remember the story of Paddington and the Kindertransport. Only yesterday did a family from Latvia who live in the UK create a new pebble memorial of Paddington on a beach in Devon to pay tribute to the Queen.

Historian Dr Amy Williams, of the School of Arts and Humanities, is an expert in national and international memories of the Kindertransport

Published on 15 September 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities