I fled the Nazis as a child – refugees today deserve safety here too

Until I left Czechoslovakia for the UK on the Kindertransport in June 1939, aged six, I lived in Prague with my Jewish father and my mother.

We led a pretty ordinary life; trips to the park and to see my aunt and uncle who lived in Wenceslas Square, right in the city centre. One summer we visited friends who had a cottage in the woods where I remember gathering pine cones for the fire.

After the war the owner of the cottage had a plate made, which featured the faces of all the visitors who had come that summer, 23 in total. 

Only three, including myself, survived. My aunt and uncle perished in Auschwitz. 

Even before the Nazis invaded, I could sense the anxiety – Czech soldiers were being mobilised and I recall teargas being dropped in the centre of Prague. The Germans occupied the city in March 1939.

My father disappeared immediately and fled to the UK. We were told at school to tear out the picture of the Czech president Benes from our school books and replace it with a picture of Hitler.

My mother put me on a Kindertransport train – a rescue effort, that brought children to the UK before war broke out – in June 1939 with a knapsack of food. I can still clearly see her in my mind’s eye standing on the platform waving me off, against a backdrop of German soldiers in uniforms and swastikas. For many of the parents waving their children off that day, it was the last time they ever saw them.

We travelled in carriages of six to eight on hard wooden seats. It was no great hardship for us – we were children and didn’t mind sleeping on the benches.

Lord Alf Dubs as a baby with his parents

Once I’d learnt English, the biggest challenge I faced was believing in myself (Picture: Lord Alf Dubs)

It took a day to get to the Dutch border and two days to get to Liverpool Street. When we reached Holland, the older children on the train cheered – I didn’t know why – I was one of the youngest and was looking out for windmills and wooden shoes, which was all I knew about the country.

Only afterwards did I understand that they were cheering because we had reached safety from the Nazis.

When we arrived at Liverpool Street Station, I was one of the lucky ones because my father was waiting for me. I hadn’t seen him at all for four months and had barely seen him for the previous year because he was trying to find a country that could offer him a future.

I was delighted to be with him again but I was also still bewildered and confused by everything that had happened in Prague and on the journey.

What impressed me most when I arrived was seeing women soldiers marching in Hyde Park. I thought that was marvellous – the only soldiers I’d seen before had been men – mainly German occupiers. Because I only spoke Czech and German, my father enrolled me in a school so I could learn English.

My mother escaped a few months later but I never discovered how. My father died shortly after she arrived of a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress he’d experienced. This meant my mother – a refugee who didn’t speak English – raised me on her own in a country where she knew almost no one.

She was turned down for several jobs and overheard one prospective employer say that he wouldn’t employ ‘that bloody foreigner’. 

Once I’d learnt English, the biggest challenge I faced was believing in myself – it took many years for me to shake off the sense that because I was a refugee, my opportunities would be more limited than others.

I was already passionately interested in politics by my early teens because it struck me that if evil men could use politics to destroy lives then perhaps politics could also be used to build lives.

I didn’t return to Prague until after my mother had died (Picture: Lord Alf Dubs)

When I was almost 40, I stood as a councillor and was elected to Westminster City Council – the start of half a century in politics, which eventually led me to the House of Lords – somewhere I never dreamed I’d end up. I was honoured and delighted but also a bit surprised when I was appointed.

I tried and failed twice to become an MP, losing on one occasion to Conservative Christopher Tugendhat. That election was fought between two refugees – one from Prague and the other from Vienna.

I finally won a seat in the commons representing Battersea South in 1979, serving two terms. I hadn’t expected to win given the national swing to the Tories and won by just 332 votes after two recounts.

After losing my seat, I left Westminster politics and became the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council.

I didn’t return to Prague until after my mother had died because she feared that I would be conscripted into the Czech army. When I returned in 1960, it had changed – it was under the Communist regime and all our friends and relatives had either fled or ended up in the camps, which exacerbated my sense of detachment from the city of my birth.

In 1994, Margaret Beckett appointed me to the Lords and Tony Blair later made me a minister for Northern Ireland, working under the extraordinary Mo Mowlam during the Peace Process.

I was honoured to have been given such a fantastic opportunity. Throughout my time in the Commons, I had been interested in Northern Ireland and it was great to be able to contribute to the peace process.

In 2016, I sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 to offer refugee children with no family, stranded in camps or living rough on the streets in Europe, safe passage to Britain. It became known as the ‘Dubs Amendment’ and it resulted in 480 children being brought to safety in the UK before the government closed the scheme.

I would like to see the UK live up to its proud humanitarian tradition (Picture: Lord Alf Dubs)

Parliament passed the amendment but the government arbitrarily capped the number we would accept. My regret is that we didn’t take more.

I can’t help but feel emotionally involved in the lives of the refugee children of today, although I’d like to think I would be campaigning on their behalves regardless of my background.

Europe is now facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War when Britain took in 10,000 refugee children like me who would otherwise have perished. As then, the refugee children of today are the innocent casualties of conflict.

I would like to see the UK live up to its proud humanitarian tradition and take its fair share, as other European countries have. Closing all legal routes to safety for children stranded in Europe – as the current UK government has done – only forces children into the hands of criminals and into dangerous dinghies.

The UK government’s hostile environment, which leaves the most vulnerable at the mercy of traffickers, along with talk of floating walls in the Channel and of deportations to islands in the South Atlantic, does this country’s humanitarian history a disservice.

I’d like to feel the refugee children arriving today, fleeing violence, would be given as warm a welcome and the opportunities that Britain gave me.

I see that generosity of spirit in the work of charities and NGOs helping refugees and in the local authorities and foster families who have opened their doors and given refugee children what they need most – hope.

Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk

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