‘Refugees on Record’: Navigating the Archives of the Central British Fund: Exploring the relationship between gender, humanitarianism, and Jewish-Zionist identity in the experiences of adolescent refugees who came to Britain during the Holocaust. (1933 – 1945)

Emily Smith

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Using the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF) archives as its starting point, this thesis explores the complexity of adolescent refugee experiences and humanitarian practices behind the migration of Jewish children to Britain during the Holocaust. Popularly known and remembered as the Kindertransport – the movement and arrival of approximately 10,000 unaccompanied minors to Britain between 1938 and 1939 - these stories have dominated British public consciousness about the Holocaust and have been widely commemorated and celebrated across the nation. Often, however, the meaning and legacy of the Kindertransport as a model response to refugee crises has prevented critical interrogation of its history. Moreover, often the narrative has focused on younger children fostered into British families. Only recently has focus started to shift onto older children (namely teenagers and young adults) who were often not placed into family homes, but rather communal hostels and often exploited for labour. This thesis will bring together disparate themes of adolescence and childhood, gender, humanitarianism, Zionism, and refugeedom, and explore how each of these themes – when examined comparatively and unitedly – offers a more nuanced historical understanding of the child migration movement. Joining more recent voices in Holocaust and refugee scholarship contesting the memory of child migration to Britain during the Holocaust, this thesis is divided into three sections, which holistically explore: the need to critique and challenge Kindertransport narratives; the ways in which gender specifically impacted the treatment of Jewish adolescents; how adolescent refugees, perhaps more than any other group, were often placed in environments with strong links to Jewish-Zionist ideals and agendas; and, finally, the impact of such connections and motivations on the identity of adolescent refugees. Each section uses case studies that offer a more intimate history of adolescent refugee experiences, paying attention to both the official structures and unofficial responses of humanitarian workers and groups on a national and local scale. Individual refugee case files from the CBF archive are used to introduce each section of the thesis, which explore themes related to adolescent refugee experiences and their own reckoning of their lives and identity. Alongside its attention to adolescent refugee experiences, this thesis explores the public and private image of the CBF, and the symbolism surrounding its headquarters at Bloomsbury House, both at the height of its activity and in its memorialisation. This thesis continuously analyses the complex relationship between Jewish adolescent refugees and the individuals and agencies responsible for their care. Using gender as a lens through which to explore these histories, this thesis highlights the complex interrelationship between refugees, the CBF and regional committees, revealing a more nuanced understanding of adolescent refugee experience. Finally, this thesis recognises the significant influence of Jewish-Zionism on the approaches and motivations behind the work of the CBF, and the subsequent impact this had on young refugees and their sense of agency. Among its thematic parameters, this thesis also offers an experiential perspective of using an underexplored archive with limited accessibility and tools for focused research. Therefore, it highlights the methodological challenges of using documents relating to Jewish forced migration to Britain. Using oral and written testimonies, identity documents, institutional papers and local archives, this thesis explores the fragmentary nature of child migration documentation to emphasise the complex and nuanced history of the Kindertransport.
This thesis builds on current conversations in both academic and public history around the need to challenge representations of collective experiences that whitewash refugee histories and silence those who do not fit the simplified narratives. This thesis also highlights the importance of recognising adolescents’ experiences as different from those of younger children, and also the need to consider the variations of refugee-humanitarian relationships often at the centre of these histories.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Stone, Dan, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 May 2023
Publication statusUnpublished - 2023


  • The Central British Fund
  • World Jewish Relief
  • Jewish refugees
  • Kindertransport
  • Refugee archives
  • adolescent refugees

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