When refugee crises occur, I think of my late father, Karel Reisz. A celebrated film-maker, he was someone who helped radically transform British cinema during the 1950s and 1960s.
But in early 1939, at the age of just 12, he left his family behind for ever and set off on the last Kindertransport from Prague – shortly before the Germans took over Czechoslovakia and closed the borders – and became a child refugee in the UK. His knowledge of English then was restricted to the name of the former prime minister, “good old Mr Baldwin”, and the remedy an uncle used for his stomach problems, “Carter’s little liver pills”.
If my father hadn’t been saved, his three sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren wouldn’t be here today. That’s why I support an openhearted welcome for those fleeing persecution anywhere and have been deeply unimpressed by the responses of recent British governments.
Yet what is happening in Ukraine feels even closer to home. It is partly a question of geography, the constant evocation of the Kindertransports and the parallels drawn between Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin.
But what makes it even more poignant for me is that my oldest grandchild, one of my favourite people in the world, turns 12 at the end of this month. She has just hit puberty. Often, she flicks her beautiful long hair into a “Fabulous fashion show!” and she shows signs of incipient teenage moodiness. But she is also still very much a little girl who takes comfort from cuddly toys when she is sad. She is the age my father was when forced to flee, but it is almost unimaginable to think of her having to cross Europe to make a new life for herself alone, though there will surely be cases of Ukrainian children being forced right now to do just that. Reflecting on her – and what my father went through – helps me clarify just why the recent actions of the British government have been so appalling.
The Kindertransports were an essentially private initiative by people such as Nicholas Winton, to whom the government eventually gave their rather reluctant support, provided the sponsors agreed to pay £50 to ensure that the incoming children would not be a financial burden on the state.
It was the saving and the making of my father, who became a central figure in the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s, determined to get out of the barracks, the castle and the drawing room, and to put very different aspects of British life on screen. Films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) were applauded as a breath of fresh air even by the rightwing press, not least because they offered powerful new outsider perspectives on English society. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, his 1981 success, was nominated for five Oscars. And he was not alone. Many other refugees and émigrés of the time made a deep impact on our national life.
There is talk now about the risks; to security, of safeguarding, and certainly there were cases of Kindertransport abuse, when sponsors took in children because they were looking for cheap servants or because they felt they had a mission to convert Jews to Christianity. The much larger numbers of Jewish women allowed into the UK to work in domestic service sometimes faced harassment or cruelty. So it might make sense to impose checks on those offering to host Ukrainians. What is inexcusable is any policy that further traumatises already deeply traumatised refugees.
All this should be obvious to a cabinet that includes people whose families experienced persecution. Dominic Raab comes from a paternal Czech-Jewish background similar to my own; Nadhim Zahawi left Iraq in 1979 at the age of nine, near the start of Saddam Hussein’s regime; and Priti Patel is the daughter of Ugandan Asians who fled to the UK shortly before Idi Amin ordered them all to be expelled.
Yet at the Conservative party spring conference last weekend, the home secretary struck a familiar note of shrill patriotic paranoia. She called it “naive and misguided to think that only men can be covert operatives, or that refugee flows could not be subject to some form of exploitation”, warning darkly of people coming to this country “who plot to strike at our very way of life”.
Only four years ago, said Patel, “the Russian military intelligence services used a chemical weapon on British soil”. Is it not possible to tell the difference between the spies from central casting who carried out the Salisbury poisoning and the desperate Ukrainian refugees we see on our television screens every day? And do we now regard children too as potential “covert operatives”?
Where would that approach have left my father; what would it have meant for the contribution he and so many others made to British life? Is it really too much to ask that our guiding principle should be compassion, not suspicion?