Closing Our Hearts and Minds to Refugee Children Are Not the Actions of a World-Leading Moral Country

27/04/2016 10:12 | Updated 27 April 2016

It was with great upset that I watched the debate and votes in the House of Commons on Monday night, where MPs defeated an amendment to allow 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees into Britain.

Like so many people in this country - of all ages, faiths and political affiliations - I was left sad and stunned.

To close their eyes and hearts to unaccompanied children, to insist that it is alright to detain pregnant women, and that refugees can still be detained indefinitely simply on the say so of an immigration official. These are not the actions of a world-leading moral civilisation.

I was a child refugee from Nazi Germany. I was born in Berlin in October 1925 and celebrated my barmitzvah on 22 October, 1938. It turned out to be the last one at the famous Friedenstempel Synagogue, which was destroyed on Kristallnacht 18 days later.

After Kristallnacht, my mother sent me by Kindertransport to Holland in February 1939. On 10 May, 1940, Holland was invaded by the Nazis. A non-Jewish woman, Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer, one of the righteous Gentiles subsequently honoured by Yad Vashem, hired buses to take us to the port of Ijmuiden, where she persuaded a cargo boat captain to take 40 children and a few adults on board and sail away.

While in the Channel, our ship was strafed by Nazi fighter planes aiming to sink it - but I rolled under a life-boat just in time. The ship was reported as sunk on German radio but, in fact, had moored outside Falmouth for three days, while the British government decided whether the passengers would be allowed to land or not.

The wait for that decision, and the fear of what might happen if the British government said 'no', have stayed with me all my life.

Fortunately they said 'yes', and we docked in Liverpool on May 19, 1940. Although I was saved - and recently celebrated both my 90th birthday and first great-grandchild - millions more were left to die in the Holocaust, as country after country refused to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

Monday's debate and result reflected the lack of empathy, urgency and humanity of the Government in the 1930s when my parents, grandparents and millions of others could and should have been saved.

Working with Citizens UK and Help Refugees, I have spoken to some of today's child refugees, and I plan to visit 'The Jungle' (such a horrible name) next month. Their stories are so similar to mine, even though we are now in 2016.

This week, Jewish people are celebrating Passover, where we recall the Biblical account of our exodus from Egypt - escaping persecution and slavery.

Despite the heroic efforts of people including Lord Dubs - who proposed the amendment and saw it passed in the House of Lords - and former Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, too many MPs had hardened hearts, just like Pharaoh in our Passover story.

Rabbi Harry Jacobi MBE is vice president of Liberal Judaism and one of Britain's most senior and respected rabbis. Harry fled the Nazis twice first from his native Germany to Holland, then from Holland to the UK