‘I am what circumstances have made me’, reflected Lord Alfred (known as Alf) Dubs. Born in Prague on 5 December 1932, to a secular Jewish father, Hubert, involved in the cotton export business, and a gentile mother, Bedriska, a qualified dietician, Dubs’ life was soon overshadowed by Nazi Germany’s occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. His ‘not political’ father quickly fled Czechoslovakia. Dubs recalled being a ‘bewildered and confused’ six-year-old, tearing pictures of President Edvard Benes from schoolbooks and replacing them with those of Hitler. Later, he was ‘so apprehensive’ on the Kindertransport train, that he did not eat the sausage his mother had provided for the journey to Britain in June/July 1939. Dubs briefly joined his father in a Belsize Park (north London) bed-sit, before proceeding to a small English school. His mother was initially refused permission to leave Czechoslovakia and thrown down the stairs by the Nazis, but fortunately not seriously hurt and was followed by her passport; she reached London on 31 August 1939 – one day before the Czech border was closed and Germany attacked Poland, and just prior to Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 3 September.
Hubert Dubs had been helped by an association in Cookstown, Northern Ireland, and duly moved there, but died a few months later. In Cookstown, young Dubs had finally been allowed to play with guns – hitherto forbidden by Hubert who had fought in the Austrian army during WWI, and remembered the horror of it. There were many questions his son ‘could never ask.’ Poor, widowed and in a foreign country, Bedriska found life hard. She moved to Manchester, where she had friends, scrubbed floors and obtained a job with British Restaurants which established restaurants in schools or community centres with cooking facilities, to prepare economic meals for people whose homes had been bombed or were otherwise in need. Alf Dubs was sent to Czechoslovak State Boarding Schools opened by the Czechoslovak Government in exile in Britain, first to Maesfen Hall in Malpas, Cheshire, then to Abernant, in Wales. More senior pupils like Milena Fleischmann ‘were like gods’ to him, and he has attended reunions in Abernant. Former pupil and subsequent dissident Pavel Seifter hosted a very special reunion as Czechoslovak Ambassador to London (1997‒2003); he joked with Dubs that having only a PhD made him the least qualified window cleaner during the Communist era! Despite time and distance, a close bond still exists; the predominantly Jewish pupils were survivors, and conscious of the fact.
These were formative years for Alf Dubs, and influenced his future life and work. By the age of thirteen, he had ‘learnt what had happened, and what the Nazis had done.’ While some refugees longed to be repatriated in 1945, Czechoslovakia’s inter-war so-called ‘golden age’ did not resonate with him; he ‘felt that he had to move on.’ His policy was that ‘if evil men could do such terrible things, they could be countered by others doing something good’; it became a ‘passionate interest.’ ‘Firmly Labour’ (Party), he graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science; his ambition then was to be a local councillor, and he gained experience working in local government health services.
Believing, however, that if people have the desire and ability to be an MP they should become one, he later stood for Parliament. Ironically, his opponent in 1970 was the Conservative Christopher Tugendhat – also of partly Jewish refugee origins, but ‘the press did not pick it up!’ Dubs was ‘amazed’ to be elected MP for Battersea South in 1979, winning by 300 votes, and in the wake of Enoch Powell’s ‘river of blood’ and opposition to mass migration from Commonwealth countries, was committed to racial equality and equal opportunities. Although she finally succeeded, Dubs was mindful that his own mother, a ‘bloody foreigner’, was long denied a suitable senior position as a dietician planning school meals post-war, and drew on his family circumstances. In his second term as MP for Battersea (1983-1987), Dubs felt frustrated but as a ‘frontbencher’ ‘made some difference’ regarding immigration and race relations. This was ‘very gratifying’; he had a big immigration and asylum case load, and was ‘happy to be helping.’ ‘In the past, MPs had more power…they could stop removals from Britain.’ Heading the Refugee Council (1988-1995) however, was ‘the hardest job in my life’, dealing with the Bosnia crisis, government policy and programmes, but it was ‘satisfying’ too, Dubs stated, and he was ‘very committed and delighted to do it.’ He was also a Trustee of the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), and Chair of Liberty for some years, dealing with a whole range of other issues. Dubs’ distinguished career has been long and varied, by no means confined to refugees or the Parliamentary Human Rights (Joint Committee). As Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), his efforts with Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Northern Ireland peace process were both significant and memorable for Dubs, linking with his early stay in Cookstown. He has served on numerous committees, and remains driven to improve the lives of others, whether via Parliament or charities. Among other issues, he is currently dealing with unemployment and ‘back to work’ problems, and campaigning to ban cluster bombs. Particularly close to his heart is the All Party Parliamentary Group on Multiple Sclerosis, promoting the interests of people suffering from MS and general disabilities, and supporting their carers: his son has MS. For his services, Lord Dubs was created a peer in 1994. Reviewing his many achievements, he readily acknowledged that Britain had given him ‘enormous opportunities’, that he had been ‘incredibly lucky’ and benefitted from opportunities that he had ‘not expected as a refugee child.’ He should like to feel that he had contributed to public life and helped his constituents, informed government policies, and that by serving on Select Committees he had achieved some positive results. Dubs’ mother had thought his entry into Parliament ‘mind-blowingly wonderful’; he wished that she could have seen more of his work.
At the time of the AJR Refugee Voices interview on 7 March 2016, world refugee figures had soared to a level unprecedented since WWII, and Dubs’ personal past was informing an issue in the House of Lords ‘quite a lot.’ ‘Conscious of the Kindertransport and the wonderful opportunities’ gained, he ‘wanted others to benefit, therefore would campaign and battle for victims of terrible situations…Britain was foremost regarding the Kindertransport in WWII – it did not slam its doors on others.’
Despite the Kindertransport’s enduring impact on him, Dubs did not know who had organized it until Esther Rantzen’s ‘That’s Life!’ 1988 television programme about Nicholas Winton and his ‘Winton children.’ ‘Extraordinary.’ ‘Milena Grenfell-Baines was a star figure’, ‘it was ‘a big international day’, Dubs recounted. He grew close to Winton, who was ‘a great companion – delightful to be with and very engaging.’ He ‘loved politics’; he too had been a Labour candidate (for Maidenhead in 1953/4), and knew ‘the good old Left’ like Aneurin Bevan. At Winton’s 106 and last birthday party in 2015, Dubs sensed that Winton ‘was fading’; attending it ‘was a way of saying goodbye.’ He was extremely grateful to Winton, and glad that the Czech government had honoured him.
A plaque unveiled on 14 June 1999 by Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, bears witness to the gratitude of former Kindertransport children to Britain’s Parliament. Dubs was not involved in the project, but participated in events during the international 60th Anniversary Reunion. He ‘mainly feels British, but when with refugees reverts to his Prague identity.’ ‘The past should never, never be forgotten’ he maintained, survivors are ‘very special people.’
Anschluss, Kindertransport, refugees; Abernant, Cookstown, Maesfen Hall, Prague. Edvard Benes, Aneurin Bevan, Betty Boothroyd, Bedriska and Hubert Dubs, Milena Fleischmann (Grenfell-Baines), Esther Rantzen, Pavel Seifter, Christopher Tugendhat, Nicholas Winton.
But I think it’s so important we do remember the past. This must never, never, never be forgotten. But you know, I can’t live it- I can’t live it. I also felt, from the age of eleven or twelve, that I had to move forward.
But she [his mother] found it [making a living] very difficult. And then, and then I mean she had – then, after the war British Restaurants became - were transformed into School Meal Service. And she worked there. And eventually, she got a job in Blackburn as a Number Two organising it. And the Number One left, and my mum acted up, and applied for the job and was turned down. They didn’t fill the post; she acted up again. They advertised again; she applied for the job again, and she was turned down. And she heard one of the interviewers say, “We’re not giving a job to that bloody foreigner!” So she- I know, I remember her being incredibly upset.
The only other thing about him [his father] is this, that he fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army, in, in the First World War. And he was injured and gassed and all sorts of things. In fact, in 1914 he was opposite the British when they stopped fighting. And I remember him saying he swapped cigars with a British officer. So that’s by the way; it amuses people in England. I find that, I find…[half-laughs]. But, but… when I was a child, I was never allowed to have guns or tanks or rifles. I was not allowed to have anything to shoot with. At all. I could have tractors, and he just wouldn’t allow it. And then when the war started, as soon as the war started, he came in one day and gave me a box of tin soldiers. Which to me was a real sign of, you know, defeat. You know, in a way that… he decided there’s no point in my not having weapons of – weapons of war, because there was a war anyway.
I think, when I was about …twelve or thirteen I began to – or even before that – I began - perhaps earlier - I began to realise what had happened, and learn about what had happened, with the Nazis and so on. Fully. Perhaps I was even younger than that. And I decided that if evil men in politics one can do such dreadful things, maybe in politics one can also do other things for the better. Don’t leave, don’t leave politics only to evil men. So I was passionately interested in politics in my teens, when most of my contemporaries, you know, didn’t give it a thought. And I think that – that passionate interest stayed with me.
I mean, for example, at the moment we’re dealing with the Immigration Bill. And I have an Amendment down, that the government should allow 3,000 unaccompanied children into Britain. Unaccompanied children who are somewhere in Europe, in Calais, or wherever it is. And that’s got quite a lot of attention. I think partly ‘cause, although I don’t like using my own past as a political argument, I have used it a bit this time. Or other people have used it. Cause- And if I say, “Look, I came to Britain with a Kindertransport, on a Kindertransport, and I was given these opportunities, by this country, wonderful opportunities by Britain. And I would like others to have the same opportunities.” I just feel you know that is something I can do...I do like to say that Britain was the only country that took Kindertransport children in Europe. None of the other countries did, so, at least not to the extent that Nicholas Winton managed to persuade the British Government. So I use that as an argument saying Britain was foremost in Europe in dealing with this. Probably the only country. And… we shouldn’t be slamming, slamming the door on others. Doesn’t mean that you can open the door to anybody. But I think unaccompanied children would be a particular priority I’d have thought.