When Nazi soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Lord Alf Dubs, aged only six at the time, was made to tear a picture of the Czech president Edvard Beneš from his school book. In place, they were ordered to paste a photo of Adolf Hitler.
The invasion of the Nazis led his father, who was Jewish, to flee to the UK; a few months later, young Alf followed. His mother, who had not yet been granted a visa, placed him on a kindertransport train with a “knapsack of food — which I forgot to open”. Two days later, wearing a dog tag for identification, he was met by his father at Liverpool Street Station, and eventually, his mother joined them in London. Tragically, his uncle and aunt, who told his father they would “take their chances”, were captured by the Gestapo in 1940, after which they were taken to Auschwitz, where they died.
Lord Alf Dubs has spent his career standing up for refugee rights, particularly child refugees, and at the end of November, the University of St Andrews granted him an honorary Doctor of Law (LLD) for his work, “It was such an honour for me to be given the degree. I thought the degree ceremony was very interesting. Some wonderful people”.
The now 90-year-old was appointed a Labour life peer in 1994, though he is perhaps best known for his 2016 campaign for the UK government to amend the Immigration Bill — the bill responding to the European migrant crisis. Eponymously named the “Dubs Amendment”, it committed the government to transferring unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from EU refugee camps. Though the House of Commons rejected the amendment, the House of Lords voted in favour of it. The government, though initially committing to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children, closed the programme after bringing only 350 to the UK.
In January 2020, Lord Dubs proposed a new amendment, requiring the UK to negotiate an agreement with the EU to ensure unaccompanied children continued to come to the UK to join a close relative. Again, this amendment was supported by the House of Lords, but rejected by the House of Commons.
A former member of parliament for Battersea South, Dubs’ trajectory from former child refugee to devoted politician is unsurprising. Though one of the youngest on board, his memories of the time are vivid: “I can remember my mom putting me on the train. She was refused permission to leave. She escaped later. We were on the platform. German soldiers with swastikas, lots of anxious parents, crying children. I didn't really understand what's happening.
“The train had hardwood seats, but we were children, we didn’t mind sleeping on them. We spent two days on them, all the way across Germany”.
He recalls arriving at the Dutch border and looking around for “windmills and wooden shoes”, which was all he knew about the Netherlands. In the darkness, however, this was not what he found. Instead, he was met with the cheers of the older children, something he didn’t understand — “I know now this was because we were out of reach of the Nazis”.
Lord Dubs recalled his earliest memories of the UK and seeing the Auxiliary Territorial Service — the women’s branch of the British army — for the first time: “My dad didn't know what to do with me. He took me to Hyde Park and I saw some women who I found out were the ATS. I was so impressed that Britain had women in the Army. It wasn't the propaganda the Nazis were trying to inculcate.”
He proceeded to discuss the process of adjusting to the UK saying, “I learned English. I spoke Czech and German so English was my third language. You learn English pretty quickly in a school playground because it's survival in the school. School playgrounds are tough places.”
These whirlwinds of early years in schooling were made more difficult by the fact that he switched between “too many” different schools. “I suppose adjusting each time to each school was tricky.”
These childhood experiences, he said, solidified his interest in politics: “I got very interested in politics when I was in my teens because I was trying to understand why what had happened had happened to me and I suppose the next step was to say, evil men can do such dreadful things. I thought, ‘Maybe politics can also be used for the better’. That was my assumption, and it's still my assumption.”
Lord Dubs finds the state of world politics today “depressing”.
“I get so depressed. I get depressed by British politics. I get depressed by what's been happening in American politics with Trump and the possibility Trump-style politics may come back. I'm utterly depressed about what's happening in Ukraine.
“I'm very unhappy about the policy towards refugees across Europe. It's not as bad in this country. It's bad in many countries. I'm worried about how the refugee issue is being exploited by the Far Right politically. With climate change and wars, the world has got to really face up to increased migration and refugees.”
Lord Dubs was rescued by Sir Nicholas Winton — a fact Lord Dubs did not know until 1988. Dubbed the “British Schindler'', Sir Winton was a humanitarian who saved 669 children at risk of being murdered by Nazi Germany. 50 years later, Sir Winton’s actions came to light after Esther Rantzen featured him on the BBC programme That’s Life, where he spoke about his actions during World War II.
He describes himself as “overwhelmed” upon their first meeting — “he’s the man who saved my life. If you take those 669 of us and their children and grandchildren, and so on, there are several thousand now that really owe their lives to him. Nicky was a modest guy, but when it came to light what he'd done, I got to know him well. We became good friends. We loved talking about politics. Wonderful man. Absolutely brilliant man.”
“What was phenomenal about him was that he decided, he stumbled on the problem in 1939 Prague. He was going skiing and somebody said he must come to Prague and see what's happening. And he said, ‘This is awful’. And a lot of people say things are awful, and they walk away and he didn't. He said, ‘I must do something.’
“That's the difference. He stayed and he did something. And that's what made him such a unique and special individual.”
These values seem to underpin Lord Dubs' view of how we can find hope in the future of politics: “We've got to keep speaking out. We've got to make sure the politicians know what's going on and press them. At a local community level, we've got to be welcoming of refugees. On a wider level, we've got to demand higher standards in public life. We've got to demand more integrity. We've got to say no to oppression. We've got to say no to the nasty regimes in the world, and we've got to make sure our standards are good enough to criticise those regimes.”
Photo: University of St Andrews