The year was 1958 when war-weary Britain first met the character that became the beloved Paddington Bear. In that very first book author Michael Bond (z”l) introduced children and adults to a lonely bear that had just arrived in Paddington Station, wearing a sign begging someone to “Please Look After This Bear.” The adventure begins when the Brown family adopts the bear they named “Paddington.”
Fifty-nine years and 35 million books later, Paddington Bear has become a favorite for children worldwide. Little known, however, is that author Michael Bond based the Paddington character on Jewish children who were sent to Britain during World War II. Paddington’s beginnings – standing on the train platform, suitcase in hand and sign hanging from his chest – were reminiscent of what author Bond saw when he was a child; the Jewish children who were sent from Nazi Germany to Britain on what came to be known as the “Kindertransport.”
In an article by journalist Yvette Alt Miller, Michael Bond described the impact these sad and lonely children had upon him when he was a youngster himself. “As a child, Bond watched a group of these children arrive at the train station in the town of Reading. Years later, he recalled the profound impact the sight made on him. “I remember their labels round their necks and then I remember going to the cinema and seeing on the newsreel that Hitler had moved into some new country and seeing footage of elderly people pushing prams with all their belongings in them. Refugees are the saddest sight…”
“In November 1938, Nazis and Nazi sympathizers destroyed hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned homes and businesses throughout Germany and Austria in a pogrom known as “Kristallnacht.” Following the persecution and destruction, Britain relaxed its restrictive rules barring Jewish refugees and allowed thousands of Jewish children to emigrate to safety in Britain.
About half of the Kindertransport children were looked after by British foster families throughout the war; others were housed in schools, hostels, farms and camps.
The Jewish children that Michael Bond witnessed decades ago changed the way he looked at the world. “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions.” In his own way, Paddington was a tribute to these brave children. “Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee,” Mr. Bond later explained.
Michael Bond passed away in 2017, well before the broadcast of the delightful video featuring Queen Elizabeth sharing tea and a sandwich with Paddington, a tribute to the bear’s iconic status in Britain and throughout the world.
Bond’s beloved creation, a small brave bear, lives on to inspire generations of readers, and also serves as a tribute to the children of the Kindertransport, who, like Paddington, left all they knew behind to travel to a safety in a new and strange land.