Kinder Sculpture

 

Aug 2003 Journal

previous article:Film knight
next article:Art Notes

An accusation

Haven of refuge

Between 1939 and 1945 a total of 225,000 German and Austrian Jews perished in the Holocaust, including 90 per cent of the parents of those who came to England under the Kindertransport scheme. We all think that we know why our families died in the Shoah. We thought that all countries had closed their borders to Jewish refugees in 1938/39.

Right? Wrong. There was one country to which no Jew was ever refused a visa - the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia). But the existence of this haven of refuge was kept a closely guarded secret by the very people who had been charged by the British Colonial Secretary to facilitate mass immigration of Central European Jews to Northern Rhodesia from mid-1938 to the outbreak of the Second World War: the Anglo-Jewish leadership.

The British Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, was the instigator of the scheme. The British Government, including the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was in favour and tried its very best to facilitate its implementation. MacDonald was friendly with the Anglo-Jewish leadership and persuaded Lionel de Rothschild, Lord Bearstead and others to form a Planning Committee. However, this body, for reasons of its own, refused to take the urgent steps necessary to implement the scheme.

In 1989 the Zambian Jewish Community commissioned Frank Shapiro to research and write the history of the Jews of Northern Rhodesia. Among the papers he examined were references to the immigration of European Jews in the 1930s. Shapiro's historical quest led him to the Public Record Office in London (now the National Archives at Kew) and to hitherto classified government files, sealed for over 50 years.

This mosaic of evidence confirms that a substantial number of Jewish refugees could have been saved and allowed to settle in Northern Rhodesia. Mr Shapiro presented his findings in 2002 in his book Haven in Africa (published by Gefen in Israel and New York), in which he described all the settlement schemes which were examined and rejected.

'A closely guarded secret'

Experts considered for mass settlement 13 schemes, some of which were eminently suitable, with huge, fertile areas of arable land and plenty of water resources, and almost empty of any population, white or black. The Anglo-Jewish leadership even sent out a Commission to Africa to examine the possibilities. But the Planning Committee procrastinated and did precisely nothing. Only 250 individual Jews managed to reach Northern Rhodesia. Everyone was admitted, some even without a visa, and all the time the availability of visas for Northern Rhodesia was kept a closely guarded secret. Not one letter, not one telegram was sent to German and Austrian Jewish escape committees. If the facts had become known, thousands would have besieged the British embassies for visas to Northern Rhodesia, especially after Kristallnacht, when people were desperate to go anywhere to escape the Nazis.

So why did the Jewish Planning Committee keep the Northern Rhodesian.scheme a secret? Frank Shapiro explains it this way: 'While they were more than conscious of their obligations to their European coreligionists, they were also determined to protect their own positions in British society. For the Anglo-Jewish leadership during the Nazi crisis the overriding priority was to defend their status as loyal British subjects and, at the same time, retain their stature in the Jewish Community and not feel threatened by any antisemitic claim of dual loyalty.'

I lived in England for 55 years and know from personal experience that this typical Anglo-Jewish leadership view, while prevalent, was also wrong. I always found that British people had a sense of fairness and admired those who were unafraid and stood up for Jewish rights.

The fact remains that the Planning Committee kept the matter a total secret and even managed to convince the British Government to retain the file in secret archives. Even after the war was over, the people concerned did not reveal what they knew.

The question has to be asked: why? Because the Anglo-Jewish leadership was ashamed of its disgraceful conduct and naturally did not want it to become known that they had failed to save the endangered German and Austrian Jews, including my mother and father, who perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Theirs was one of the most disgraceful incidents of failure to save fellow Jews, for which they deserve to be condemned.

Now in my 81st year, living with my memories of these terrible days, I will never forget and never forgive.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the AJR - Ed.
Bill Oakfield

previous article:Film knight
next article:Art Notes