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Aug 2012 Journal

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DVD (review)

A selfless and heroic man
THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN HERO: WILFRID ISRAEL, THE SAVIOR FROM BERLIN
directed by Yonatan Nir
copies (in English, German or Hebrew) £12, including postage, obtainable from Ophir Baer at ophirb@amdocs.com or from Ruth Barnett at rutheclb@googlemail.com

I recently encountered the young Israeli filmmaker Yonatan Nir, whose last film, Dolphin Boy, was aired on Channel 4 and won many international awards. He gave me a copy of the above DVD. Wilfrid Israel was totally unknown to me, which is extraordinary as he is credited with having provided the inspiration for the Kindertransports. A very wealthy Berlin Jew, he was nonetheless self-effacing and had the misfortune of flying from Lisbon to London in 1943 in an English plane, only to be shot down over the Bay of Biscay. Although the DVD, which is 30 minutes long and inspired by Naomi Shepherd’s biography Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador, almost certainly gives him more credit than he deserves – there were many other individuals and agencies involved in the creation of the Kindertransports, in Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain – his is certainly an astonishing story that deserves to be more widely known.

Wilfrid Israel had inherited his family’s vast department store in Berlin, employing some 2,000 people, including about 700 Jews. He was not by temperament a businessman: he was far more interested in art and in his twenties he made a world tour that included the Far East, during the course of which he acquired hundreds of sculptures and other artefacts. He donated this priceless collection to the Kibbutz Hazorea, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, which he had helped to found in 1936. Whilst the collection was not welcomed by all kibbutzniks at a time when they had more pressing matters on their minds, it was decided to build a museum for the collection, where hundreds of his acquisitions are now gloriously displayed.

Not a great deal of archival material about Wilfrid Israel has survived but, with the aid of photographs, a few documents, eyewitness interviews, and archival material relating to the rise of the Nazis, Yonatan Nir and his colleagues have created a fascinating picture of a man who was driven by his determination to save as many lives as possible. He saw the writing on the wall long before the great majority of German Jews and decided to use his great wealth for the rescue of as many people as possible. For example, he provided the finance for the creation of a children’s settlement in Palestine, helped hundreds of his employees to emigrate (paying them two years’ wages!), and not only inspired the Kindertransport movement but supported the operation financially.

He counted Albert Einstein, Martin Buber and Chaim Weitzmann among his friends, and a touching letter written by Einstein, praising Wilfrid Israel’s commitment to saving lives, features in the film. Apparently he also tried to alert Neville Chamberlain to the plight of German Jewry. He worked in London as a consultant to Chatham House, formerly known as the Royal Institute for International Affairs, and in 1943 he was sent by the Jewish Agency to Lisbon, where he managed to secure the safe passage of a number of Jewish refugees who were stranded there and who still speak reverently of him. A saviour indeed!

Yonatan Nir is well aware of the fact that the story needs to be retold in the context of what else was happening in Berlin, Amsterdam and London at the time and for this reason he has decided to make this DVD available only to individuals. Nir and his team are now in the early production stages of a full-length documentary about Wilfrid Israel, with the aim of telling his story more extensively. Nonetheless, this short DVD paints a compellingly vivid picture of a selfless and heroic man.

Leslie Baruch Brent

previous article:From living memory to cultural memory (review)
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