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Dec 2007 Journal

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Bending the rules: The unsung hero Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld

Reading the review by Andrew Levy of Chanan Tomlin’s book on Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld (September) brought back many memories. I was on his first postwar transport from Poland. To corroborate what Andrew Levy had to say about this formidable rabbi’s disregard for the ‘rules of the game’, may I bring up a typical example?

I came from a small town in Poland with a long, unpronounceable name. It was March 1946 when word reached us that a ‘nice English rabbi’ was on a rescue mission to Poland to take orphans out of the country. His car was actually fired on in the nearby Kielce area so he was forced to cut his journey short and return to Warsaw. As it was too dangerous for him to travel to the provinces, where some of the children were to be found, word spread that interested children should proceed to Warsaw without delay.

On arriving at the community centre there, I was met by an imposing, tall gentleman with piercing blue eyes and a red Van Dyke beard. The rabbi looked resplendent in British army uniform, with a badge of the Tablets of the Law on his officer’s cap. Although he wasn’t in the army, he had no doubt donned the uniform to protect him from the Poles. He spoke no Polish and I spoke no English, but we managed to communicate in a mixture of German and Yiddish. Regrettably, he informed me, the transport was full to capacity. I explained that I didn’t want to go to England: we’d been pushed around long enough and I only wanted to go to Palestine, to join my two older brothers already there, to fight as soon as I was old enough to hold a gun. I was 14.

The rabbi promised to help me, but said I must first agree to go with him to England, from where I would have a better chance of getting to Palestine, which was controlled by the British. He said this, it transpired, to lure me away from Poland, where my life was in danger. There had been a pogrom in my small town, when five survivors out of the pitiful remnant had been brutally murdered, as well as in many other places. He told me there might be a way for me to join the transport after all as one of the boys on the list was backing down, refusing to be separated from his ailing mother. I could take his place but I would have to take on his identity too, and I might not be able to revert to my real name for some time to come.

I let the good rabbi persuade me and I assured him he could count on me – I had all the right credentials, having survived the war by passing for a Christian boy, with an assumed name and a fake baptismal certificate. This would present no problem for me: it would mean just another alias, and this time without the wartime danger, I thought. As this was in the days of identity cards and having to report regularly to the police, it was no trivial matter. Technically, I might have entered the country illegally and I risked being sent back to where I came from.

Adolf Bader, the boy whose identity I adopted, was sponsored by a family named Swimer in London and, had I not taken his place, it would have been a wasted opportunity. The admirable rabbi didn’t always adhere to convention and it was characteristic of the man, who would not hesitate to bend the rules, not to miss an opportunity to rescue another child or to save a child who might have otherwise been lost to Judaism. We were all supposed to be below the age of 15, but there was even a pregnant young woman among us!

We were settled in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only house of worship left standing in Warsaw as it had been used as stables by the Germans. From Warsaw we flew in a Russian bomber to Danzig, sitting on the floor, packed tightly in the empty fuselage, and then we went by truck to Gdynia on the Baltic coast, where a Swedish ship was waiting for us. How Rabbi Schonfeld managed to arrange all this, at a time when Europe was still in turmoil, escapes me.

It was a Friday night when we walked up the gangplank and boarded the freighter Ragne at Gdynia. We were all excited at the prospect of turning our back on that unhappy country. Soon after embarkation, Rabbi Schonfeld assembled all the Kinder in the dining hall to welcome us on board and deliver a few words in honour of the Shabbat bride. He picked out two of the older girls and invited them to light the candles. It was a touching scene that none of us had experienced since our mothers had performed it in our own homes so very long ago. Some of the younger children couldn’t even remember it, having recently emerged from convents, so the significance was entirely lost on them. That night the Ragne weighed anchor and, with a blast of the foghorn, pulled away from the shore, where we were clearly not wanted, heading for our adoptive country, with our very own Scarlet Pimpernel on board in the guise of a rabbi.

The rabbi lost no time in introducing us to good English manners - how to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘I beg your pardon’ - and, being a great Anglophile, he tried to turn us into instant ‘little Englanders’ by teaching us ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘God Save the King’ and so on. None of us understood the significance behind the stirring words that the rabbi wrote phonetically on a blackboard and we repeated them parrot-fashion. He was the only one on board to look after some 125 adolescents angry with the world, in particular the boys. There was even a plot brewing to force the crew to change course and head for Palestine! Only the rabbi would command our respect, both during and after the voyage. We worshipped him. Some of the older girls were only too happy to assist him in taking care of the very young, some of whom were sick and needed attention. During the nine-day voyage many of the teenage girls fell head-over-heels for the handsome rabbi.

On the morning of Sunday 29 March 1946 our boat tied up next to Tower Bridge and we were taken in coaches to a mansion in Woodberry Down, near Manor House. This large building had been fitted out to accommodate all of us, with nurses in crisp white uniforms lined up outside waiting to take care of us. Some of the children spent weeks there until foster homes could be arranged for them, to make room for future transports. I fondly recall that on Rabbi Schonfeld’s visits to the hostel he would often greet his Kinder with ‘Have you had your Taschengeld this week?’and produce a half-crown out of his pocket.

I have been wanting to say this for a long time: during my time at the Woodberry Down hostel, the Anglo-Jewish community at large showed little interest in us. I waited patiently for an invitation to experience again a Shabbat dinner in a family environment, but it never came. Furthermore, when we got older, as ‘aliens’ we were not considered suitable escorts for their daughters either.

In due course, I managed to locate an uncle, who had come here from Halberstadt, and I went to stay with him in Leeds. Some readers may wonder how I fared as a schoolboy in Yorkshire with a name like Adolf so soon after the war. Well, I was often greeted with two fingers of the one hand pressed against the upper lip and with the other hand raised in a Hitler salute. But all this was more than offset by the illustrious surname Bader. The name was then on everyone’s lips and a mere hint of ‘Uncle Douglas’ was sufficient to make the boys turn green with envy - and baffle them at the same time: how come, unlike my ‘uncle’, I had an accent!

I saw Rabbi Schonfeld for the last time in 1982 at a gathering to celebrate his seventieth birthday at Raleigh Close Synagogue in London. He was already frail, having suffered a stroke. This largely unsung hero, who rescued thousands, died two years later, at the age of 72. Those who had the privilege of knowing this larger-than life figure, in particular those he saved and helped, will cherish his memory with deep affection. As far as his detractors at the time are concerned, all I can say is that compared with him they were pygmies – while they debated and kvetched he acted!

Rubin Katz

previous article:A small cemetery in Bohemia
next article:Theatre of despair (theatre review)