Jun 2014 Journal

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Otto Schiff: In defence

On 7 February 2014, the Jewish Chronicle published an article by Geoffrey Alderman which contained a gratuitous attack on Otto M. Schiff, who was, as the numerous heartfelt tributes to him that appeared over the years in AJR Information attest, one of the great champions of the Jewish refugees from Hitler. Schiff was in charge of the Jewish Refugees Committee (JRC, later German Jewish Aid Committee) that was responsible from 1933 for making the organisational arrangements to bring Jews out of Germany and Austria to Britain, for supporting them financially once here, and for helping them to find accommodation and employment. AJR Chairman Andrew Kaufman wrote in the Jewish Chronicle a measured and dignified rebuttal of Alderman’s polemic.
In honour of Schiff’s achievements, the first old-age home built in London to house Jewish refugees, at 14 Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead, was named Otto Schiff House. The home was jointly administered by the AJR and the Central British Fund (CBF, now World Jewish Relief), which had been founded as the Central British Fund for German Jewry in 1933 to raise the funds that financed the JRC’s work on behalf of the endangered Jews of Germany. The Otto Schiff Housing Association, a charity formed in 1984, developed out of the CBF and used its funds to provide accommodation and welfare for elderly Jewish refugees. The AJR is currently considering having a plaque in Schiff’s memory put up.
The great majority of the approximately 60,000 Jews from Germany and Austria who fled to Britain after 1933 received some form of assistance from the JRC, if only by registering with it at its seat in Woburn House and then, from early 1939, in Bloomsbury House. The JRC exercised oversight over the Jewish refugee committees set up in towns and cities across Britain. It was to the JRC that elderly refugees, unemployed and near-destitute, looked for assistance, as did young women on domestic permits seeking positions in British households, or refugee families with small children and little income. The existence of a co-ordinating committee like the JRC was arguably essential to the entire process of the emigration of Jews from the Reich to Britain, given the reluctance of the British government to be drawn into the politically fraught areas of the immigration of Jews from Germany and the expenditure of public funds on their subsistence and maintenance.
Otto Schiff was born in 1875 in Frankfurt am Main, into a well-known banking family. He emigrated to Britain, where he became a partner in the merchant banking firm Bourke, Schiff & Co. Schiff had close links with both German and British Jewry, was well connected to the wealthy and influential élite that presided over Anglo-Jewish affairs, and had the credentials to gain the trust of the British establishment. He lived in some style in Mayfair, dying in 1952. Schiff had first become involved in work on behalf of Jewish refugees during the First World War, when the invasion of Belgium by Germany in 1914 caused large numbers of Belgians, including Jews, to flee to Britain. For this he was awarded the OBE. He became well known to the Home Office and other government departments, where his reputation was such that his recommendation alone weighed heavily in decisions relating to ‘aliens’.
Since 1922, Schiff had been President of the Jews’ Temporary Shelter (JTS), at 63 Mansell Street, in London’s East End, with which his younger brother Ernst was also associated. The work of the JTS in assisting the Jewish refugees from Nazism was a natural extension of its earlier efforts to provide short-term accommodation for Jews arriving in the East End from Europe and for ensuring that Jews in transit through the United Kingdom complied with the government’s immigration controls. Thanks to these contacts with the Home Office, Schiff was to emerge as the key player in the charitable endeavours on behalf of the Jewish refugees who began to arrive in Britain from Hitler’s Germany in 1933. In March 1933, he was instrumental in the establishment of the JRC; that body was funded by the CBF, which was set up shortly afterwards and provided moneys for a range of activities on behalf of the refugees in the fields of relief, retraining, employment and re-emigration.
Schiff’s committee made the arrangements that enabled many thousands of Jews to leave Germany and Austria and to emigrate to Britain in as orderly a manner as possible under the circumstances, and it underpinned much of the support infrastructure set up to maintain them in Britain. For this, he was awarded the CBE in 1939. He also earned the undying gratitude of the Jewish refugees from Nazism. The obituary by Werner Rosenstock that appeared in AJR Information of December 1952 stated: ‘By the death of Mr. Otto M. Schiff, C.B.E., the Jews from Germany and Austria in this country lose one of their most devoted and faithful friends. The position he held in the field of work for refugees was unique.’ Rosenstock emphasised that Schiff was personally involved in the rescue of numerous Jews from the Reich and that he took a direct interest in the provision of assistance to them in Britain: ‘Enjoying the unreserved confidence of the responsible Government quarters, his intervention resulted in the admission of innumerable immigrants whose case he made his own. With the same devotion he worked for many years for their well-being after they had come to this country.’
Geoffrey Alderman’s attack on Schiff formed part of a longer polemic directed against the Commission on the Holocaust announced by David Cameron in September 2013. The principal target of Alderman’s wrath was the membership of the Commission, which he dismissed as ‘a roll-call of establishment names’ that omitted ‘the wealth of expertise that Anglo-Jewry has to offer on Holocaust education’. (Which particular expert can he have had in mind, one wonders?) Mocking the very idea of a Holocaust memorial in Britain, Alderman derisively invoked the idea of erecting a memorial to those Jews who were denied entry to Britain and died at the hands of the Nazis. He then launched into an intemperate attack on Otto Schiff: ‘We might perhaps erect a plaque denouncing the superhuman efforts of the banker Otto Schiff, who, as head of the German Jewish Aid Committee, saw to it that as few Jews as possible were given refuge in Great Britain, and that these few were chosen with a view to their readiness to assimilate easily into British society.’
As shown above, the contention that Schiff made ‘superhuman efforts’ to keep Jews from the Reich out of Britain is pure baloney. Between Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933 and the outbreak of war in September 1939, Britain admitted over 60,000 refugees, mostly Jews, from territories under Nazi control. In relation to its size and absorptive capacity, that number compares favourably with the record of any other country, except for Palestine. Britain was alone in taking some 10,000 children on Kindertransports, as well as some 4,500 Jewish men released from concentration camps and admitted as ‘transmigrants’, and many thousands of women on domestic service permits. Undeniably, Britain could have taken more refugees: the parents of Kindertransport children who failed to secure entry visas before September 1939, for example, or the Jewish children from Vichy France whose proposed admission in 1942 was delayed until it was too late. But to lay those shortcomings at Schiff’s door is historically wholly unfounded.
Alderman’s claim that Schiff was in a position to ensure that only ‘assimilable’ Jews were given refuge in Britain is likewise untenable. As the AJR’s Refugee Voices collection of filmed interviews shows, the refugees from Nazism included a proportion of orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews who had no intention of abandoning their separate and distinct identity. It is true that many of the Jews who escaped to Britain were predisposed to integrate into British society; they often had relatives or contacts here, were familiar with Britain from earlier visits, or, like Sigmund Freud, chose to come here because they liked and admired the country. Schiff could not have dictated the choices of the many thousands of Jewish refugees who actively opted to come to Britain (though many others would have come to any country willing to take them). The lists of children to be rescued on Kindertransports were drawn up by the Jewish communal organisations in Berlin and Vienna, not by the JRC in London, while Schiff can have exercised little influence on the process whereby young Jewish women found positions as domestic servants in British households or as trainee nurses in British hospitals. To argue otherwise merely demonstrates ignorance.
British Jews, whose families were mostly not directly affected by the Holocaust, may feel differently about semi-humorous tirades that exploit Holocaust-related issues for polemical purposes than do the survivors of Nazi persecution and their descendants. But caution - not to mention common courtesy - should surely be the watchword in this area. Otherwise, such exercises in point-scoring can all too easily be misconstrued as grandstanding on the graves of Hitler’s victims.

Anthony Grenville

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