May 2005 Journal

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Uncomfortable reading (review)

by Gertrude Dubrovsky
Vallentine Mitchell, 2004, 240pp.

This illuminating study of the experience of six young refugee cousins from Leipzig who survived the Holocaust also focuses attention on the humanitarian actions of the often-overlooked rescuers in Britain who took on responsibility for these and other children.

On the basis of a brief biographical background of the Schmulewitz family in Leipzig, Dubrovsky describes how the children's Uncle Leo registered them for the Kindertransport and the anguish of their parents, who made the heartbreaking decision to send their children abroad. She then traces their often traumatic journeys across Europe, their arrival in a foreign country, and their evacuation to Cambridge at the onset of the Second World War.

Cambridge was one of many places in Britain which set up a local refugee committee following Kristallnacht. Margareta (Greta) Burkill, the driving force behind the Cambridge Children's Refugee Committee (CCRC), recalled her reaction to the events of Kristallnacht: 'The whole of Britain was aghast - the horror of it all went like an electric current through every town and village. The feeling was "we must save the children."'

The CCRC was set up almost immediately, and ultimately took on responsibility for around 800 children - including the cousins from Leipzig - besides dealing with some 1,200 other cases. Greta Burkill, undaunted by the bureaucratic machinery, devoted her time, energy and money to the welfare of these children. But her work, and that of the Committee, was not universally welcomed in Jewish circles. Drawing on Burkill's unpublished memoirs, Dubrovsky reminds us that the Anglo-Jewish community responded very negatively to calls to give hospitality to refugee children. That many non-Jews welcomed Jewish refugee children into their homes is a testimony to their sense of moral responsibility, but, as Dubrovsky points out, the result was that many children were unable to preserve their Judaism. Among orthodox Jews, as represented by Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, the head of Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz's Religious Emergency Council, and Hertz himself (Schonfeld's father-in-law), this was too high a price to pay: their priority was to ensure the spiritual growth of the Kinder. This led to a tense relationship between the various parties.

The most moving part of the book is near the end. There are letters dating from December 1938 - full of anguish, longing and love - to one of the cousins by her family. She survived, but they did not. An addendum to this very human story is the reminder that while the British government provided entry visas for 10,000 children, thus saving their lives, its generosity did not extend to the parents, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.
Susan Cohen

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