Oct 2010 Journal

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Wilfrid Israel and the AJR

In June 1943, a circular from the AJR, then barely two years old, informed members of the death of one of the Association’s closest friends, who had since 1933 worked devotedly for the Jews of Germany: ‘We have suffered a great loss when the clipper [airliner] on which our friend Wilfrid Israel was returning from Lisbon was shot down over the Atlantic.’ Even amidst the daily toll of lives taken by the war, Israel’s courage and selflessness gave his death a special resonance for the Jewish refugees: ‘Wilfrid Israel died on a mission connected with the rescue of Jews from the Continent of Europe, a mission which he had undertaken unhesitatingly and fearless of personal danger and sacrifice. His memory will be kept alive amongst us.’

Wilfrid (Wilfried) Israel was born on 11 July 1899 into a Berlin Jewish family that owned the famous department store N. Israel. Berthold Israel, his father, had married Amy Solomon, granddaughter of Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi of Britain, and Wilfrid was born in London. He grew up in Germany, but remained deeply conscious of his dual British and German-Jewish heritages. He retained something of the fastidiousness and aloofness that characterised both the British and the German-Jewish upper-middle classes, as can be seen from his appearance in Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin (from which the film Cabaret derives) as the fictional character Bernhard Landauer.

Israel was also an energetic philanthropist, supporting humanitarian causes including the Jüdische Waisenhilfe (Jewish Orphans’ Relief), which was involved with the children’s village of Ben Shemen in Palestine. After 1933, this led to his efforts to secure the transfer of Jewish children to Palestine; working with Lola Hahn-Warburg and others under the aegis of the Berlin-based Children and Youth Aliyah, he was instrumental in the immigration of an estimated 10,000 children before the outbreak of war.

Israel took an active role in the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, the body set up to represent German Jewry after the Nazi takeover of power. In particular, he played a leading part in the Hilfsverein der Juden in Deutschland, which, working under the Reichsvertretung, was responsible for assisting the emigration of German Jews to countries other than Palestine. Having dual British and German nationality gave him a measure of security, and he was almost unique in the contacts he enjoyed with influential figures in both Britain and Germany working for the rescue of Jews. In this capacity, his services to German Jewry were invaluable.

His courage emerges vividly from an account by the British aristocrat Sir Michael Bruce, who met Israel and Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck when he went to Germany on a secret mission in November 1938 at the request of Anglo-Jewish leaders, to report on the regime’s anti-Jewish measures. In his autobiography, Tramp Royal (1955), Sir Michael recounts how, as the Crystal Night pogrom raged, he found a friend who had places on his private plane for Baeck and Israel and begged them to leave for safety: ‘Wilfrid said quietly: “I will go when Dr. Baeck goes.” Dr. Baeck looked at him and smiled, and said: “I will go when I am the last Jew alive in Germany”.’ Bruce recorded admiringly: ‘The world is a better place for having given birth to two such gallant men. I am proud and honoured to have worked for a brief space at their sides.’

On 9 November 1938, the department store N. Israel was attacked and wrecked by Nazi thugs. According to an account in AJR Information of November 1958 by Werner M. Behr, Wilfrid ensured that the store’s Jewish employees were able to leave unharmed, then ‘went around and calmed the remaining employees’. His next concern was those Jewish employees and their relatives who had been arrested individually and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Fearless in face of the Nazis, Israel used his connections to obtain their release. The Nazi authorities were willing to free Jewish prisoners who were ready to emigrate immediately. Discovering that the camp commandant was eager to take cash in return for the release of such men, Israel saw to it that the requisite sums reached the Nazi, who also did his Christmas shopping at the department store (for free). Interestingly, a list of Jewish employees at N. Israel includes the name ‘Behr, Werner’.

In May 1939, Israel left for Britain, where he continued to act as a contact between the British authorities, the relief organisations set up by Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish refugees. In 1940 he assisted refugees who had been interned. Then, in March 1943, he flew to Lisbon on a mission for the Jewish Agency for Palestine, to arrange the departure to Palestine of Jewish refugees who had reached Spain and Portugal but were trapped there; behind this lay the hope that if these Jews left, it might be possible for Jews from Nazi-occupied territories to be admitted in their place.

The first part of Israel’s mission was crowned with success: on 1 February 1944, the Portuguese liner Nyassa arrived in Haifa with some 750 Jewish refugees from Portugal aboard, the largest group of refugees to reach Palestine directly from Europe in wartime. But on 1 June 1943, BOAC Flight 777 from Lisbon to London was shot down by the Luftwaffe with the loss of all those aboard, including Wilfrid Israel (and the actor Leslie Howard). In his memory, a Wilfrid Israel Hostel was built in the village of Ben Shemen; the German-Jewish settlement of Kibbutz Hazorea was bequeathed his collection of Asian art, now housed in the Wilfrid Israel Museum.

Anthony Grenville

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