A quiet hero

Wilfrid Israel: the Kindertransport's greatest friend

On 1 June, 1943, eight German Junkers targeted a British plane, Flight 777.  They shot it down over the Bay of Biscay. The flight, a regular route from neutral Lisbon to Whitchurch, near Bristol, was fully booked with seventeen passengers. There were no survivors.

The tragedy made headlines because one of the doomed passengers was the celebrated actor, Leslie Howard, a vehement opponent of the Nazi regime. Howard had travelled home to England from Hollywood in 1939 in order to support his country. His most obvious course of action was to take roles in anti-nazi films (The First of the Few, Pimpernel Smith), but spying missions offer a more likely explanation for Howard's presence in the spy-rich city of Lisbon in the summer of 1943. Theories about why Flight 777 was shot down include the possibility that Howard's work as a spy had come to the attention of the Portugese-based Gestapo.  It has also been noted that Howard's companion on the plane (the actor's agent, Alfred Chenhalls) bore an uncanny resemblance to Winston Churchill.

The plane, a BOAC, may have been shot down for an entirely different reason. Also travelling on board, and returning from a series of negotiations to help with the relocation of German-Jewish children to England and to Palestine, was a remarkable man called Wilfrid Israel.

Described by Alfred Einstein as the noblest spirit he had ever known ('a man too good for this world'), Israel grew up in an unusually privileged world. Born in London to an English-born mother, Pauline Solomon, who refused to have any language other than English spoken at her (German) table, Wilfrid was the sole heir to one of Berlin's largest and most respected department stores, Nathan Israel. A most untypical business magnate, Israel's elegant home was filled with magnificent oriental antiquities, while his bookshelves displayed the wide-ranging interests of an exceptionally liberal and cultured reader.

Christopher Isherwood, who never quite penetrated the surface of Israel's impassive manner, portrayed him in his Berlin-based novels as Bernhard Landauer, a figure whose admirable qualities are negated by his extreme detachment. But Israel himself was very far from being detached. Holidaying with Isherwood, Spender and Auden in Germany in 1932, Israel persuaded his younger friends to study the literature that was being put out by the Nazi party.  Hitler had not yet taken power in 1932, but the magazines that Israel produced forced the young Englishmen to review their opinions of a party that they had - at that point - gravely under-rated. It was probably thanks to Israel's quiet influence that Auden, witnessing Hitler's apotheosis into the unique role of Chancellor-President in 1934, was able to recognise the atmosphere of terrified compliance in which that infamous 'free' election took place. ('Every house waves a baby's rattle...' Auden noted as he watched a frightened innkeeper rush to display a smiling face at his window. 'Every shop has pasted a notice: "We are all going to vote yes."')

The young Englishmen returned home. Wilfrid Israel made use of his privileged position as a dual national to fight for his fellow Jews in the country which they thought of as their homeland, and which had turned upon them with unimaginable ferocity. In 1936, speaking on behalf of the 600 Jews who worked for his family store, Israel visited the British Embassy in Berlin to plead for the urgent need for help in getting endangered people out of Germany.  Ambassador Nevile Henderson, rapturous in his admiration of all that Hitler was achieving to modernise the country in the year of the Berlin Olympics, was scarcely able to conceal his impatience with the request. Helping Jewish people was not, as he explained to an incredulous Israel, in Britain's interests during a time of massive unemployment and unrest. Nothing need be - or would be  - done.  

In 1938, Wilfrid Israel's family department store (the German equivalent of Harrods), was seized and placed under Aryan ownership. Its Jewish employees were singled out for immediate deportation to Sachsenhausen. Offered a plane flight to England, with a guarantee of his personal safety, Israel refused. Instead, after rescuing his former employees, he joined forces with the remarkable Frank Foley, the meek-faced British passport officer in Berlin whose official position masked his undercover work for MI6.  Working together with Foley's colleague Hubert Pollack, the three men began collaborating with a dedicated group of Quakers to organise an effective escape route for the most immediately endangered families. Pollack identified the families; Foley not only stamped their visas but frequently offered temporary sanctuary in his own home. Israel produced the considerable sums required for funding, while acting as an unobtrusive go-between to British contacts.

Today, Israel is best known for his next and most difficult endeavour: to help persuade a reluctant British government to legislate for 10,000 Jewish children to be brought to England. On 22 November, 1938, following some determined personal lobbying, Home Secretary Samuel Hoare finally oversaw the hearing and passing of the Bill from which the Kindertransport was born.  

From 1938 until 1943, the childless Wilfrid Israel (he never married) dedicated himself to the task of saving the Jewish children of Germany. At the time when Flight 777 was shot down, tragically ending his humanitarian activities, he had been engaged in negotations to relocate them to homes in Palestine.

Honoured in Israel today, eulogised by Albert Einstein for his almost saintlike qualities, Wilfrid Israel's name deserves to be at least as well remembered in England as the glamorous actor who died in June 1943 on that same fateful flight from Lisbon. 

   Added: Saturday 07 June 2014

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