Wilfrid Berthold Jacob Israel (11 July 1899 – 1 June 1943) was an Anglo-German businessman and philanthropist, born into a wealthy Anglo-German Jewish family, who was active in the rescue of Jews from Nazi Germany, and who played a significant role in the Kindertransport.
Described as "gentle and courageous" and "intensely secretive", Wilfrid Israel avoided public office and shunned publicity, but had, according to his biographer Naomi Shepherd, an "almost hypnotic" ability to influence friends and colleagues. Martin Buber described him as "a man of great moral stature, dedicated to the service of others".
He was killed when his civilian passenger plane, en route from Lisbon to Bristol, was shot down by a Luftwaffe fighter patrol over the Bay of Biscay.
Wilfrid Israel attended the Mommsen-Gymnasium in Berlin-Charlottenburg and, for a few months in 1911, the Hochalpines Lyceum in Zuoz/Institut Engiadina (today Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz) in Switzerland.
Wilfrid Israel's family owned Israel's Department Store in Berlin, one of the largest and oldest stores in pre-World War II Germany. From early in the Nazi period, Wilfrid Israel used the business as a base from which to engineer the release of prisoners from German concentration camps: many in the Nazi leadership had accounts at the store and were never charged. Israel also financed the emigration of his Jewish employees (roughly a third of the staff) by paying them two years salary at the time they left Germany.
Philanthropy was only a small part of his rescue activities. Israel, though arrested and beaten and followed on his journeys abroad by the Gestapo, attempted, through influential contacts in Britain, to persuade the British to grant admission to "transit camps" in Britain, for Jews released from the German concentration camps; eight thousand young men were saved in this way. He also lobbied the Foreign Office directly for this purpose through visits to the British embassy (recorded in the British National Archives). Less officially, he formed a working partnership with Frank Foley, the British intelligence agent who was Passport Officer at the British consulate in Berlin, vouching for the characters of Jews in line to emigrate, while warning Foley of German agents who attempted to infiltrate.
Wilfrid Israel played a significant role in the Kindertransport, the rescue of ten thousand German Jewish children after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938.By this time, most of the Jewish leadership in Germany had been arrested, and Israel took over the running of the Hilfsverein, the German Jewish welfare and emigration organization established at the turn of the century. He (as well as others) urged to the British Anglo-Jewish leadership the rescue of German Jewish children, but without their parents, to England. The Anglo-Jewish leadership organized a deputation to the British prime minister. However, in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom, no Anglo-Jew was prepared to visit Germany, and the British government was initially dubious about the willingness of parents to part with their children. But a Quaker delegation, all of whose members had previously worked with Wilfrid Israel on relief matters (a link going back to the post World War I era) was sent out, and directed by Israel and, together with the German women's organisation, the Frauenbund, met with the parents and provided the British government with the necessary reassurance.
The Israel firm, the largest department store in Berlin, was first vandalised, then taken over by the Nazis, after a forced sale at a fraction of its worth, and Wilfrid Israel left Germany, but returned on the eve of war to organise the despatch of the last contingent of children, only leaving when warned that his arrest was imminent. An example of Wilfred Israel's foresight and compassion is that he arranged to give money and other support to many employees of the Israel firm to aid them to flee the country, many ultimately to America
Settling in London, he first worked with Bloomsbury House, the organization dealing with German Jewish refugees interned as 'enemy aliens'. In 1941, he became research assistant on Germany to a Royal Institution of International Affairs committee based at Balliol College, Oxford, now working for the Foreign Office, and at the same time advised the Refugee Department of the F.O. on movements of refugees throughout Europe. Among his papers from that period are those dealing with the question of German resistance to Hitler (which he dismissed, despite his friendship with Adam von Trott, one of its members).
Israel was a descendant on his English mother's side of the first Chief Rabbi of Britain. Contemporaries described him as an elegant, elusive figure most famously inspiring the character Bernhard Landauer in Christopher Isherwood's celebrated novel Goodbye to Berlin. He figures prominently in his own right in the autobiographical Christopher and His Kind, by the same author.
He was a friend of Albert Einstein, the philosopher Martin Buber, and Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of the state of Israel. In his post-World War 1 refugee work, he was in contact with the British Quakers. His Anglo Jewish connections included Herbert Samuel, previously Home Secretary in the British government and leader of the British Liberal Party. These contacts were valuable in his later rescue missions.
Brenda Bailey, daughter of a British Quaker mother and a German Quaker father, wrote: "After Kristallnacht, leadership was again shown by the Jewish businessman Wilfrid Israel, who contacted the Council for German Jewry in London, informing them that extraordinary measures must now be taken to save at least the children."
Wilfrid Israel is described in the British Foreign Office records, now in the National Archives in London, as 'chief representative of German Jewry'. His repeated appeals to the British government on behalf of German Jewry are documented there. There is also reference to these attempts in copies of his personal letters now deposited in a Wilfrid Israel archive in the Wiener Library London (the main source of Holocaust records in the UK, where the records of the Council for German Jewry are also to be found).
From 1937 Wilfrid Israel was active in the work of the Hilfsverein, the central German Jewish organization for emigration. It was to the Hilfsverein that all Jews lacking funds and contacts enabling them to emigrate (the vast majority by 1937) applied for help. By the time of Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 Wilfrid Israel was the director (Vorsitzender) of the Hilfsverein. By this time the family firm which he had headed had been requisitioned by the Nazis, and most of the other official male heads of German Jewish organizations had been arrested. It was as the representative of German Jewry that Wilfrid Israel had described the details of Nazi persecution to British diplomats and government officials visiting Berlin, and also proposals for emigration to Britain. A last desperate plea, following the Kristallnacht, was made in London (together with two other German Jewish leaders, Paul Eppstein and Otto Hirsch). This was rejected. However: another of Wilfrid Israel's proposals, for the establishment of a transit camp in Britain for young men released from the concentration camps, was accepted, saving eight thousand lives - a no less impressive rescue than that of the Kindertransport. Wilfrid Israel did indeed use his personal connections in Britain, most notably Lord Samuel (a previous Home Secretary) and at the time of the Kristallnacht the head of the Council for German Jewry- which had given assurances to the British government for support of Jewish refugees. It was to this organization that Wilfrid Israel turned, again on behalf of German Jews as a whole, and contacted Samuel with the request for the rescue of unaccompanied Jewish children. The request was accepted only after two deputations to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary by Samuel - and Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader. The second deputation included representatives of the British Quakers, who visited Germany and under Wilfrid Israel's guidance were able to confirm that Jewish parents were indeed willing to part with their children. Wilfrid Israel's connection with the Quakers went back to the period following the First World War when he was also active in refugee work.
On Nov. 1st, Lord Herbert Samuel led an Anglo Jewish deputation to the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, asking for the British government to relax its stringent immigration laws to permit the entry of the children. He received only sympathy and a non-committal answer. On the morning of Nov. 8th , when the Goebbels press campaign first became obvious, Wilfrid Israel, representing the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, called on Sir George Ogilvje Forbes, the British Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin. He came "to express grave apprehension that reprisals will be taken on Jews in Germany".
On Nov. 9th , Wilfrid Israel telephoned Dr. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organisation, in London. Dr. Weizmann immediately telephoned the Foreign Ofiice. He was "in considerable distress" as he told of his information that the situation in Germany had "changed most dangerously during the last 24 hours". The German Jews thought that the only way to save the situation was for 'some prominent non-Jewish Englishman to go over to Berlin immediately". On the same day Anglo-jewry leaders representing the CGJ, meet in London with Sir Michael Bruce and request him to immediately go to Berlin, meet with Wilfrid Israel and other leaders "… who are only awaiting the arrival of a messenger to transmit reports on the treatment of our people.”
On Nov. 15th, Wilfrid cabled the Council for German Jewry with details of the problems facing the community, and proposed the immediate rescue of German-Jewish children and young people up to the age of seventeen.
The pogroms and the incarceration of many more young Jews, sent Wilfrid back to the British Embassy on Nov. 17th, on behalf of the Reichsvertretung, to ask formally that Britain do all possible ‘to accelerate the emigration of Jews from Germany, [and particularly those who had been driven from their homes – about ten to fifteen thousand – and install them in temporary camps whence they could be evacuated in due course to their country of destination’. An Anglo-Jewish deputation led by Lord Samuel, and which included Chaim Weizmann, Lionel de Rothschild and the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Joseph Herman Hertz, hastily put together a petition based on the cable and went to see the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. His initial response was non-committal, but the proposals were debated at a cabinet meeting on the following day. No leading British Jew was prepared to risk visiting Germany, but here Wilfrid Israel's connections with the Quakers paid off. A delegation of Quakers headed by Bertha Bracey visited Germany to verify the willingness of German parents to part with their children. They met with Wilfrid Israel who introduced them to the heads of the Frauenbund, the German Jewish women's organisation with branches all over the country. Together, Quakers and Jews visited the Jewish communities all over the country and reported back to the British Home Office (in charge of immigration to Britain). One of the Quakers returned to London within days. His report made it clear that German Jewry wanted help for emigration, not relief on the spot.
On Nov. 21st, Lord Samuel led another delegation – this time made up of both – Jewish and non-Jewish representatives of groups concerned with refugees. – to Home Secretary Samuel Hoare. Samuel was accompanied by Lola Hahn Warburg, Wilfrid's friend and colleague in Youth Aliya, who had left Germany in the autumn, and was henceforth to be one of the chief workers for the child rescue in England, and Bertha Bracey, of the British Quakers, who brought Ben Greene, the Quaker who had returned to deliver the first-hand evidence. Greene testified to the plea of the German parents and their readiness to part with their children. Speaking in the House of Commons that evening, Hoare announced that the government had agreed to the admission of refugee children, quoting Greene's evidence. Around this time, Wilfrid's previous and continued appeals were reinforced by the return to England of Sir Michael Bruce, who now impressed everyone in London with his first-hand information and knowledge. By this deceleration, removing the legal and official constraints, the Kindertransport could finally be launched.
After officially leaving Germany in mid-1939, Wilfrid Israel returned to Berlin to help Hannah Karminski and other members of the Frauenbund organize the last groups of German Jewish children of the Kindertransport. He left finally days before the outbreak of war. But there is more here than the omission of one name, important as that name may be. The history of the Kindertransport, as presented in several accounts, omits the role played by German Jewish organizations and their leaders, most of whom remained in Germany to help their co-religionists despite the fact that they themselves had visas and were able to escape. This included Wilfrid Israel's closest collaborators, Eppstein, Hirsch and Karminski, all of whom perished. The reason for this omission is the relative paucity of documentation, as the records of the Jewish organizations involved were mostly destroyed. It is also because the eyewitness accounts are those of the former Kindertransport children themselves, who were of course unaware of the negotiations which preceded their rescue. However even a glance at the newsreel reportage of the departure and arrival of the children indicates the meticulous preparation of the Kindertransport by its German Jewish organizers, and of the restraint of the parents: the children all carefully dressed, each with a small knapsack and suitcase, and equipped with tags round their necks indicating his or her identity.
In conclusion: the idea of the Kindertransport did not originate with Anglo Jewry; their deputations were the response to an appeal made by Wilfrid Israel as representative of the Jewish community in Germany. The initiative, and the idea (undoubtedly linked to the British refusal to admit children to Palestine) was that of German Jewry itself. As for Wilfrid Israel's activities on behalf of children and young people of which the Kindertransport was only one example: many years earlier, he was among the sponsors of Youth Aliya and on his last mission to wartime Europe, he drew up plans for the rescue of Jewish children in Vichy France.
Wilfrid Israel was a homosexual.
On 26 March 1943 Israel left London for Lisbon, Portugal and spent the next two months distributing certificates of entry to British ruled Palestine, and investigating the situation of Jews on the peninsula; during World War II the fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal sympathised with Nazi Germany but refused to hand over Jews to the Germans. Before Israel left the peninsula, he had also formulated a plan to rescue Jewish children from Vichy France – an enterprise partially carried out after his death. Israel was killed, aged 43, on 1 June 1943 when British Overseas Airways Corporation Flight 777 was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by eight German Junkers Ju 88s.
Princetown, N.J. VI. 14. '43.
Dear Mrs. Israel, A deep desire prompts me to write to you as I know your great anxiety regarding the fate of your son. Never in my life have I come in contact with a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was – in very truth a living work of art.
In these times of mass-misfortune, which so few are able to stand up to – one feels the presence of this "chosen one" as a Liberator from despair for mankind.
I dare yet to hope that through a miracle he has been spared to us. Yet it urges me, though so helpless, to assure you of my deepest sympathy in these most tragic hours.
With heartfelt wishes,
The Wilfrid Israel Museum in Kibbutz HaZore'a, Israel, is an archaeology and art museum dedicated to the memory of Wilfrid Israel.The museum, which opened in 1951, houses Wilfrid's unique collection, to which many artifacts have been added over the years. The museum displays have permanent exhibitions of the art of India, China, Thailand, Cambodia, the art of ancient Near East, and local archaeology. In addition, the museum holds changing exhibitions of modern painting, sculpture, photography, and textiles. It offers a wide range of community educational programs for children, youth and adults, including guided tours of the museum's permanent and temporary exhibitions as well as creative hands-on activities in the museum's art workshop.
A film by award-winning filmmaker Yonatan Nir and producer Noam Shalev premiered in Israel on 1 November 2016.The film – The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel is inspired by the biography written by Naomi Shepherd. It tells the story of Wilfrid Israel's life-saving activities, his connections with the founders of Kibbutz Hazorea and mostly focuses on the last ten years of his life. The film's website The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel provides more information about the person and the film and includes a link to its trailer.
Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass, also called the November Pogrom(s), was a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris.
Chaim Azriel Weizmann was a Zionist leader and Israeli statesman who served as president of the Zionist Organization and later as the first president of Israel. He was elected on 16 February 1949, and served until his death in 1952. It was Weizmann who convinced the United States government to recognize the newly formed state of Israel.
During World War II, some individuals and groups helped Jews and others escape the Holocaust conducted by Nazi Germany. A well-known example is Oskar Schindler, one of thousands who have been so recognized.
The Kindertransport was an organised rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Nazi-occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust. The programme was supported, publicised and encouraged by the British government. Importantly the British government waived all those visa immigration requirements which were not within the ability of the British Jewish community to fulfil. The British government put no number limit on the programme – it was the start of World War II that brought the programme to an end, at which time about 10,000 kindertransport children had been brought to the United Kingdom.
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Sir Nicholas George Winton was a British banker and humanitarian who established an organisation to rescue children at risk from Nazi Germany. Born to German-Jewish parents who had emigrated to Britain at the beginning of the 20th century, Winton supervised the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. Winton found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. This operation was later known as the Czech Kindertransport.
Norbert Wollheim was a chartered accountant, tax advisor, previously a board member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a functionary of other Jewish organisations.
The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945, published in 1984, is an influential book by David S. Wyman, former Josiah DuBois professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wyman was the chairman of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The Abandonment of the Jews has been well received by most historians, and has won numerous prizes and widespread recognition, including a National Jewish Book Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Award, the Present Tense Literary Award, the Stuart Bernath Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and the Theodore Saloutos Award of the Immigration History Society, and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award."
The Nathan Israel Department Store was a department store in Berlin. The business was started in 1815 by Nathan Israel as a small second-hand store in the Molkenmarkt. By 1925, it employed over 2,000 people and was a member of the Berlin Stock Exchange, and in the 1930s was one of the largest retail establishments in Europe. Because it was owned by Jews, the store was boycotted by the German government when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. It was ransacked during the Kristallnacht in 1938 and then handed over to a non-Jewish family by the Nazis. The descendants of the original owners began to receive compensation for their losses after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Jacob (Yaakov) Birnbaum was the German-born founder of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) and other human rights organizations. Because the SSSJ, at the time of its founding, in 1964, was the first initiative to address the plight of Soviet Jewry, he is regarded as the father of the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry. His father was Solomon Birnbaum and grandfather Nathan Birnbaum.
James Grover McDonald was a United States diplomat. He served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
The One Thousand Children (OTC) is a designation, created in 2000, which is used to refer to the approximately 1,400 Jewish children who were rescued from Nazi Germany and other Nazi-occupied or threatened European countries, and who were taken directly to the United States during the period 1934–1945. The phrase "One Thousand Children" only refers to those children who came unaccompanied and left their parents behind back in Europe. In nearly all cases, their parents were not able to escape with their children, because they could not get the necessary visas among other reasons. Later, nearly all these parents were murdered by the Nazis.
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Werner Otto von Hentig was a German Army Officer, adventurer and diplomat from Berlin. When still only a 25 year old lieutenant he was commissioned by the Kaiser to lead an expedition into the unknown and uncharted territories of Central Asia. The region associated with the political "Great Game" had its roots in Victorian rivalries between the local Great Powers: Russia and British India. The small expedition party, travelling in extreme climatic conditions, suffered extraordinary privations with courage and equanimity. Surviving diary accounts of participants on both sides of the Great War bear witness to the unusual camaraderie and esprit de corps summoned by Hentig's outstanding qualities of leadership.
After Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933, Jews began to escape German-occupied Europe and the United Kingdom was one of the destinations. Some came on transit visas, which meant that they stayed in Britain temporarily, while waiting to be accepted by another country. Others entered the country by having obtained employment or a guarantor, or via Kindertransport. There were about 70,000 Jewish refugees who were accepted into Britain by the start of World War II on September 1, 1939, and an additional 10,000 people who made it to Britain during the war.
Elpis Lodge was a hostel provided by Christadelphians for Jewish refugee boys in Birmingham, England, from 1940-1948.
Bertha Lilian Bracey (1893–1989) was an English Quaker teacher and aid worker who organised relief and sanctuary for Europeans affected by the turmoil before, during and after the Second World War. These included many Jewish children threatened by the Holocaust and rescued in the operation known as the Kindertransport. In 2010, she was recognised as a British Hero of the Holocaust.
The Committee for Jewish Refugees was a Dutch charitable organization. It operated from 1933–1941. At first, it managed the thousands of Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany. These refugees were crossing the border from Germany into the Netherlands. The Committee largely decided which of the refugees could remain in the Netherlands. The others generally returned to Germany. For the refugees permitted to stay, it provided support in several ways. These included direct financial aid and assistance with employment and with further emigration.
Leonard Nathaniel Goldsmid-Montefiore was a wealthy member of the Montefiore family, the only son of Claude Montefiore, and he succeeded his father as a leader of Jewish philanthropic organisations in the UK including the Anglo-Jewish Association, the Central British Fund for German Jewry, and the Jewish Board of Guardians. He was a founder and president of the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide.
The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel is a documentary by Israeli director Yonatan Nir. The film, which is inspired by Naomi Shepherd's book Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry's Secret Ambassador, exposes the story of Wilfrid Israel - a wealthy Jewish businessman and owner of Berlin’s largest department store in the 1930’s, who was involved in the saving of tens of thousands of Jews and played a key role in the Kindertransport rescue operation. The film was produced by Highlight Films and premiered at the 2017 DocAviv International Film Festival.