Schonfeld studied at the yeshiva in Nyitra, Austria-Hungary (now Nitra, Slovakia) In Nitra he became the student and lifelong friend of Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl, who acted as his inspiration in his rescue work.
When the scale of rescue work needed became apparent in the 1930s, he became the executive director of the Chief Rabbi's Religious Emergency Council, formed under the auspices of his father-in-law, Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz in 1938. He personally rescued many thousands of Jews from Nazi forces in Central and Eastern Europe during the years 1938-1948.
In 1933 he became the rabbi of the Adath Yisroel Synagogue in North London, and succeeded his father as principal of the fledgling Jewish Secondary School. He was the Presiding Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and president of the National Council for Jewish Religious Day Schools in Great Britain.
During the Holocaust
Schonfeld personally rescued thousands of Jews. He was a very charismatic, dedicated, innovative and dynamic young man. His rescue efforts were inspired by his teacher at the Nitra Yeshivah, Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl. This explains, in part, some of his daring and innovative rescue style. His rescue activities were under auspices of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, which he created with approval of Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, his father-in-law.
In the fall of 1938, following Kristallnacht, Julius Steinfeld, a communal leader in Austria, called Rabbi Schonfeld, pleading with him to assemble a children’s transport to England for Vienna’s Orthodox Jewish youth. Rabbi Schonfeld met with Yaakov Rosenheim and Harry Goodman, president and secretary of World Agudath Israel respectively, but even before they could decide on a strategy, he boarded a train to Vienna. Rabbi Schonfeld helped Steinfeld organize a kindertransport of close to 300 Orthodox Jewish youngsters, providing the British government with his personal guarantee in order to secure their entry. See "Holocaust Hero: Solomon Schonfeld" by David Kranzler, Ktav Publishing House, New Jersey, 2004.
He saved large numbers of Jews with South American protection papers. He single-handedly brought over to England several thousand youngsters, rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers and other religious functionaries. Schonfeld provided his "charges" not only with safety but also with kosher homes, Jewish education and jobs. He also initiated two very important rescue initiatives. In late summer 1942 he convinced the Colonial Office to allow Jews to find safe haven in Mauritius. In December 1942 he discussed his ideas about rescue with a number of highly positioned church men and Members of Parliament, and organized Parliament-wide support for a motion that asked the government to make a declaration along the following lines:
"That in view of the massacres and starvation of Jews and others in enemy and enemy-occupied countries, this House asks H. M. Government, following the United Nations Declaration read to both Houses of Parliament on 17th December, 1942, and in consultation with the Dominion Governments and the Government of India, to declare its readiness to find temporary refuge in its own territories or in territories under its control for endangered persons who are able to leave those countries; to appeal to the Governments of countries bordering on enemy and enemy-occupied countries to allow temporary asylum and transit facilities for such persons; to offer to those Governments, so far as practicable, such help as may be needed to facilitate their co-operation; and to invite the other Allied Governments to consider similar action."
Within ten days, two Archbishops, eight Peers, four Bishops, the Episcopate of England and Wales and 48 members of all parties signed the notice of meeting to consider the Motion. Eventually the number of members of Parliament in support of the motion rose to 177.
The above two 1942 initiatives could possibly have saved large numbers of Jews, but regretfully obstruction destroyed these important opportunities. The main reasons for obstruction were petty jealousy and tragic inability to appropriately prioritize the immediate cause of rescue and important but longer-term initiatives which could have waited until after the war. (The Parliamentary motion omitted Palestine as a possible temporary haven and was therefore opposed by a vocal faction.)
Schonfeld considered as one his failures his unsuccessful request to the British government to heed Rabbi Weissmandl’s plea to bomb Auschwitz. After the war he rushed to the liberated continent to serve the spiritual and physical needs of survivors.
Rabbi Schonfeld was the son of Rabbi Dr Victor Schonfeld, rabbi of the Adath Yisroel Synagogue and founder and principal of what became known as the Avigdor School (posthumously named in his honour). In 1940 he married Judith Hertz, daughter of Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph H. Hertz, with whom he had three sons between 1940 and 1951.
Rabbi Schonfeld died in 1984 of a long-term brain tumour.
Rabbi Schonfeld was posthumously awarded the British Hero of the Holocaust award in 2013.
- Tomlin, Chanan (2006). Protest and Prayer. Oxford: Peter Lang.
- Kranzler, David (2003). Holocaust Hero: the Untold Story of Solomon Schonfeld, the British Rabbi Who Saved Thousands of Jews During the Holocaust.
- Barnett, Barbara (2012). The Hide-and-Seek Children: Recollections of Jewish Survivors from Slovakia. ISBN 9781905021109.