Wilfrid Israel

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Wilfrid Israel, 1942

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 an important 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".[1]

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.

Biography[edit]

Israel's Department Store

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. Though arrested and beaten, and followed on his journeys abroad by the Gestapo, he attempted through influential contacts in Britain, to gain admission to transit camps in Britain for Jews released from the 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 role in the Kindertransport, the rescue of ten thousand German Jewish children after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938.[2] By this time, most of the Jewish leadership had been arrested, and Israel took over the running of the Hilfsverein, the German Jewish welfare and emigration organisation established at the turn of the century. He urged the rescue of children without parents to the Anglo Jewish leadership, which organised a deputation to the British prime minister; but in the aftermath of the 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 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.

Settling in London, he first worked with Bloomsbury House, the organisation 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.0. 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).[3]

Israel was a descendant on his English mother’s side of the first Chief Rabbi of Britain. Biographers describe 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 I 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.[4]

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".[5]

Death and commemoration[edit]

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 sympathized 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.[6]

Tribute letter from Albert Einstein[edit]

Tribute plaque, Berlin

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,

A. Einstein [7]

Wilfrid Israel Museum[edit]

Wilfrid Israel Museum

The Wilfrid Israel Museum in Kibbutz HaZore'a, Israel, is an archaeology and art museum dedicated to the memory of Wilfrid Israel.[8] The museum, which opened in 1951, houses Wilfrid's unique collection, to which many artifacts have been added over the years. The museum displays has 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.

Wilfrid Israel film[edit]

Logo of the film "Wilfrid Israel - The Savior from Berlin"

A film by award-winning filmmaker Yonatan Nir and producer Noam Shalev was produced and primarily screened on January 20, 2012 at Kibbutz Hazorea. The film - Wilfrid Israel - The Savior From Berlin is inspired by the biography written by Naomi Shepherd. It tells the story of Wilfrid Israel's 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 [9] provides more information about the person and the film and includes a link to its trailer.

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Bailey, J. E. Brenda (1994). A Quaker couple in Nazi Germany: Leonhard Friedrich survives Buchenwald. York: Sessions. ISBN 1 85072 131 9. 
  • Bauer, Yehuda (1981). American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1939–1945. Detroit: Wayne State University. ISBN 0-8143-1672-7. 
  • Buber, Martin (1944). Wilfrid Israel: July 11th, 1899 – June 1st, 1943 (1st ed.). London: Marsland. 
  • Shepherd, Naomi (1984). A Refuge from Darkness: Wilfrid Israel and the Rescue of The Jews. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 978-0394525037. 
    • Published as Wilfrid Israel, German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, in 1984; in German translation by Siedler Verlag, Berlin; and in Hebrew as "שגריר ללא ארץ", the Bialik Institute in 1989. This biography won the Wingate Prize for the best book on Jewish subjects for 1984

Further reading[edit]

  • Ian Colvin (1957), Flight 777 (Evans Brothers)
  • Dessa, A Tribute to Kaufhaus N. Israel 1815–1939, Switzerland: Deborah Petroz-Abeles, 2003