WWII rescuer of Jewish children passes on
Last week’s passing of Nicholas Winton at the age of 106, the London stockbroker who rescued more than 600 Jewish children from the Nazis on the eve of the Second World War, has drawn attention to the phenomenon of ordinary individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Winton’s story is also a reminder of some often overlooked contrasts between British and American responses to the plight of Europe’s Jewish refugees.
The most widely known examples of such rescuers are Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman who sheltered Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest; Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who protected Jews by using them as employees in his factories; and Varian Fry, the American journalist who organised the smuggling of some 2 000 refugee artists and writers from Vichy France.
But in recent years, the stories of some previously unheralded individuals have also come to light.
An HBO documentary film came out last year about Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who brought 50 children from Vienna to the US in 1939. A documentary is in the works about the Rev Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, a Unitarian couple from Massachusetts who undertook rescue operations in German-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and then joined Fry’s rescue network in France.
Winton’s rescue work likewise came to public attention only relatively recently. The son of German-Jewish immigrants to England who had converted to Christianity, Winton became involved in the refugee cause almost on a whim.
Alerted that several of his friends had become involved in Jewish refugee relief work in Czechoslovakia, Winton flew to Prague in 1939 to see what they were doing. He ended up taking charge of a remarkable mission to smuggle hundreds of Jewish children out of the country in the months following the Kristallnacht pogrom.
The Nazis had taken over the western Czech region known as the Sudetenland as a result of the September 1938 Munich Pact. Then, in early 1939, the Germans occupied the rest of the country. The approximately 350 000 Jews of Czechoslovakia now braced to share the fate suffered by Jews in Germany and Austria.
Winton realised the possibility of finding havens would be greater if they focused on children. His group, the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section, raced against the clock to find foster homes for Czech Jewish children, raise funds to bribe German and Czech border officials, and forge exit papers.
Uncertain as to how many children England would accept, Winton turned to America to play a part in the rescue effort. On May 16, 1939, he wrote directly to President Franklin D Roosevelt about the “desperately urgent situation”. Many Czech Jewish children are “quite destitute”, he wrote, with some of them “homeless and starving”.
If compelled to stay in Czechoslovakia, “there is no future”, he wrote. “Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America?”
The State Department responded that there was nothing the US could do, since “the United States Government is unable… to permit immigration in excess of that provided for by existing immigration laws”.
That answer was disingenuous. The annual quota for immigrants from Czechoslovaka was small – just 2 874 – but it was never filled during the Hitler years. In fact, during most of those years, it was less than one-third filled.
The year that Winton wrote, 1939, some 158 quota places sat unused. Thus, at least some of the children could have been brought to America within the existing quotas. But the Roosevelt administration piled on numerous bureaucratic regulations and requirements to make the application process extremely difficult and time consuming, and the one thing Europe’s Jews did not have, was time.
England has been justly criticised for its wartime policies concerning Europe’s Jews. But when it came to aiding Jewish refugees after Kristallnacht, the British actually were considerably more generous than the Roosevelt administration.
Roosevelt condemned the pogrom and extended the visitor’s visas of those German Jews who already were in the United States as tourists. But he refused to admit refugees to American territories such as Alaska or the Virgin Islands, where the quota laws did not apply.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on the other hand, did not condemn Kristallnacht but did agree to take in 10 000 Jewish children on the famous Kindertransports. England also gave shelter to an additional 14 000 young German Jewish women by allowing them to enter as cooks and nannies.
Eight trains organised by Winton and his friends, carrying a total of 669 children, made it out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939. A ninth train, with 250 children, was scheduled to leave on September. 1 of that year, but the borders were sealed when Germany launched its invasion of Poland that day. Those children were never heard from again.
Winton never spoke about his rescue work, even to his wife, Grete Gjelstrup. More than 50 years later, she discovered a stack of dusty documents and photos from the Czech rescue mission in their attic.
“I did not think for one moment that they would be of interest to anyone so long after it happened,” he later told an interviewer.
Winton very reluctantly allowed his wife to share the information with a handful of historians and journalists. As a result, late in life he was made an honorary citizen of Prague, praised in a US congressional resolution and even knighted by the Queen. In 2009, shortly after his 100th birthday, he was reunited in an emotional ceremony with some of the children he saved.
The letter Winton sent to Roosevelt, however, remained a mystery until last year. In a “60 Minutes” segment broadcast in April 2014, Winton referred to the letter but mentioned that he had never been able to locate a copy. David Langbart, a staff member at the National Archives, saw the programme and, after some digging, managed to locate both Winton’s letter and the administration’s reply. They were presented to him in May 2014, on the occasion of his 105th birthday. (JTA)
- (Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, DC)
Chassidic lego on offer
An American Jewish mother came up with the idea to build a Star Wars-inspired Lego shul – including the Legovitcher Rebbe and chassidim. She is trying to crowdfund her “Beis Death Star”, titling her episode “The Brickovicher Rebbe Returns”. In the illustration the Legovitcher Rebbe is seen leading his chassidim into battle…
Tobey Finklestein dreamed up the idea and she’s trying to make it something with which other parents and kids can have fun with. She started a Kickstarter (online crowdfunding) appeal to pay for the project and have it on the market by Pesach. The self-described “Jewish-Asian tiger mom” said she came up with the idea after her 10-year-old came asking for the “Lego Death Star”.
Now he is likely to get a Jewish version of it.
Those who donate (a minimum of $18) to help build the first intergalactic shul – Beis Death Star Kochav Chaim – will be rewarded with their “very own Brickovicker Chasid,” she says.
A Brickover Rebbe
So far just $333 has been pledged by 11 backers towards Toby’s goal of raising $1 200. The offer expires on March 26.
Funders each get their own, unique Chassid, built of Lego bricks, says Tobey. Not only that, she also promises to throw in extras for the bigger backers. These include:
- A fly rubber streimel compatible with most Lego minifig heads and a custom torso assembly bearing the “Chassid” logo
- A personalised certificate of lifetime membership to Beis Death Star Kochav Chaim, including:
- An invitation to our Chanukahs Habayis (inauguration)
- A mission from the Brickovicker Rebbe
- Self-determination of your Brickovickers Special Power
- Discounted High Holiday seats
- Access to the Brickovicker community on Facebook to share the exploits of Brickovickers far and wide, received when you order your Brickovicker and become a founding backer ($18+):
Tobey says her goal is to have a little fun with her family, build and disseminate her own woman-owned and operated sect of Chassidim, and generate enough revenue to build the first intergalactic shul with her kids.
Dershowitz hopes Trump will make him proud
Prominent Jewish commentator on Israel, lawyer and academic, Alan Dershowitz, a lifelong Democrat, said in Detroit last week that his “greatest hope is that four years from now I’ll be proud to cast a vote for Donald Trump. As a patriotic American I want him to succeed.
“I can predict exactly what will happen in the next four years. It will be unpredictable. That is both Trump’s strength and his weakness,” he said at the city’s Temple Bet El.
Turning to the Middle East, Dershowitz said: “The primary obstacle to peace is the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
“(Former President Barack) Obama was wrong when he said that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. Israel was created because of Zionism, a movement that long predated the Holocaust.
“I think President Obama honestly believes that he has done what is good for Israel. He is wrong. Jimmy Carter hates Israel. He is anti-Israel. President Obama is not. But the Security Council Resolution is just dumb. They could have taken the Jewish areas of Jerusalem out of the resolution, but they didn’t.”
The four main settlement blocs could all be incorporated into Israel and traded for other land. The farther-flung settlements were a provocation, but the settlements were not the primary obstacle to peace.
“In the last eight years Israel’s military has remained strong and it has maintained a qualitative edge over other armies. The US supported Israel when it went into Gaza. Nobody should call Barack Obama anti-Israel. Nobody should call Barack Obama anti-Semitic.”
He said nobody yet knows what Obama’s role would be as a former president. Some former leaders have had immensely positive roles after their terms. It was important for Israel to try to increase its ties to China, Russia, Africa, South America…
“We have a great weapon, emet, truth. We need to teach our children not the propaganda, but the nuances, the complexities and they will be prepared to make the case for Israel,” he stressed.
“The case for moving the embassy is strengthened by the Security Council Resolution. The threat of violence should not deter us. That encourages more acts of violence.”
Americans should take a stepped approach – state the policy of moving its embassy to west Jerusalem and talk to Arab allies about it. It should not just be moved now.
The American Jewish advocacy group, J Street, had “moved left of the hard left in Israel. They supported the UN Security Council Resolution. Nobody in Israel supported the UN resolution. It declares the Kotel and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem to be occupied territory. I do not consider J Street to be a pro-Israel organisation.”
Dershowitz had strong words for the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement (BDS).
“No university in the US will accept BDS, because we will fight fire with fire. If you implement BDS against Israel, we’ll implement BDS against your university.”
By courtesy of Detroit’s Temple Beth El Assistant Rabbi Megan Brudney and Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz
- Former South African Tessa Goldberg was the Beth El executive director for many years.
Berlin highlights divide among German Jewry
Even before the deadly attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, Jews in Germany were divided in their approach to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Muslim countries since 2014.
Citing a Jewish moral duty to aid the displaced, many Jewish organisations, synagogue groups and individuals have rallied to help the newcomers, including asylum seekers fleeing the civil war in Syria. But some Jews have warned that the influx of immigrants risks importing to Germany the homicidal anti-Semitism of Muslim extremists who attacked Jewish targets in France, Belgium, Denmark and beyond.
In Monday’s attack, a man described by the Islamic State terrorist group as one if its “soldiers” killed 12 people and wounded 48 by plowing a stolen truck through the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church market. While police hunt for suspects, the attack is likely to further polarise competing views on Muslim immigration in German society in general – especially among Jews who fear they will be among those targeted by Islamists here.
Following the attack, whose perpetrator is presumed to be at large, the top priority is to take on “this army of Muslims from the wildest part of the earth,” said Pavel Feinstein, a member of Berlin’s Jewish community who supports the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose manifesto from April declares that “Islam is not part of Germany.” AfD, as the party is known, also is accused of being a hotbed for anti-Semites.
Feinstein, 56, told JTA that he came to espouse the AfD view after hearing the slogan “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” being chanted at an anti-Israel demonstration two years ago in Berlin.
“They weren’t just Islamists, they were also normal Muslims, students and so on,” he recalled. “And no one was charged or punished.
“Up to then I felt at home in Berlin. And now this feeling is gone.”
The hostility expressed by Feinstein, an artist who immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union with his family in 1980, may be more common among Russian-speaking Jews, who constitute the largest of the three contingents that make up Germany’s present-day Jewish population of some 200 000. And such views are likely to only harden after the attack, in which one Israeli was wounded. His wife remained missing on Wednesday and was feared to be among the dead.
Feinstein’s sentiment seems less prevalent among Jews who grew up after the Second World War in a society whose youth were taught to reject any semblance of the murderous Nazi xenophobia and anti-Semitism. His rhetoric seems to be even rarer among the 7 500 Israelis living in Berlin, some of whom say they left for Germany partly over what they see as Israel’s rising nationalism.
To be sure, many Russian-speaking Jews, including Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green Party politician and member of the Berlin Jewish Community Council, do not subscribe to Feinstein’s embrace of a far-right vision. Meanwhile, among Jews with deeper roots in Germany, many speak openly and clearly of the risks connected to massive immigration from Arab countries, as do some of Berlin’s Israeli Jews.
Jews of all backgrounds here tend to be “sceptical” of the wisdom of letting in large numbers of Muslims, as has been the policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Lagodinsky said. But Russian-speaking Jews in Germany generally express this “through a more populist way”, including by “engaging with populist parties and ideas”, he added.
Russian speakers of all religions, who make up a large minority of several million people in Germany, are not the only ones showing a proclivity to populism amid what some pundits are calling Germany’s immigration crisis.
On the eve of a big election year in this country, the immigration issue is bolstering AfD, which the mainstream representatives of Jews in Germany reject for the xenophobic and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric of some of its members.
While the AfD missed the 5 per cent mark needed to enter parliament in the last federal elections in 2013, polls from before the market attack predicted the party would win 16 per cent of the vote next year. The party currently holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five a year ago.
Against this background, terrorist attacks may well cost the centrist Merkel her post and send Germany swinging harder to the right than it has in decades. Her decision in 2015 to allow into Germany 800 000 immigrants from the Middle East has already come under attack even inside her own party amid a string of incidents involving that population – including last summer’s brutal axe attack in Würzburg by a 17-year-old from Afghanistan.
Commenting on the attack, the Berlin director of the American Jewish Committee, Deidre Berger, told JTA that she was worried about the “more than 100 000 unaccompanied minors” among the asylum seekers who “are highly susceptible to the easy answers of radical Islamist ideology.”
Such events have also brought to a head tensions over this issue within the Jewish community, where some members describe the influx of Muslim immigrants as an existential threat.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany, which is the country’s main Jewish umbrella group and has also organised activities to assist Middle Eastern asylum seekers, has warned against a rightward tilt as an answer to the terrorist threat. And Charlotte Knobloch, 84 – a child survivor and head of the Munich and Bavarian Jewish communal organizations – told JTA that the AfD is “totally out of the question for Jewish people”.
On the other hand, in October 2015, the council’s president, Josef Schuster, said in a widely read interview with Die Welt that “there is now fear that with people of Arab origins, anti-Semitism in Germany could increase. I share this concern.” Schuster said the issue should be addressed by emphasising integration initiatives among the newcomers. He also said he supported a magnanimous policy toward asylum seekers, though he added that “eventually” a quota would have to be agreed upon.
But his remarks exposed him to heated criticism by some Israelis In Berlin. Several dozen of them, along with non-Israeli activists, protested Schuster’s remarks at a rally in November 2015 outside the council’s offices, carrying posters of Anne Frank and of the biblical quote “Love Thy Neighbour”.
“I cannot stand by when the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany assumes a far-right position, supports limiting refugee quotas and instrumentalises anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism while pretending to speak for ‘the Jews’ in Germany,” wrote Shaked Shapir in Berlin’s Hebrew-language magazine, Spitz, which devoted an entire edition to discussing Schuster’s 2015 remarks.
German officials have been careful not to speculate as to whether the church market attack is connected to radical Islam, as many here believe. The caution appealed to some Israelis in Berlin, who contrasted it with what they regard as a tendency to jump to conclusions in Israel.
“We like the fact that in Berlin it is more calm. They are still investigating, and we will wait,” said Ido Porat, who lives here with his wife and their two small children.
While most Jews in Germany don’t see the influx of migrants from Middle Eastern countries as an invasion, the issue is nonetheless particularly divisive to their communities, according to the German Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn.
“Every conscious Jew knows or remembers what refugee problems are all about,” he said. “At the same time every conscious Jew knows that many Muslims are more hostile to Jews than, say, Eskimos.”
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