A tribute to Arieh Handler: The very beginnings of Bnei Akiva

Arieh Handler was an amazing person who achieved so much as a young man in his mid 20’s. Hundreds of us owe our lives to his efforts.

The writer with the late Arieh Handler. (photo credit: WALTER BINGHAM)
The writer with the late Arieh Handler.
(photo credit: WALTER BINGHAM)
Doesn’t time fly? Nearly 82 years and it was almost like yesterday, when on the July 25, 1939, with a group of other shabbat observant boys and girls I joined the Kindertransport from Karlsruhe Germany as a member of Brit Hanoar, the youth wing of Bachad (Brit Chalutzim Dati’im) to be taken to England. At about that time, but unbeknown to us, the name changed to Bnei Akiva.
I was waiting since 1937 to get my immigration papers for Palestine to join a kibbutz there. To that end I was sent to an agricultural training camp (Vorbereitungslager) in Hamburg-Blankenese, where I recall having spent some six weeks. The only reason why I was taken to England was to wait there, rather than in Germany for my Zertifikat, the visa for Palestine.
It was a moment of mixed emotions when we waved goodbye to our parents who obviously suppressed their tears, as the train started to move. They were the heroes to send their children, in my case the only child, to a strange land, when a world war was imminent. Our own sadness at leaving “home” was tempered by a sense of adventure going on an international train to another country.
The train journey took us to Hook van Holland to embark on an overnight ferry to England. There was one worrying moment, when at the German Dutch border uniformed German officials entered the train to check our identity against the passports that were held in bulk by an accompanying madrich. That was my last encounter with a Nazi until WWII when I served in the British Army.
It was also my first time on what seemed to me to be a very big ship. All I saw before then were barges and pleasure cruisers on the river Rhine.
After a good night’s sleep and communal Shacharit it was time to eat. I had never seen pure white sliced bread before and remember distinctly having told the sever that “I never eat cake for breakfast”.
The train journey from the port of disembarkation at Harwich to London took much longer than it does today, but we made it, At the platform at Liverpool Street Station I realized that we were hundreds of children. As Kindertransport was an umbrella term, and because the children went to different destinations, we were separated into groups according to the information on the cards around our neck. Some went to pre-arranged foster parents, others to relatives, many were sent to hostels from where prospective foster parents, including non-Jews selected a child of their choice.
My group was to go on Hachshara and taken to Great Engeham farm at Woodchurch near Ashford in Kent. We slept in old fashioned railway carriages with engraved windows reading ‘non smokers’ or ‘ladies.’ In those days it was non smokers. After about four weeks I was selected for an advance party to prepare our final destination which was Gwrych Castle at Abergele in North Wales, the former seat of the Earl of Dundonald. It was secured by contract just days before my arrival with the help of the late Rebecca Sief and the Balfour family. Sief, who beside her work for Youth Aliyah was also the founder of WIZO in 1922.
From the farm we were collected in red buses from the Welsh bus company Crossville and the journey took many hours. In those days motorways were not yet dreamt of. From a distance we could see Gwrych Castle perched atop a low hill overlooking the Irish Sea. What a magnificent place I though, until I went inside. Yes, there was indeed a stately oak panelled entrance area from which a beautiful marble staircase led to the upper rooms. A similarly panelled large hall became our dining room with its magnificent fire place, which in due course we supplied with wood from the surrounding forest. In those days there was no problem with smoke pollution in the countryside and every room had an open fireplace.
So, what was so bad when I went inside you will justifiably ask?
Well, there was no electricity supply and an old generator was broken beyond repair. To call the toilets WC’s would have been a misnomer because the drainage and sanitation systems were severely blocked. But we didn’t care because we were in England and no longer among the Nazis. My task was to assemble and erect the steel beds which had been delivered in preparation of the main group’s arrival a week later, when the castle came alive. We were about 180 boys and girls divided into three groups. Kvutzot Aleph, Bet and Gimmel. It was done I believe according to our maturity level as perceived by Erwin Seligman z”l who was our leader, the head Madrich and whom I only met for the first time on arrival at the castle. I think it was more by accident than design that I was allocated to Gimmel.
Each Kvutza had its own Madrich. Ours was David Graneg z’l and he organised our post work activities. In overall charge from his office in London was Arieh Handler, who occasionally visited the castle. Our resident medical doctor was Arieh’s brother Julius. The sleeping areas were segregated. The boys’ bedrooms were on the first floor and the girls’ on the second floor. Several shared one room according to the space. My room was in the circular tower overlooking the meadow, a daily grazing ground for sheep and at the appropriate time of year I watched the lambs being born. Beyond the sloping meadow was the costal highway along the Irish sea. If it would be today, you would class it as a minor road with just two lanes.
We had to be self-sufficient, so there was a weekly allocation of work. A ‘Seder Avodah’. All our lighting was by paraffin lamps of various types and the daily cleaning, wick trimming, refilling, generally preparing the storm lamps that were the norm, as well as the few bright lamps with gas mantles that lit the open areas was a sought-after job. Sawing and chopping wood was a less popular task, but it had to be done to feed the many fire places. We had a woodwork department, were among other things they built bedside tables from wooden boxes in which some of our provisions arrived. It was necessary to have “protectia” to get one. After having had a stint of sawing wood I was transferred to the locksmith shop, a very important task, because there were many outhouses and other areas that were looked and needed to be opened without damaging the doors. I made several skeleton keys of varying sizes and became quite skilled at unlocking doors.
I actually brought those instruments into my marriage, until my wife made me destroy them for fear of being found and thought to be the tools of my trade as a burglar!
Eventually some of us were sent to work outside, either to Mr. Read’s market garden at the edge of this large estate, or to nearby farms or locations in Abergele, the nearest small town where for a year I helped to print the weekly local newspaper, The Abergele Visitor.
Not long after I arrived at the castle which became my home for several years, all hopes to be soon reunited with my mother was dashed. She was waiting to come to England as a domestic servant, one of the ways to get a visa.. It was the day when we all assembled in the square outside the Castle’s main entrance and Arieh Handler told us that war had broken out and that it may be quite some time before we shall see our parents again.
My father had already been sent to Poland with the forceful mass deportation of Polish Jews on the 28th October 1938. I was saved from having been included, by being at school in another city and never saw my father again. Only a minimal percentage of the 10,000 Kindertransport children ever saw any of their parents again. B”H I was reunited with my mother who survived the concentration camps.
It was during my turn of the backbreaking task of harvesting turnips in Mr. Reads market garden that I saw in the distance a convoy of black Humber cars making their way up the stately drive to the castle and soon learned that it was the police, because a messenger came down to us with a list of names of those who were asked to come to the office.
They were my Chaverim, my friends who came with German or Austrian passports and were considered enemy aliens and immediately arrested under regulation 18b and send to internment camps just like Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists,. I never saw them again until some of us met as senior citizens. They were sent to camps in Canada, some to Australia and others to the Isle of Man. Years later some returned and one I remember was a Flight Lieutenant in the Australian Air Force.
Because I came with a Polish passport and had a different sticker on the back of my alien’s registration book I was classed as a friendly alien and not interned. It was ironic that the colour of the passport determined our status and fate and not the fact that we were Jewish refugee children, brought to the UK to be saved from the Nazis. In Germany we were hounded as Jews and as enemies of the State and when we thought we were free from fear, most were again treated like enemies in the same category as Nazis who worked in England. My wife, who had an Austrian passport was interned on the Isle of Man for eighteen months, initially together with German Nazi women. They had daily fist fights until the difference was realized and they were accommodated separately.
Times were good for us at Gwrych Castle, if one can use that term under all the circumstances. We lead a Torah observant life; it was literally Torah v’Avodah. Besides Shiurim and other appropriate activities like English lessons, Erwin Seligman gave a Press conference once a week, to keep us informed of the progress of the war.
Subsequently I was relocated to a smaller Bnei Akiva center. It was a house called ‘Glengower’ in St. Asaph. There I was together with some chaverim who were previously at a Hachshara establishment in Millisle Northern Irelend. While at St. Asaph I worked at the car repair shop of John Glyn Jones in Bodelwyddan, nr. the large Kinmel Park Army camp. Well, it was mostly Fordson tractors that I helped to recondition.
At Glengower there were only about 10 or 12 of us and several made aliyah (moved to Israel) after the war and subsequently established Kibbutz Lavi. I believe they have all now gone to a better place.
Talking about a different type of better place, as you know I have finally made it to Israel some 67 or so years later and it was the best thing I ever did besides having a family. I suppose I made a mistake to not also make Aliyah at the time, like my friends, but then I married and my wife loved England so I stayed.
I cannot remember the year, but it was at Gwrych Castle where Arieh Handler married Henny and we had a wonderful celebration. The marriage was performed by Rav Sperber, our spiritual head who also lived at the castle with his family.
Arieh was responsible for the whole operation of Bnei Akiva Youth Aliyah. He negotiated with our sponsors and set up the various Bachad Hachsharah centres. He was effectively the founder of Bnei Akiva. Interestingly, Arieh had permission from the Gestapo, even at a very late date to travel between Germany and England on several occasions to arrange the Youth Aliyah.
I had the great privilege in later life to call him and Henny my friends, when we both lived in London just 200 meters from each other. It was a tradition for many years, that I broke the Yom Kippur fast at his home. He was 8+ years my senior but that did not mar our friendship. After he finally settled in Jerusalem in 2006, I often visited him.
In the annals of Israel’s history it is recorded that he was the last person alive who was invited to be present at the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, though not as signatory.
Arieh Handler was an amazing person who achieved so much as a young man in his mid 20’s. Hundreds of us owe our lives to his efforts. May his memory serve as a blessing!■
The writer, at 97, is the world’s oldest active journalist and radio host. He presents ‘Walter’s World’ on Israel National Radio (Arutz 7) and ‘The Walter Bingham File’ on Israel Newstalk Radio. Both are in English.