The Reich stuff

The inspiring story of Sir Erich Reich, who was rescued from the Holocaust at the age of four and served in the IDF.

Sir Erich Reich (photo credit: Courtesy Sir Erich Reich)
Sir Erich Reich
(photo credit: Courtesy Sir Erich Reich)
For Sir Erich Arieh Reich, the fund-raising dinner he is hosting at a prestigious hotel in London next week in support of poor Israelis is the closing of a circle.
He has arranged the October 16 event (“A gastronomic experience in support of underprivileged families in Israel”) in his capacity as UK chairman of Meir Panim, the Israel-based charity which, inter alia, provides hot meals to over 800,000 people in soup kitchens around Israel.
Among the needy the organization supports are young children and Holocaust survivors.
Possibly one of the youngest and most successful survivors alive, Reich – who was knighted for services to charity in 2010 – comes across as unassuming about his admirable achievements and self-deprecating, despite his posh English accent.
Dressed casually in pants and a shirt and looking more Israeli (he spent much of his youth here, served in the IDF and speaks fluent Hebrew) than the British gentleman he has become, he tells his dramatic life story with a mixture of pathos and humor during a recent visit to The Jerusalem Post offices.
Born in Vienna in 1935, Reich was the youngest of three boys. Their parents perished in the Holocaust.
“My brothers and I were deported by the Germans back to Poland after the Anschluss because my parents were Polish, to a place called Zbondzin,” he recounts. “The interesting story factor was that there was an elderly man there by the name of Mr. Grynszpan, whose son [Herschel] was studying in Paris. He was very angry and went to the German Embassy and shot one of the officials there [Ernst vom Rath], which sparked Kristallnacht. It would have happened anyway, but that triggered it off.
“Anyway, we crossed there, and the result of Kristallnacht was that the British government had a great deal of pressure on it from the local Jewish community, Quakers and others, to bring in Jewish children. And so they agreed on November 21, 1938 – there was a big debate in Parliament – to allow up to 10,000 children into the country, without visas, without passports.
But they had to have guarantors, and somebody had to pay £50, which at the time was quite a lot of money.”
In what was later to become known as the Kindertransport, Reich, who was only four, and his middle brother, who was 10 (the oldest brother was sent on another vessel) sailed on the ship Varshava from the Polish port of Gdynia to London, arriving on August 29, 1939.
In the UK, he and his brothers were split up.
British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took Reich and several other children to a refugee home in Dorking, Surrey, under the auspices of the Dorking Refugee Committee.
“All the others – I think there were six or seven – found relatives or people to live with. I didn’t. Apparently my skin was really bad at the time, because I had been ill, and no one was very enamored with me,” he recalls.
“So the only non-Jewish couple there, who had to flee from Sudetenland because they were socialists, took me in.
I grew up with them from the age of five to 12,” he says. “I’ve always felt that they saved me psychologically, because they were quite strict, and as far as they were concerned, I was their son.”
He attended primary school “and passed – don’t ask me how – and although I wasn’t Christian, I did go to church and to Sunday school, which I actually quite liked.
“Then one day, out of the blue, I was playing outside, and a young man called me and introduced me to my younger brother, Jack, and he told me I had an older brother, too, who lived in London. I suddenly realized I was Jewish, and I had to see a rabbi who was living right next to the church.”
REICH’S LIFE was about to change radically.
“When I was in grammar school, I was asked one day to stay on to play football, and of course I said yes. They didn’t need me, and won without me, but I got home very late, and my foster mother was absolutely livid and told me to go see my foster father, who was a carpenter, because he was quite angry, too. He said to me: ‘You are going to bed without food tonight, because you should have let us know that you were coming home late, because we were very worried.’ “Anyway, I went to sleep, and there was a commotion in the middle of the night, and my foster mother hugged me and said, ‘Your father has just died. He had angina.’ “I had this horrible feeling. First of all I felt guilty, because he had this row with me. And secondly, he lay there for five or six days, and I had to pass his bed every day. I’ll never forget the smell.”
In the meantime, the Jewish community worked to get Reich into a Jewish home, and he was sent for a short period to the Hasmonean School in London.
His mother’s younger sister – who lived in Haifa with her husband – visited him there, and persuaded him to go to Israel.
Just after his bar mitzva at the religious Hasmonean High School, he sailed from Marseilles to Haifa on a ship called The Eilat, and stayed there with his aunt and uncle for a few months.
“They had no children, and I think my uncle couldn’t cope with me; it was too much for him. So I went to live with a cousin [Eliezer Reich] on a Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz called Rehavia. My uncle, who was quite right-wing, discovered how left-wing Hashomer Hatza- ’ir was, and never spoke to me again.”
Still, he says, “I really liked the kibbutz.
It was really a free-for-all. The teachers were all professors from central Europe, and the education was at a very high level. The literature teacher, a professor named Tuvia, taught us Faust and took us to Habimah to see Shakespeare.”
Reich initially served in the IDF’s Givati Brigade and later in the Paratroop Brigade from 1953 to 1956.
“I have a lot of stories about the army, but I’ll just give you a sample,” he says.
“I was on an officers’ course in Beit Jibrin, and they asked three of us to stay on as trainers. We went to our commander, Haim Bar-Lev, and told him we would stay on an extra six months for the officers’ course, but we didn’t want to sign on permanently. To his credit, I must say, he agreed, and that’s what we did.”
While volunteering for the paratroopers afterward, he says, “I was doing my first miluim [reserve duty] at Tel Nof [air base], and we were on our way home literally when there was a message to come back.”
He was told to report to “the boss” – Ariel Sharon – and the next thing he knew, he was flying on a Piper plane southward at the beginning of the Sinai Campaign.
“We had hardly gotten into the air when Arik shouted at me, ‘Where the hell are you?’ Anyway, we were flying along, and I see these lights at the bottom, and I said, ‘As far as I know, the Mitla Pass is on the other side of the Suez Canal. We’ve just crossed it,’ and so we had to go back.”
The jump into the Mitla Pass was the largest drop of air troops to date, and Reich and his comrades found themselves in the bush watching their Piper plane destroyed. They later participated in fighting in Sharm e-Sheikh and Santa Caterina.
After the war, Reich received a message that his brother in London was ill, and he flew back in 1957. Unfortunately, his brother died before his return.
“I then went backward and forward from England to Israel, married and remarried, it’s all quite complicated,” he says. “Eventually, in 1967, while I was on holiday in England, the Six Day War broke out. By then, my then-wife was pregnant with my daughter, and my son was three, and I landed in Israel three days after the war was over. By that time, my wife was not prepared to come to Israel, and so I went back to England and settled there.”
Back in London, he joined the tourist agency Thomson Holidays, and in 1979 moved to Thomas Cook, serving as managing director of tour operations.
He made a name for himself organizing a centenary trip to Egypt to commemorate the relief of Khartoum in which the first Thomas Cook family had been involved. Later, he initiated highly successful tours to Egypt that incorporated the opera Aida, performed in Luxor by the Verona Opera House and starring Placido Domingo.
Reich left Thomas Cook to establish Classic Tours in 1987, and began operating pilgrim holidays to the Holy Land, as well as tours for the Friends of the British Museum and Friends of the English National Opera.
After the first Gulf War, he came up with the idea of a biblical charity bike ride for two charities, the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society and Ravenswood, a Jewish home for the disabled. This resulted in 230 riders cycling in Israel from the North to the South, raising some £600,000 for these charities in November 1992.
Since then, almost 50,000 people have participated in Classic Tours’ challenges, from Kilimanjaro and China to Peru and Petra, collecting a total of £70 million for more than 300 British charities.
Classic Tours’ challenges now involve biking, trekking, mountain climbing and horseback riding, as well as running and motorcycling to many remote corners of the Earth.
In 1989, Reich became involved with the Association of Jewish Refugees’ Kindertransport organization, serving as chairman since 2007 and raising considerable funds for Kindertransport monuments in London through events such as a bike ride from Berlin to Auschwitz.
He also organized the 70th anniversary commemoration of the parliamentary decision to allow the Kindertransport children into the UK.
“We had Prince Charles and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks there, as well as Lord Janner and Lord Attenborough, because his family took in two Kindertransport girls at the beginning of the war,” he says.
“The girls eventually ended up in America, and one of them came with her husband- to-be. They were both Jewish, of course, and the way Richard Attenborough told the story was so emotional. He had everyone crying.”
Prince Charles, who had never been to JFS – the Jews’ Free School – “asked to meet with some of the children, and there were three girls there, all grandchildren of Kindertransport children. There were about 500 people there, 400 of whom were Kindertransport children, and he made their day!” Reich adds, “We gave Prince Charles a present of a miniature from the Israeli artist Frank Meisler, and he said, ‘I’m so happy that the government at the time allowed you all in, and I’m proud to be British. He also had everyone crying.”
ASKED HOW he got involved with Meir Panim, Reich says he was approached by Gaby Blauer, the executive director of the UK branch.
“Gaby told me, among other things, that they ran soup kitchens for Holocaust survivors and did a lot for children, but they do far more, for underprivileged families throughout Israel, and in schools such as the ones in Kfar Menahem and Kiryat Gat, which are very impressive,” he says.
“I started by doing a night walk in the East End of London, because that’s where all the soup kitchens are, and we had about 50 people participating. Afterward, Gaby said to me, ‘We’re looking for a chairman,’ and I couldn’t say no.”
He makes the most of his professional contacts to help Meir Panim.
“I occasionally use the fact that I now have a ‘Sir’ in front of my name,” he says, smiling. “We’ve got various important people to attend our annual fund-raising dinner in London this year, including British Ambassador [to Israel] Matthew Gould, who is a lovely guy.”
Asked to tell the story behind his knighthood, Reich laughs with delight.
He and his Scottish-born wife now live in London, and he has five grown-up children.
“I rang home to my wife, Linda, on a drizzly November day and she told me to stop by in the middle of the day, something she never does. So I was a bit surprised, but when I walk in, she’s standing there, crying, with an envelope which said, ‘Mr. Erich Reich, strictly private and confidential.’ “‘What’s this all about?’ I said. I take out the piece of paper, and it says there, ‘The prime minister wonders whether you will be amenable to have your name put forward to the Queen for knighthood.’ “And I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.
What have I done? I think of myself as an orphan, a kibbutznik, a soldier in the Israeli army, all this kind of stuff.... Anyway, it flashed through my mind to say no. But only flashed, to be honest. I said fine, I’ll agree.”
Linda, who has accompanied him to the interview and sat through it in silence, now asks if she can pick up the story.
“Although we knew in November, you’re not allowed to say anything until it’s announced in the New Year, and we were in France for the New Year when it all broke,” she says.
“When we got home, there was a note from the post office, for something to sign in his name. I remember I was kneedeep in snow, and I went up to this grotty little post office in north London, and this woman asks for ID, looks me up and down and gives me the envelope, which is marked, ‘Buckingham Palace, Sir Erich Reich.’ “So I thought I’ll just open it. And inside there’s a card with a message that says, ‘We want to send our congratulations and our very best wishes, very well deserved’ and so on, signed ‘Charles and Camilla.’ “I said to the woman at the post office, ‘Oh, it’s from Charles and Camilla,’ and she must have thought I was absolutely mental. It was hysterical.”
Reich dedicated his knighthood to the Classic Tours team and to fellow Holocaust survivors.
“I’m overawed to receive such an honor.
It is a tribute to the work of my team at Classic Tours who tirelessly support my original concept to help charities fundraise through overseas challenge events,” he said at the time. “I want to thank the people of Britain for allowing the Kinder to come to the UK and for this amazing honor.”
The investiture took place on May 21, 2010, with two men knighted – Reich and Nicholas Hytner, the director of London’s National Theatre, who also happens to be Jewish.
“We rehearsed this way and rehearsed that way, and as usual I took very little notice of it all.
At the ceremony, Hytner was first because it’s alphabetical, and when it eventually came to my turn, I put the wrong knee down. So what does Charles say? ‘I’m glad one of us knows what to do!’ “He said, ‘Have we met before?’ “I said, ‘Yes, at the Kindertransport.’ “So he said, ‘Oh yes, I’m so glad the Kindertransport has got recognition.’ “Because he does have a soft spot for that whole period. Anyway, during the rehearsals, you’re taught to then bow, but I forgot and just turned around and walked out. We have a film of it. Then we had a party and all that. It was a very happy and a very special memory.”