A hero remembered

Schonfeld risked everything to save 10,000 Jewish children from Hitler’s clutches.

Jonathan Schonfeld 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Schonfeld 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, around 300 people gathered in the auditorium at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is safe to say that, without the superhuman efforts of Rabbi Dr.
Solomon Schonfeld, the hall would have been empty. Schonfeld was responsible for almost singlehandedly saving the lives of around 4,000 Jews in the months before the outbreak of World War II, and some more in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust in 1945.
The gathering at Yad Vashem marked the centenary of Schonberg’s birth and was attended by the men and women he saved, as well as their second, third and even fourth generation descendants. The original survivors, all now well into their “golden age,” were mostly children between ages four and 17, whom Schonfeld arranged to be sent to England as part of the Kindertransport operation.
All told, around 10,000 Jewish children and youths from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia were saved from Hitler’s clutches as part of the rescue mission. The first group of children left for Britain from Germany on December 1, 1938 – and the work continued, at an increasingly frenzied pace, right until the outbreak of war at the beginning of September 1939.
The Schonfeld memorial event was organized by 87-year-old Jerusalemite Emanuel Fischer, who, like my mother and her two sisters, was on the first transport arranged by the rabbi, out of Vienna, on December 20, 1938.
The difference between the youngsters whom Schonfeld rescued and the other kinder was that the former all came from religious families. According to a biography of Schonfeld, Holocaust Hero, published in 2004 by David Kranzler, a German-born American researcher and historian who specialized in people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Schonfeld often had a hard time trying to convince the Jewish establishment in Britain to support his religious Kindertransport efforts.
Last week’s Yad Vashem program featured some stirring addresses, including one by Schonfeld’s son Jonathan, who came from London to attend, and another by 89-year-old Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld – no relation – who lauded his namesake’s efforts, and highlighted his success in keeping the kinder “within the Jewish fold.”
“Without Schonfeld we might have lost many children to the Jewish faith,” noted Fischer. “Schonfeld made sure we all got a good education.”
That meant providing the youngsters with good secular, as well as religious, instruction.
Despite the concerns of British Orthodoxy that religious refugee children would not find their place in British culture, Schonfeld also made sure the kinder learned English as quickly as possible and got good all-round schooling.
“I arrived in London on a Friday and we had our first English class on the Sunday,” Fischer recalled. Naturally, there was a strong religious aspect to this: “The first thing we learned in English was ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ I’ll never forget that,” said the octogenarian.
FISCHER WAS delighted with the response to his invitation to attend the Schonfeld tribute. “When I first approached Yad Vashem they said: ‘We’ll cater for 100 people,’ and I thought we’ll be lucky if we get 50 to 60 people. I didn’t expect more. I thought we could have the event in the synagogue at Yad Vashem, which has a capacity of about 130. But, when more and more people started responding, Yad Vashem moved the event to the auditorium,” said Fischer. “Yad Vashem did a marvelous job.”
In retrospect, the event was bound to attract large numbers.
There is a strong bond between kinder from all over the world and, although they did not all have similar experiences – the lucky ones were reunited with their parents after the war and, on the odd occasion, even during the war, some were taken in by kindly foster families, while others were treated poorly, and some lived in hostels – there is an overriding sense of shared fate.
The first Kindertransport reunion took place in London in 1988, to mark the 50th anniversary of the first transports, arranged by Bertha Leverton. That initial gathering attracted hundreds of people from Israel, the US, Britain, Germany and other countries, and it was followed by similarly well-attended reunions in 1998 and 2008. The latter was also attended by the Prince of Wales and, in 2005, Leverton was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. So much for kinder not finding their place in British society.
If pressed to try to encapsulate the Schonfeld approach to getting things done, Fischer would say that the rabbi was an expert at problem-solving, in an unconventional way. “He was good at bending the rules. Schonfeld used to say that if a problem could not be solved it would be circumvented.” On one occasion, eager to get visas to Vienna for another group of kinder, Schonfeld walked over 30 kilometers to London Airport on a Shabbat to make sure the precious permits got to Austria on the evening plane.
One of the most surprising things about Schonfeld is that he took on such a demanding role at such a young age – he was just 26 years old when he organized his first Kindertransport. In fact, he had responsibility thrust upon his young but sturdy shoulders several years before when he took over his first position as head of the small Adas Yisroel Synagogue community in North London, following his father’s death at the age of only 49.
“When we arrived in London, we were all surprised to see how young he was,” recalled Fischer. “We all expected to see an older gentleman with a long white beard.”
FISCHER AND his parents had a number of narrow escapes before the 13-year-old boy made his way to the Westbahnhof railway station in Vienna, to escape to London. One Shabbat, around November 1938, Fischer and his father left their building to make their way to the synagogue.
However, they found a young man in an SS uniform – the son of their concierge – and two teenagers in the brown shirts of the Hitler Youth blocking their way.
“They told us we were not to leave the building because it was not safe for us out on the streets,” said Fischer. In fact, the concierge’s son came to the Fishers’ rescue a second time just before Kristallnacht.
“He came to our door and said we were to give him all our valuables and cash, and that he would return them to us later,” recalled Fischer. “My parents gave him everything because they knew he could take it anyway.”
The young man told the family they were not to cook or turn on lights, leave the apartment or make any noise for the next few days. On Kristallnacht there was a knock at the door and then the Fischers heard the young man telling the others to leave the place alone as the Fischers were “his Jews,” and that he had taken care of them. A few days later he returned with all the family’s valuables. Fischer recalls watching the Jewish school next door burn down on the night of November 10, and the firemen spraying water on the adjoining apartment buildings, but not on the school.
A few weeks later, as he was about to leave for England, Fischer learned the reason for the concierge’s son’s largesse. “I went to say goodbye and I asked him why he had been so kind to us,” said Fischer.
“And he said that my father had always treated his father with respect. My father always told me to greet others before they greet me.” Wise advice indeed.
Happily, Fischer’s parents also survived.
“Schonfeld got my parents out three days before war broke out,” said Fischer, adding that even the kinder whose families were reunited before or after the war were severely traumatized by the events.
“The first trauma of all, for the kinder, was when they eventually became parents.
Then we had to ask ourselves whether we would have had the courage to do what our parents did with our own children. I think that creates a certain bond between us all.”
WHILE SCHONFELD performed miracles to sort out the paperwork in London, find homes for all the children – either in foster homes or by setting up hostels – and providing employment for older Jews he managed to get out, at the Yad Vashem gathering Fischer made special note of the begleiter, the Austrian-adult Jews who accompanied the kinder to England and, instead of saving themselves, returned to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Vienna.
“They didn’t want to give the Nazis an excuse to stop other children coming out,” said Fischer. “They are an heroic part of the Kindertransport.”
Schonfeld’s exploits continued after the war, when he went to Poland to save Jewish orphans. Ever resourceful, he rigged-up a fake British army officer’s uniform, complete with a Magen David insignia on the cap, and brought 100 orphans out of Poland and away from the post-war anti- Semitism that was rife there. He arranged for the children to be cared for at Clonyn Castle in Ireland. Fischer’s German-born wife Bertha was one of the Jews who went over from London to volunteer at the castle and help the children settle in.
“There must be tens of thousands of Jews today who owe their lives to Schonfeld,” Fischer noted, adding that the rabbi was also a keen matchmaker. “He had a little black book with names of young men and women. When I called him to tell him I was going to get married he asked me: ‘Is it Bertha?’ When I said yes, he said: ‘good, I had you down as a couple. I can cross your names out now.’” Schonfeld also attended many of the weddings, the Fischers’ and my parents’ included.
In the late 1950s an event was arranged in London to honor Schonfeld for his work, and to give the then princely sum of £10,000, which the Jewish community had raised. Schonfeld thanked his hosts for the funds and promptly passed them on to a charity.
“None of that money stuck to his fingers,” said Fischer. “A lot of people could learn from that.”