Friday 27 January 2017

Extraordinary Lives : A Gay Pimpernel

On this Holocaust Memorial Day I want to bring you the story of another Holocaust hero. He was a great-grandson of the Chief Rabbi of England, the manager of the biggest department store in Berlin, and helped to rescue thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.

Dubbed “the Real Scarlet Pimpernel” by the Association of Jewish Refugees, with whom he worked during the war, Wilfrid Israel was born in London in 1899 into a wealthy Anglo-German Jewish family. He was destined to become the manager of the family business, a Berlin department store that was renowned throughout Germany. The store employed over 2,000 people and it was one of the first commercial businesses in Germany to offer sickness insurance and extra pensions for its employees. Facilities such as sports clubs, drama groups and long weekends were also provided. Being born into this atmosphere of philanthropy Wilfrid went on to go beyond this social conscience once the Nazis began their physical persecution of the Jews.

As a very wealthy Jew he had the financial resources and connections in England to escape the persecution, but he chose to stay in Germany and use these resources and connections to help the less fortunate to escape instead.

Wilfrid’s humanitarian work began in the 1920s after establishing contact with the Jewish Youth movement in Germany, the League of Nations and British intelligence.

The beginning of 1933 saw a huge change in European politics. Adolf Hitler was sworn in as German chancellor in January. In February the German parliament building was destroyed by fire in what Hitler proclaimed was a Communist plot. This gave him the excuse to ban all Communists from parliament and establish the Nazi majority rule that led to his dictatorship.

Wilfrid’s store was raided in March and he was arrested for not firing his Jewish employees. His influential connections helped to secure his release. However, Jewish businesses like his own were boycotted. He was determined to stay put even when other Jewish businesses closed down.

As the persecution of the Jews grew with Hitler’s power many Jews, aware of Wilfrid Israel’s progressive social conscience, came to him for help. He formed secret networks within the Nazi establishment which enabled him to influence the release of many people from concentration camps by providing documents and money to help them to escape Germany.

Unlike the Nazi party who sought to indoctrinate children Wilfrid saw them as innocent victims of propaganda and played as huge part in what is called the Kindertransport, the international programme which saw thousands of children being taken away from Germany and central Europe to more safe nations.

Despite being a known Jew and potentially dangerous Wilfrid was allowed to travel internationally. This enabled him to visit Palestine and the kibbutz Hazorea which was founded by Jews who had already left Germany. Wilfrid was a pioneer of the youth migration movement to the kibbutz and aided many in settling there, and today it houses his vast collection of Asian artifacts.

In 1940 Wilfrid moved to Britain after being alerted by his spies that he was about to be arrested. In Britain he continued to work for German Jews. Many had been locked up as “enemy aliens” in British camps and he worked for several refugee organisations in getting many of them released. He constantly urged the British government to do more to help children escape from Germany after the termination of the Kindertransport programme in 1940.

Thousands of immigration documents for the settlement of British-controlled Palestine were printed and Wilfrid set about distributing them. At the same time he was persuading the Jewish Agency to help him rescue thousands of Jewish refugees from Vichy France and fascist Spain and Portugal.

In 1943 he was sent on a mission to Lisbon to begin the task of getting refugees out of Portugal. Two months later, on 1st June 1943, he was flying back to London to prepare for rescue work in France when the plane was attacked by Nazi fighter planes and shot down. All 17 people on board were killed. This attack became one of the most well-known events of World War II. Not because of Wilfrid Israel but because of a more well-known passenger who perished on that flight, actor Leslie Howard, himself a European Jew.

It has been rumoured ever since that the plane was shot down because Leslie Howard was on board. Howard was reputed to have been a spy. The real reason may never be known, but it is also possible that the Germans knew Wilfrid Israel was on that plane and that he was the intended target.

In later decades the name and work of Wilfrid Israel faded from war histories to be overtaken by other great rescuers such as Sir Nicholas Winton and Oskar Schindler. A recent biography and film have brought Wilfrid’s name and great works into the wider public arena. This modest, very private, hero deserves to be recognised for his extraordinary bravery and efforts to see an estimated 30,000 people resettled or released from incarceration.
Poster for the 2016 film biography of Wilfrid Israel
Perhaps the final words should be ones attributed to Leslie Howard. Two of Howard’s most famous film roles were as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Pimpernel Smith, the latter having a remarkable similarity to the work of Wilfrid Israel himself. It is reputed that when Howard and Israel met one said to the other “I have only played the part of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but you were the Scarlet Pimpernel”.

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