Rabbi's restoration tale

By Madeleine Kingsley, April 19, 2012
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By Barbara Barnett Mansion Field, £24.95

Jewish refugee children arrive at the Port of London in February 1939. Schonfeld kept the flow going for a decade

Jewish refugee children arrive at the Port of London in February 1939. Schonfeld kept the flow going for a decade

The Hide-and-Seek Children

In the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War, the late Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, the marvellous hero of Barbara Barnett's story of post-Shoah redemption, trawled Slovakia for young survivors: orphans, slave labourers and those hidden away by righteous gentiles.

The dynamic Schonfeld had already saved thousands of children before and during the war, originally under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi's Religious Emergency Council. His extraordinary post-war mission was to offer young Slovak survivors a healing year in the Irish countryside.

Barnett's account is scholarly yet gripping, fleshed out with archive letters, documents and photographs. Schonfeld leaps out as a maverick force whose vision of restoring heritage, health and innocence to these traumatised youngsters brooked no barriers.

No money? No matter: among his North London congregants and further afield, Schonfeld campaigned for £1,000 in £1 pledges and prevailed upon wedding and barmitzvah guests to part with cash. A Manchester businessman and philanthropist Yankel Levy was persuaded to spend £30,000 buying Clonyn Castle, set in 1,600 acres near Dublin. Here, in 1948, 100 mistrustful and malnourished children aged between six and 17 arrived for a life-transforming idyll before rejoining their struggling families, or starting new lives in England, America or Israel.

Most of these children - whose deeply affecting memoirs Barnett gathered nearly half-a-century on - had suffered appallingly before setting out on this (at first totally bewildering) rural adventure. "Our personalities and demeanour reflected the vagaries of an utterly confused past and a lost childhood. We wore our misery on our faces", the then teenage Alfred Leicht recalls.

Some of the group were alarmed by dormitories with iron bedsteads requisitioned from Irish army supplies. Several screamed at the sight of a policeman. Many spirited food from the meal table, unsure if more would follow. And yet their story unfolds as a triumph of resilience and normality restored. "It was like paradise", remembers Dezider Rosenfeld, then 10.

Olga Grossman, aged 10 and an Auschwitz survivor, was initially frightened by games of hide-and-seek. "We associated hiding with fear…"

It's heartening to read how shattered lives blossomed into successful careers and the creation of new homes and families. Their benefactor, Levy, sadly became bankrupt through buying the castle. But he'd made his mark: Clonyn door-frames still bear the imprint of mezuzahs, long since removed.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

    Last updated: 4:42pm, April 19 2012