When we did not do enough

By Michael Freedland, June 21, 2013
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One of the most interesting things about the coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death was the revelation that her father, Alderman Roberts of Grantham, took in a Jewish refugee girl and gave her a new life. The story was similar to that of the Attenboroughs - the parents of Richard and David - who provided a home for two German Jewish girls who arrived here on the Kindertransport.

Plainly, they all deserve entries in the list of Righteous Among the Nations. Unfortunately, however, an equivalent honour could not be awarded to so many in the Anglo-Jewish community of 74 years ago - when children started arriving here on the Kindertransport trains.

At the time, a Jewish delegation had gone to see the Chamberlain government asking for help.The Kindertransports were the answer. But, to their everlasting shame, Jews in the street here were worried about having these strangers among us.

It is a disgrace that needs thinking about - one exemplified by the community in Bournemouth, where a scandal of appalling proportions is on record in the minute book of the Hebrew Congregation.

The community was asked to provide homes for young Jews from Germany and the then occupied countries, like Czechoslovakia. The worthies of the shul held a meeting, decided that the refugees might affect the wonderful relations they had with the local population and voted, not to do nothing - but to give the children ten shillings (50p)and have them taken to the local railway station. It makes members of a community that now answers all calls to help Jews - anywhere in the world - with kindness and alacrity, shudder. But, in those far off days, for every non-Jew who said yes, there were Jews who said no.

There were, of course, exceptions - one of them being my grandfather, Nathan Freedland. As a very young child, I remember going to his home in Brondesbury and always seeing there a lady whom I knew simply as Miss Cohen. It turned out that Grandpa had sponsored her as a domestic. She arrived at his door, metaphorically carrying her mop and bucket, only to be told that he didn't need a domestic, but that she now had a home. And there she stayed, living with my grandfather and his wife for years.

The wonderful work of non-Jews cloaks a phenomenon to which we as a Jewish community have long failed to give sufficient thought. Jews who turned down requests to help the refugees were responsible for losing Jewish lives. The children did find homes, but were taken in by people who saw no reason to bring them up as Jews.

Many of these good folk were Quakers. As a result, we are now hearing about men and women with distinctly non-Jewish names who long ago achieved great success and who clearly do not even think of ever having had a Jewish heritage - or if they do, it is of no significance to them.

They have joined, among others, several Christian clergymen with (very recent) ancestors who themselves had ceased to be Jewish - not least the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the former canon of St Paul's, Giles Fraser, both of whom now proudly talk about their Jewish backgrounds.

Lord Dubs, a former MP, came here with a group of Czech children. His father was Jewish "but secular". His mother was not. "I have never thought of myself as Jewish," he told me, "but I was not typical. My parents escaped separately and brought me up here. But I have to say, I have often thought about the former Kindertransport people I meet and wonder how it is they lived in non-Jewish areas and have non-Jewish names."

Well, I do know. I also know that the pre-war Jewish community had a lot to answer for. Lord Dubs was shocked when I told him the long-ago Bournemouth story. "How disgraceful," he said. Quite.

Last updated: 1:45pm, June 21 2013