Diplomat who faced down the Gestapo

The visa scheme he created helped an estimated 48,000 escape the Nazis

By Simon Rocker, October 24, 2013
Robert Smallbones, with his wife, Inga

Robert Smallbones, with his wife, Inga

Were it not for him, Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger might not have been born, nor Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, nor thousands of other British Jews.

The name of Robert Smallbones will be unfamiliar to many. For only now has the British diplomat finally begun to receive recognition for his efforts to pluck Jews out of Nazi Germany.

Rabbis Neuberger and Wittenberg both had grandparents who, thanks to a secret visa scheme he instigated as the British consul-general in Frankfurt, were able to escape to Britain.

Earlier this year, he and his vice-consul, Arthur Dowden, were posthumously honoured by the British government as “Holocaust Heroes”.

A plaque to the two men was also dedicated last week by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, on the green fronting of one of London’s largest Jewish cemeteries, Hoop Lane in Golders Green.

A second plaque was also placed in memory of Eleanor Rathbone, the anti-Nazi MP who campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Jews hoping for safe haven in Britain.

All three “went over and above their remit to enable refugees to find safety on this island”, the cemetery’s chairman, John Curtis, said.

When the Nazis went on the rampage during Kristallnacht in November 1938, Mr Smallbones was on a visit to London, his grand-daughter Sandra Wellington recalled.

“My grandmother Inga called him urgently to say the British Consulate- General — which also served as their private residence — was being besieged by hundreds of desperate Jews and that she had allowed all who sought refuge to spend the night as best they could in the house. She asked him to do something to help.”

The visa for Baroness Neuberger’s grandfather, with Dowden’s signature

The visa for Baroness Neuberger’s grandfather, with Dowden’s signature

But the Home Office told him that “it was difficult to do anything, especially at a time of high unemployment in Britain, and asked him if he had any ideas”.

The visa scheme he created would enable people to secure refuge in Britain for two years before going on to America. It was approved by the government without attracting publicity and kept hidden from Parliament.

In Germany, his family were already doing their best to help. When Mrs Wellington’s mother, Irene, then 19, came back from riding one day, she saw a pair of Gestapo men trying to drag off a Jewish man so “she flew at them with her horsewhip and beat the Gestapo people,” she recalled. “But they still dragged him away and she always regretted she hadn’t managed to save him.

“She also told me that the consulate staff had hidden a Jewish man in the building for some time without her father’s knowledge — to protect both — and that on one of her rides, she had come across rows of Jews hanging from trees… this haunted her for the rest of her life.”

Armed with the paperwork, Mr Smallbones and Mr Dowden worked late into the nights in Frankfurt to try to get as many Jews out as they could.

Rabbi Neuberger still has the visas signed for her grandparents by Mr Dowden. Her mother, who came here in 1937, had been planning to return to Germany if her parents had not got out.

Mr Smallbones showed no hesitation in facing down the local Gestapo head when he went to demand the release of Jews from concentration camps to go to Britain. When the Gestapo tried to raise obstacles, Mrs Wellington said, “he jumped up, banged the table and shouted at them. He said this just proves the Germans are uncivilised and stamped out of the room. The Gestapo man came running after him and agreed to it.

“He just said in his memoirs, this is how you treat bullies.”

Forced to return to Britain in 1939, he was told that as many as 48,000 people were thought to have got out through the visa scheme implemented by him, Mr Dowden and other consuls.

Mrs Wellington — who lives in Brazil, where Mr Smallbones died aged 92 in 1976 — is now trying to collect testimonies from some of the descendants of those he helped for a book.

As to what motivated her grandfather, she said that he used to say he felt like a “good boy scout who had merely done his duty”.

Last updated: 6:45pm, October 24 2013