British Prisoners of War who saved a Jewish girl from the Nazis were honoured as “Holocaust Heroes” by the government this week.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles presented awards to eight people who saved Jews from Nazi persecution during the Second World War.
Among them were four of the 10 British PoWs who helped save the life of 16-year-old Sara Matuson when they hid her in a hayloft at the Gross Golmkau, in northern Poland, for four weeks in January 1945.
Now known as Sara Hannah Rigler, the 84-year-old survivor lives today in the United States and has written a book, Ten British Prisoners of War Saved My Life, in which she described the heroic actions of the soldiers.
All 10 PoWs have been named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
Also honoured at the ceremony in London on Monday were Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who acquired more than 1,000 British visas for Jews to escape the Nazis and Lena Lakomy, who used her position as a nurse at Auschwitz to save the life of prisoner Hela Frank.
Tribute was also paid to the former consul-general in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, who provided visas for Jewish families and offered sanctuary to Jews in the consulate building; and to Arthur Dowden, the vice consul-feneral in Frankfurt who also made provided visas and distributed food to Jewish families in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.
Mr Pickles said: “The small acts of defiance make all the difference. Fighting the Nazis took many forms and produced unlikely heroes.”
He said that they had risked their lives “to help people from different countries, faiths and religion with scant regard to their own personal safety.
“While we can never pay back our debt to them, Britain is proud to honour their memory. These heroes make me proud to be British.”
David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale in Lancashire, collected the award for PoW Allan Edwards.
He said: “I was amazed when I heard this story and that we had this kind of connection that nobody talked about. I’ve been talking to people at the Lancaster City Museum and we’re trying to sort out a display to remind future generations about what happened and how Allan saved someone’s life.”
Maria Rogers, the granddaughter of PoW Roger Letchford, said her grandfather “never talked about what happened. I knew about Sarah because he still spoke to her and she used to send us Christmas cards. They met up years later at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.”
She added: “If my grandfather could help anyone he would — that was just the way he was. I’m going to take this award and show all the family. We’re going to loan it to the Dartford Museum in Kent because he was well-known in the area.”
Christopher Hammond, the nephew of PoW George Hammond who collected his uncle’s Holocaust Heroes award last month, is writing a book about the prisoners.
He said: “The phone doesn’t stop ringing all day It’s been quite hectic but now I want to focus on finding the families of the remaining four PoW’s -—when we find the rest we’ll be back to get their awards here next year.”
Mr Hammond, who picked up the award on behalf of PoW Stanley Wells' widow, described the soldiers’ first encounter with Mrs Rigler.
“They found her and decided as a group that evening they would look after her. She was in such a state, my uncle could put his hand around her thigh. She was covered in lice.”
PoW Harold Scruton died in 1987 — his niece Mavis Shaw picked up the award. She said that he “never spoke about what happened when he came home. But because of what happened to him, he had a hatred of the Germans.
“It’s a pity they weren’t honoured in their lifetime. As time goes on, people don’t appreciate what they went through, such horrible things are still going on in the world and you wonder if anyone has learnt anything.”
The event at Lancaster House was attended by religious leaders, by Sir Andrew Burns, a former UK ambassador to Israel and the standing UK envoy for post-Holocaust issues, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub, and representatives from the Board of Deputies and Holocaust Educational Trust.