Keren David

The green and pleasant town that saved Jews

The people of Welwyn Garden City realised the threat posed to Jews in 1939 and did something about it

December 21, 2020 09:12

In a year of cancelled parties, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the town where I grew up was one of them. Faced with the pandemic, the people of Welwyn Garden City postponed plans for a carnival attended by the Queen until next summer when, hopefully, celebrations will be allowed again.

Given the circumstances, the town’s centenary was marked in quieter ways — the launching of trails “celebrating the 19,000 trees that can be found across the town”, and a 20.20km countryside walk. A lifesize bronze statue of Sir Ebenezer Howard has been cast, to honour the town’s founder.

In an age of toppled statues, how good to see a man honoured who thoroughly deserves it, someone whose vision of a new kind of living — bringing town and countryside together — came to glorious, green fruition first in Letchworth and then in 1920 with the founding of Welwyn Garden City.

You might think that I am going a little over the top here, and my praise is coloured by the kind of nostalgia that only comes when someone has left their childhood home and — decades later, living in a London terraced house, overlooking a cement factory — dreams of its beauty and charm.

True, when I was a teenager, I yearned for urban grit rather than abundant cherry blossom. But my appreciation of Howard’s vision isn’t just about his early understanding that time spent in nature is essential to good mental health. It’s also about the early years of the town’s Jewish community.

The garden city movement attracted social liberals — Quakers, vegetarians, pacifists. They realised the threat that Hitler’s ascent to power posed to the Jews, and they did something about it, spurred by a Jewish refugee and student Edgar Reissner, a Quaker, Geoffrey Edwards and a Jewish factory owner Wim van Leer. In 1939 the town formed a committee to try and help Jewish children escape Nazi persecution, under the chairmanship of Captain Richard Reiss, a Liberal politician who had worked closely with Howard to raise the money to buy the land on which the town was built. He made a house available to create a hostel for refugees. Townspeople donated the funds to equip and run it, and to pay for the visas needed to bring them to Britain.

Wim van Leer, aged just 25, showed incredible courage by travelling to Germany arriving in Leipzig on Kristallnacht. Somehow — almost unbelievably — he managed to organise exit visas for 14 young Jewish men, some of whom were already in concentration camps. They arrived in Welwyn Garden City to a warm reception from local people - the front page of the Welwyn Times bore a welcome. For one young man, Sam Ostro, it felt as though the hostel was, if not heaven, then next door to it.

Sam, now aged 103, was a constant presence in the shul built in the 1950s on land adjacent to the Quaker meeting house. He, and the other refugees who made their homes in our town rarely spoke of the horrors which they had escaped. But somehow, at our shul, among kind, gentle people with German accents, we all understood the importance of helping people in need. And although we were always a small congregation, many of us went on to work in the wider Jewish community here and in Israel, perhaps a reflection of the community spirit we learned from our shul and our town.

The ability to understand the needs of minority groups was also on display at my primary school in the 1960s and 70s. When my mother talked to the headteacher about her Jewish children learning Christian hymns in assembly, asking that we could stay out of collective worship, his response was to drop all New Testament readings and all hymns featuring Jesus. Instead we had a daily reading from David Kossoff’s Old Testament stories, and many renditions of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

Sometimes I think about how many Jews might have been saved if every town in the UK had acted like Welwyn Garden City. Ebenezer Howard’s utopian vision translated not only into a pleasant place to live, but a launchpad for life-saving social action. Happy 100th birthday, and I look forward to spring’s cherry blossom and summer’s carnival day.


December 21, 2020 09:12

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