Clement Attlee took in Jewish child refugee who fled Nazis, letters reveal

Paul Willer, now 90 and living in Gloucestershire, lived with the Labour politician for four months before the outbreak of war


Former Prime Minister Clement Attlee took in a Jewish child refugee who fled from the Nazis months before the Second World War, it has been revealed.

In 1939, Mr Attlee, then the leader of the opposition, sponsored a Jewish mother and her two children, allowing them to enter the UK once they had left Germany.

Testimony and letters have revealed that the Labour politician then invited one of the children into his home in Stanmore, North West London, the Guardian reported on Tuesday.

Paul Willer, the former refugee, is now 90 and lives is Gloucestershire. He lived with Mr Attlee and his wife for four months when he was ten years old, just before the beginning of the war.

Mr Willer told the Guardian: “It was a remarkable kindness, a generous offer. Attlee was a modest man. He did not try and glorify himself in any way. He did it for the right reasons.”

To mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport programme, which saw thousands of Jewish child refugees escape to the UK, Mr Willer has arranged to meet Mr Attlee’s granddaughter.

Correspondence held by Mr Willer’s mother, a Jewish doctor named Franziska, reveals that his father, Johannes, left the family home in 1933, declaring himself a Nazi sympathiser shortly afterwards.

Struggling to find work, and having witnessed Kristallnacht, Franziska decided to leave Germany and retrain as a midwife in Britain.

But rules prohibiting midwives from keeping children in hospital accommodation meant that Franziska needed someone to take her children in for a short period.

By that point, Mr Attlee had been the Labour leader for four years, and the party had abandoned its pacifist stance to oppose the policy of appeasement pursued by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Mr Willer told the Guardian: “They took me inside what was a very large house. They had a maid and a cook too. The next morning their son Martin [the late Lord Attlee], who was my age, took me upstairs and ran a cold bath, bathed, and encouraged me to do the same.

“I thought, ‘Is this what they do for Easter?’ It turned out that cold baths were what the males in the family did every day."

He called the future Labour prime minister "“a gentle man and a gentleman" who was"very good with the children and affectionate".

“At breakfast, we would gather around the table and he played this game where he held out a coin and asked whose monarch’s head was on it. Whoever gave the correct answer was allowed to keep the coin," Mr Willer said.

Before the outbreak of war, Mr Willer was sent to a school in Northern Ireland. He later worked as the sales director of a textiles firm, and raised a family in Hertfordshire.

Labour went on to win a general election in 1945 under Mr Atlee, who was prime minister until 1951.

As prime minister, he over Labour's creation of much of the modern welfare state in the post-war years.

Franziska’s diaries and letters are held by the Wiener Library in London.

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