Jerry Springer stars in charity's archive of refugees from Nazism and their descendants

Thirty thousand personal histories are held in WJR's fascinating archive, Jerry Springer's among them


Think of World Jewish Relief and it will probably be about aid for impoverished Eastern European Jews or the victims of natural disasters.

What might not immediately resonate is the charity’s pivotal support of the Jewish immigrants who flooded into Britain after Hitler’s rise to power.

Although known as WJR since 1995, its was established in 1933 as the Central British Fund for German Jewry.

Among the founders were Chaim Weizmann — who went on to become Israel’s first president — Simon Marks, Robert Waley-Cohen and two members of the Rothschild dynasty.

CBF’s efforts helped bring around 65,000 Jewish children and adults to Britain in the 1930s and 40s.

Now WJR has opened its extensive collection of wartime records to the public. It holds around 30,000 case studies, most of them digitised.

Explained Richard Verber, the charity’s head of external affairs: “In 1933, the British Jewish community wasn’t quite sure whether Hitler was going to do what he had threatened to. They set out to raise the equivalent of £200 million in today’s money just in case they had to get Jews out.

“They also said to the government, ‘we may have to bring over Jewish refugees’, but the government said no.”

That outlook changed after Kristallnacht in 1938 when Britain agreed to take in unaccompanied children for temporary sanctuary, provided a surety of £50 per child was raised.

CBF was instrumental in funding the Kindertransport of around 9,300 children.

The WJR records offer a treasure trove of information on refugees, Holocaust survivors and their relatives. The majority of the physical material is housed at the London Metropolitan Archives. The online information — made available with the support of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, the Association of Jewish Refugees and the Otto Schiff Housing Association — includes birth certificates, immigration papers, school records and photographs.

Mr Verber said that although some records had been damaged over the years, “we do have a good half of them and we feel a moral duty to reunite people with their family records.

“They are the records of thousands and thousands of British Jews today [and] people who went on to live elsewhere around the world.”

Among the well-known entries are Jerry Springer, whose parents, Margot and Richard, were brought to the UK from Germany by the CBF in July 1939.

In 1944, Mrs Springer gave birth to Jerry, the couple’s second child, in the shelter in Highgate tube station. Twenty-seven members of Jerry Springer’s family died in the Holocaust and he attributes his parents’ survival to the charity.  He was “deeply touched” when WJR presented him with his parents’ records, adding: “These papers are a piece of family history which I will treasure forever.” He will be discussing his showbiz and political career at dinners in London and Manchester this month in aid of WJR.

Dedicated volunteers have assisted in the digitisation project and help to reconnect the records with the rightful owners or heirs.

Interested individuals are asked to register online, after which they are invited in for a meeting, at which volunteers talk them through the personal history and hand over physical copies of the material.

Documents held could relate to “anything from a little boy needing a pair of shoes to someone’s medical records — or how they got in trouble with the law”, Mr Verber said. 

“There have also been some dramatic revelations, like someone finding out their mother had died in a concentration camp, or another discovering that the person they thought of as their mother was not their birth mother.”

Debbie Cantor leads the team of five volunteers. Although she has volunteered for the charity for some time, her link to the records project is more personal.

“The chief executive told me about the archives. At that point, I said: ‘OK, if you can find anything for my grandparents who came as refugees from Vienna in 1939, I will give you a day a week of my time.”

It took just moments to locate the relevant information.

“Once I had seen the records, I was hooked,” Mrs Cantor said.

“Each file has its own individual story. It can get quite emotional as people don’t tend to know all the details that we have here. You would not necessarily expect to know about a relationship your grandmother had when she was 16 but those are the sort of things we have on our files.

“Sometimes we have just a card which might only have the name of the person, their date of birth, the date they came here and maybe the place they came from in Germany. But just seeing that card alone brings back the time for people.”

She added: “It’s really important that the next generation knows what they went through and what this country did to help.”

Mrs Cantor has found that some people are motivated by more than just a passing interest in their family history.

“More and more we are hearing from people who are searching for information in order to get a German passport. Our documents can help prove that person or their relative is from Germany.”

Around 1,200 people have been reunited with their records and Mr Verber hopes more refugees or their descendants will come forward. “It’s an amazing resource and there is no catch. People don’t have to make a donation if they don’t want to. We just feel it’s our responsibility to reunite the records with their owners.”

The service is publicised through WJR’s website and advertising. After a well-attended archives roadshow at JW3, the charity is holding one for the south London community in Roehampton on June 11.

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