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Obituary: Charlotte Michaels MBE

Jewish athlete banned by Nazis, later honoured by Britain for charitable work

    Charlotte with her 100th birthday card from the Queen
    Charlotte with her 100th birthday card from the Queen

    She was fortunate to escape the horrors of Nazism by leaving Danzig in Germany with her family in the late 1930s. But CharlotteMichaels, who has died aged 100, came to learn the truth of East London poverty while working as a youth leader in the Stepney Boys and Girls Club. It left a profound impression on her.

    She was born in Danzig, then in the German province of East Prussia. After the end of the First World War, this tiny republic of 430,00, wedged between Poland and Germany on the Baltic, was created by the victorious allies out of the German and Austrian Empires. But in the 1933 election, the Nazi Party took control of the Danzig government and Charlotte’s idyllic life changed forever. 

    A gifted athlete, she had been chosen to lead a Danzig gymnastics team, but when the organisers realised she was Jewish she was forced to stand down. Her Jewish sports club was closed and non-Jewish clubs would not allow her entry. 

    Under the Nazis, Jews suffered increasingly draconian rules and treatment. Charlotte had to leave school, and took up a dress-making apprenticeship. Fortunately the family’s summer home was close to the border with Poland, enabling them to walk to the beach or a café, using their Danzig passports. Charlotte and her friends became increasingly Zionist with many making aliyah. The Danzig railway station was legally Polish so when young people left for Palestine they were sent off with the sound of the  Hatikvah  ringing in their ears.

    In 1934, Charlotte’s sister married and moved to England. Charlotte made her first visit to England in 1935. Later that year she went to Palestine. It was the first of many trips to Israel, a country she loved deeply. However, her father decided she should learn English and a trade before returning to Palestine. Having already been apprenticed to a dressmaker in Danzig, she continued to learn the trade, before training to be a nursery nurse. Later she worked full time as a youth leader in the Stepney Boys and Girls Club in London’s East End, where she encountered the poverty that had shocked her.

    Between 1935 and 1938 when her family finally left Danzig, she went home several times, travelling through Nazi Germany and Poland and crossing borders easily, armed with her City of Danzig passport. English Jewry, however, was not entirely welcoming.  On her first Yom Tov in London she was refused entry in a number of synagogues as she did not have a ticket.

    Her family left Danzig just before Kristallnacht, with sufficient funds to purchase a farm in Bedfordshire, which was used as a Hashara, training young Jewish refugees in agricultural skills before moving to Palestine. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, however, the family lost much of its money in Europe and the Hashara effectively closed. Many of the young people were interned and a good number made lives in North America and Palestine.

    In 1941 Charlotte married fellow refugee Michael Michaels at Alyth Gardens Reform Synagogue. When Hendon Reform Synagogue was built opposite their home in the early 1960’s they became very active members. Cheder classes were held in their home and they were involved in almost every aspect of the community. Michael represented Hendon Reform Synagogue on the Board of Deputies and they were very active members of the Council of Christians and Jews.

    After Michael died in 1986 Charlotte threw herself into charitable work. She organised volunteers in making meals for the homeless every week; she was the local administrator for the Macmillan Cancer collection, and she was very active in the League of Jewish Women, visiting and providing essential services to individuals and families unable to care for themselves or who were in challenging circumstances.

    For years she led Kabbalat Shabbat services at Hammerson House and other Jewish care homes. For over ten years she was a volunteer support teacher at St John’s C of E school in Hendon where there was some amusement at the thought that some of the children to whom she taught reading would pick up on her strong middle European accent.

    She kept physically active playing tennis until she was 90.  An annual highlight was going on exotic holidays, taking with her one of her eight grandchildren, with whom she developed a great bond and to whom she passed on her values  of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world.)

    When she was awarded an MBE for charitable services her initial reaction was disbelief, followed by “not bad for a refugee!”

    Charlotte is survived by her children Leslie, Tony and Juliette, seven grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.

    Leslie Michaels

    Charlotte Michaels: born March 23, 1917. Died 20 January 20, 2018.