Wilfrid Israel was a German Jewish businessman who organized and funded rescue operations that saved large numbers of European Jews, including 10,000 Jewish children on the Kindertransport.
Wilfrid was born in Berlin in 1899 to a wealthy Jewish family who owned the Nathan Israel Department Store, the largest store in Germany before the Second World War. He became manager of the business when he was 22 years old, supervising over 2000 workers. Wilfrid was a gentle and kind man with no trace of arrogance, despite being young, rich, and important. He took great personal interest in his employees.
As anti-semitism in Germany grew during the Nazi rise to power in the 1920’s, Wilfrid instinctively knew that things were going to get much worse for German Jews. Unlike many who insisted it was a just a phase which would soon pass, Wilfrid took the threat seriously. Using his personal fortune and connections in high places, he began arranging and paying for many of his Jewish employees to leave Germany, thus beginning a rescue effort that would eventually save thousands of European Jews.
Wilfrid was active in the Youth Aliyah (immigration) movement to send young European Jews to work on kibbutz farms in the land of Israel. The first participants were 12 young men who were fired from jobs in Germany for being Jewish. Wilfrid paid for all travel and supply costs to move them to British-mandate Palestine.
When the Nazis came to power in the early 1930’s, they immediately started harassing Jewish business owners and workers in Berlin. On March 30, 1933, the Gestapo raided the Israel department store and demanded that Wilfrid fire all the Jewish workers. He refused and was promptly arrested and beaten. He was released when one of his employees, a Nazi, intervened.
Soon after, the Nazi regime announced a boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses. Storm troopers were stationed at the entrance to the Nathan Israel Department Store to keep shoppers away, but devoted customers insisted on entering. The store’s wild popularity kept it in business, even with the large sign reading “Israel” in the center of Berlin.
As Jews fled Berlin in the 1930’s, Wilfrid refused to abandon his business. Since so many Jewish leaders had left, Wilfrid became the go-to man for Jews who needed help of any kind, and the chief representative for German Jewry. He saved many Jews from concentration camps by bribing guards to release them.
On Kristallnacht, November 9 1938, the SS again raided the store, this time arresting all the Jewish employees and looting or destroying all the merchandise. Wilfrid learned that the arrested Jews had been taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He began negotiating with the camp commander, who agreed to release the Jewish employees if he could do all his Christmas shopping at the store for free.
Wilfrid’s efforts increasingly focused on saving Jewish children. He was an integral part of the Kindertransport, a monumental operation that rescued ten thousand Jewish children from Nazi-occupied parts of Eastern Europe, and placed them safely with British families. He organized the complicated logistics of the operation, and recruited British Quakers, whom he’d worked with on humanitarian issues after World War I, to join the cause and facilitate the children’s travel.
By 1939 it was no longer possible for Jewish businesses to exist in Berlin, and Wilfrid was forced to sell the store for considerably under fair market value. He sent a letter to all 2000 employees, saying, “At this moment of farewell, after joint work over generations, I want to express once again my profoundest gratitude and personal thanks to all my colleagues, who have served the company so faithfully for so long.” Soon, posters appeared all over town: “Change in the ownership of N. Israel. Everyone is invited to the dedication of a company called Das Haus im Zentrum. Heil Hitler.”
Wilfrid moved to Britain and continued his rescue work. He used his influential contacts to get German Jews admitted into British transit camps, saving 8000 young people that way. In Britain, he was one of the first to speak out about the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. He urged his connections in government to help Jews but was rebuffed. He requested a British ship to rescue Jews from Germany, writing “[Jews] are now suffering the tortures of hell in one of the new concentration camps, in the so-called quarries of death… For many, the only way of escaping this torture is to run into wire entanglement loaded with high-tension electricity.” Wilfrid’s plea was ignored.
Wilfrid visited Palestine several times and was impressed with the hard-working young Jews who made the desert bloom. He was particularly fond of Kibbutz Hazorea, which was filled with refugees from Germany.
In May 1943, working on behalf of the Jewish Agency, Wilfrid traveled to Lisbon to help refugees there. Tragically, it became his final mission. On June 1, 1943, Wilfrid was on a small plane traveling from Lisbon to Bristol when it was shot down by a German fighter pilot. All seventeen people on board were killed, including Jewish movie star Leslie Howard. Twenty-five years later, Wilfrid’s close friend Emma Wohlwill remembered, “He came from London to help the refugees who were stuck in Spain and Portugal and get them out of there… He was full of enthusiasm and said it was possible… Ninety-seven certificates he had managed to prepare went down with him to the bottom of the sea.” Wilfrid Israel was 43 years old when he died. He left his art collection to Kibbutz Hazorea, and it became the acclaimed Wilfrid Israel Museum.
After his tragic passing, Wilfrid’s prominent friends commemorated him. Philosopher Martin Buber described Wilfrid Israel as “a man of great moral stature, dedicated to the service of others.” Albert Einstein said “Never in my life have I come in contact with a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was – in very truth a living work of art.”
Wilfrid Israel is the subject of a biography, “A Refuge from Darkness: Wilfrid Israel and the Rescue of the Jews” by Naomi Shepherd, as well as a documentary film, “The Essential Link.” Biographer Shepherd said of Wilfrid, “He wanted to remain anonymous, wanted no credit for what he did, no title, no fame.”
For using all his resources to save many thousands of his Jewish brothers and sisters, at great risk to himself, we honor Wilfred Israel as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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