LONDON — Between 1941 and 1944, Aron and Misa Cohen and their nine children were taken from Libya and held in a variety of Nazi-occupied areas, including several months in Bergen Belson, before being repatriated via Morocco. As records just released by the UK’s National Archives show, after the war the family moved to Rosh Pina and eventually applied to a special £1 million Holocaust compensation fund that was jointly administered by the British government and the government of West Germany.
As proof of their stay in Bergen Belsen, Cohen even — as his file shows — sent the fabric yellow star that he had been forced to wear in the camp. The empty envelope – he asked for its return — remains in his file.
On his application, Cohen also recorded his British bonafides. He attested that he was born in Benghazi, Libya, on December 12, 1894, and was “of British nationality by birth.” His wife, Misa, nee Rubin, was born in the same city on September 4, 1899, and was British because of her marriage.
However, in a note to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, their file says: “They state they were in Bergen Belsen from September 1943 until the end of that year… We should be interested to know if the Israeli authorities can provide any evidence of the Cohens’ confinement in Belsen. The International Tracing Service has been able to confirm some of the Cohens’ movements, but not their period in Belsen.”
Eventually the couple was given £458.15 — but nothing for their children.
Indeed, as the newly released files show, most of the 4,000 applicants to the special fund were bitterly disappointed as British bureaucracy and endless questioning of bona fides by Foreign Office officials meant that only 1,015 people got any money out of the scheme, which closed on March 31, 1966.
File after file, a pathetic paper trail, show the British erring on the side of cold rules and regulations rather than sympathy and compassion, with comments written in the notes such as “she is as much the victim of her own nerves as anything — the Nazis do not seem to have actually done anything directly against her.”
Months, and in some cases years, were spent assessing whether some prison camps in which people had been kept by the Nazis had the same degree of cruelty as concentration camps. Many of the applications were sent on to the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross to try to cross-match the claims of the applicants, though in some cases it proved difficult to impossible, depending on the surname.
At the archives’ unveiling last week, Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, told The Times of Israel, “More than 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, we are still learning about this appalling period in history.
“The opening of these important historic archives will help to shed light on the post-Holocaust issues faced by survivors, as well as allowing us to read what was likely to be the first written account many survivors gave of their experiences. No doubt they will prove to be essential academic and educational resources,” said Pollock.
The Cohens were fortunate to get anything from the scheme. In the cases of other Jews who had settled in Israel, there were question marks over the exact nature of their British nationality, with Foreign Office officials wondering whether those who were “Palestinian” — that is, they had settled while the area was still under the rule of the British Mandate — qualified for the scheme at all.
Israel Levine of Hadera was caught between two bureaucracies with his application. He was born in London in 1905, but, aged five, was taken to Poland by his parents. He grew up there and joined the Polish army.
“Eventually, with the remnants of this army, I came to Palestine,” he wrote, adding bleakly: “In the meantime, my wife and five children were murdered by the Nazis.”
Applying for funds in July 1964, Levine wrote: “Now I am about 60, my health is not what it was, and but for the murder of my poor children, I would not have to be concerned for my old age. As you are certainly aware, the West German government pays certain indemnification as to victims of Nazi persecution and their dependents, and naturally, I applied for the compensation due to me for the murder of my children.
‘Eventually, I came to Palestine. In the meantime, my wife and five children were murdered by the Nazis’
“But this claim was refused on the grounds that I was not a fugitive in the sense of the German law as I, as a British subject, could always have gone, after the war, to the UK,” wrote Levine.
The fact that Britain ruled the area under the mandate at the time that Levine had arrived there made no difference to the West German authorities —and since his file does not record any payment made, it is more than likely that he did not receive any money from the British scheme, either.
Leon Greenman, who died in London in 2008, aged 97, was one of the best-known British Holocaust survivors, who spent many years in his retirement talking about the Shoah to generations of schoolchildren. The Jewish Museum in London’s permanent Holocaust gallery tells the story of Leon Greenman and his family.
But his Foreign Office file shows a scrappy, mulish and combative man who wrote dozens of letters and sought many meetings with MPs in his attempt to secure compensation for himself and the deaths of his wife, Esther, and three-year-old son, Barney, all of whom had been deported, first to Westerbork in the Netherlands and then to Auschwitz.
Greenman had the misfortune to hold both British and Dutch nationality, though he was born in London. British officials regarded him as “a Dutch Jew” and, indeed, he was offered compensation by the Dutch government, which he rejected.
Official letters describe him as “an unbalanced man who appears to have only revenge for the death of his wife and child as his purpose for living – or so he says.”
Greenman was refused compensation under the Anglo-German scheme, and then tried, again unsuccessfully, to secure British government support in “bringing to justice two Dutch officials, the retired Swiss consul-general and the German commandant of Westerbork [concentration camp].”
The sense of frustration by the British officials is evident in the notes in his file: “Mr. Greenman is eligible to receive money from the Dutch and has been offered 5,000 Guilders but refuses to touch it. He is therefore barred from our scheme but I do not think he will accept this quietly. What can we do? We don’t want another interview!!!” Later, another official writes: “Mr. Greenman will almost certainly create trouble, no matter what we say.”
His MP, Arthur Lewis, took up his case, asking, pointedly: “Is HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] legally or morally justified in divesting themselves of responsibility for a British subject who was born in this country?”
‘Is HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] legally or morally justified in divesting themselves of responsibility for a British subject who was born in this country?’
Another MP who fought hard for compensation for the victims of Nazi persecution was the Conservative Airey Neave, who was assassinated in 1979 by an IRA bomb outside the House of Commons. Neave, famously an escaper from the Colditz prisoner-of-war camp, asked a question of Foreign Secretary Rab Butler in parliament in March 1964.
“Is my right hon. Friend aware of the very serious concern on both sides of the House that 19 years after the war no settlement has been reached about members of the British public who were in concentration camps? Will he see that in future this matter is dealt with at the highest level with the Federal Government [of West Germany]?” asked Neave.
Neave took up the case of Emily Gould, who applied for compensation on behalf of her late son, Terence. In April 1964, she wrote a heartfelt account of her son’s experience during the war.
“My son, Terence Gould, ex-RAF Warrant Officer, was the rear gunner in a Halifax bomber, which came down in flames over France on the night before D Day [June 6, 1944]. He was hiding with the Maquis [the French Resistance] for eight weeks until he was betrayed to the Germans, and put in Fresnes Prison where he went through three weeks of hell, expecting to be shot any time. The Germans knew they were airmen, but treated them like political prisoners.
“Meantime,” wrote Gould, “the Americans were advancing and the Germans decided to evacuate them. Then began a nightmare journey of five days, and they were packed into trucks, 70-80 in each truck, taking turns to sit down. They saw one of the fliers shot in the hand because he put it too near the barbed wire strung over the window. He was being attended to when he was told to leave the truck. He got out, and while walking along, two guards shot him in the back.
“My son described the utter bewilderment of the men when they got to Buchenwald… for punishment one was likely to be sent up to the Museum for a week — this was the laboratory where they treated human beings like guinea-pigs and inoculated them with loathsome diseases,” wrote Gould.
Terence Gould died, aged only 32, in 1948, almost certainly as a result of conditions developed from his wartime experiences. His mother received just £183.10 from the compensation scheme.
An applicant who did rather better was Tania Rosandic, the daughter of the renowned British Special Operations Executive agent, Violette Szabo, who was executed in Ravensbruck concentration camp after being tortured by the Gestapo in February 1945.
Szabo, whose heroic exploits in wartime France were recorded in the 1958 feature film, “Carve Her Name With Pride,” was born in Paris to a British father and French mother. Officials spent months trying to establish whether Szabo’s father, Charles Bushell, was really British.
Tania Szabo did not initially apply for compensation herself; instead one of her mother’s former colleagues in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, Mary Hamilton, told government officials she was “most anxious to help,” as Tania Rosandic’s father was killed at El Alamein shortly after she was born.
Once the application to the Ango-German scheme was made, Ministry of Pension officials were sent round to Tania Rosandic to see if she needed money. One, noting the success of the film about her mother (it starred Virginia McKenna), noted that “she did not seem to be in a poor way.”
Nevertheless Rosandic was finally granted interim compensation of £1,000 in 1966. A year later, she was given an additional £1,293 and 15 shillings.
The stories which emerge from the files are at times heartbreaking and — very occasionally — wryly amusing.
Gertrude Kuhnert, a British Jew who was imprisoned first in Berlin and then taken to Theresienstadt, was profoundly dissatisfied with the £272 she received from the scheme. She complained: “It goes too far, to take money what [sic] was meant for British-born Nazi victims and pay the others as well. If one notices how many youngsters of today earn thousands of pounds with all their screaming and noise-making and some may even get the MBE [she was referring to the Beatles].”
But the smiles quickly dim when Kuhnert added: “I myself escaped the gas chamber only just and my brother was murdered by the Germans in Buchenwald.”
In another letter she wrote: “Some people suffer more in a shorter time like myself and some can stand it longer.” In pencil, an official has written: “Unfortunately, we can’t calculate on relative time!”
Elizabeth Margaret Spira was a nurse at the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna. A naturalized Briton, she was taken with patients to Theresienstadt where she saw that “children could not eat for fear [of] what we will do with them, as they had seen their parents never came out any more.” None of the children wanted to be clean, she said. In the end, she wrote, the nurses cleaned them up “only to send them back, to be gassed.”
Spira’s file contains a harrowing three-page testimony of life at Auschwitz and details of a visit by Eichmann, but despite such details, she was turned down for compensation.