Nine months prior to the start of World War II, some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children were welcomed into Great Britain from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland on the famous life-saving Kindertransports. Ironically, today those latter countries are among the most liberal of the European Union states to accept refugees from the Middle East, whereas Britain is seen as decidedly conservative.
After what has been initially decried as a “moral failure,” this week Prime Minister David Cameron signaled a willingness for England’s acceptance of an additional 20,000 refugees from Syria by 2020, prioritizing “vulnerable children and orphans.”
Since the outbreak of the 2011 civil war, some 5,000 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in England. According to a BBC report covering through June 2015, 85 percent of Syrian asylum requests were granted.
The new refugees would be allowed into the country through an expansion of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which allows them to remain in the country for five years with the right to work and to access services until they need to apply for residency.
“We will continue to show the world that this country is a country of extra compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need,” Cameron said in an emergency Commons debate on Tuesday.
But for some British Jews, that 20,000 allowance is a drop in a sea of refugees seeking homes, leading them to ask, is the United Kingdom in danger of losing its traditional role as a safe harbor?
Viewing the scenes of refugees and migrants, Sir Erich Reich, chairman of the Association of Jewish Refugees’ Kindertransport group, was moved to write a well-publicized letter to Cameron. Reich, who was only four when he arrived in England on a Kindertransport wrote that, “Without the intervention and determination of many people who are of many faiths, I – along with some 10,000 others – would have perished.”
Speaking with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Reich, clearly disappointed by the 20,000 number, said, “People who are in danger of losing their lives should be helped… England has always been a sort of harbor for helping people.”
Reich, who was knighted in 2010 for his charitable contributions in Britain, was separated from his two brothers in England and placed in a foster home with a Christian family. He did not know he was Jewish until age 10 or 11 when his oldest brother tracked him down.
“I strongly believe that we must not stand by, while the oppressed need our help. We cannot ignore the sight of desperate people and in such a crisis we must act to save the most vulnerable refugees: the children, and provide them with the same sanctuary I, along with others, was fortunate to receive,” wrote Reich this week.
After the death of his non-Jewish foster father when Reich was 13, he was eventually placed in London’s Orthodox Hasmonean School. After completing only one term, Reich made passage for Israel to live with his childless aunt and uncle in Haifa. Eventually he moved to be with cousins on the secular Kibbutz Merhavia, where he lived until his conscription into the Israeli Defense Forces at age 18.
A paratrooper, Reich fought in the 1956 Sinai campaign where he served as a communication officer for Ariel Sharon, who later became prime minister. Reich moved back to England in 1963 and became an emissary for the far-left Hashomer Hatzair movement before turning to the travel industry.
“I lived in Israel and served in the 1956 war. I was a kibbutznik. I feel the whole area and I’m very pro-Israel. However, whether these refugees are Muslim, Hindus or Christians, they should be able to live without fear,” Reich said.
It was the Jewish community that, alongside the British government, insured the safety and well-being of the Kindertransport children. The World Jewish Relief, then called the Central British Fund for German Jewry, was established in 1933 when Hitler came to power with the idea that European Jewry would soon need help.
According to World Jewish Relief campaigns director Richard Verber, the Central British Fund for German Jewry raised money from British Jewry and mobilized the UK government to take in refugees.
At the time, said Verber, the UK government was ambivalent about accepting Jews who came from an enemy state. “It said, ‘We’ll let you take in a small number of ‘aliens,’ but you Jews need to take care of them.”
Since then, World Jewish Relief has gone on to spearhead international programs to aid Jews and non-Jews in conflict or disaster zones.
“We are alive today in some respects because Britain let in refugees,” said Verber.
Reich said that much of the original push for the Kindertransport came from Quakers, and without the support of non-Jews — including upper-class families such as the Attenboroughs — it would not have been a success.
Spurred from a sense of gratitude, Reich feels it is time to advocate for others. And he is hardly alone in his calls for a broadened refugee policy in England.
In an interview with BBC2’s Newsnight program this week, former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks also pushed for a higher refugee quota and said, “It is important to remember simple humanitarian gestures like the Kindertransport which rescued 10,000 children in Germany. It was only 10,000 out of six million, but it lit a light in the darkest period of history.”
“The tradition of Britain being a place of refuge for those at risk of losing their liberty or their lives should guide us to being more generous rather than less so,” said Sacks.
Reich said he feels “very strongly for those people who are fleeing… It is not about religion or politics for me.”
He admitted, however, somewhat sheepishly, that “chances are high they won’t like me because I’m Jewish.”
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