Former British prime minister Clement Attlee hosted a Jewish child refugee in his home for four months in the run-up to the Second World War and never publicly spoke about it, The Guardian revealed on Tuesday, five decades after the Labour leader’s death.
In 1939, when he served as opposition leader, Attlee sponsored the escape of a German Jewish mother and her two sons to the United Kingdom. One of the children, Paul Willer, who was ten years old at the time, was invited to stay with Attlee at his northwest London home.
“It was a remarkable kindness, a generous offer,” said Willer, who is now 90. “Attlee was a modest man. He did not try and glorify himself in any way. He did it for the right reasons.”
Willer will meet Attlee’s granddaughter on Wednesday, the report said.
His escape from Germany was hatched by his mother, Franziska Willer, after the Kristallnacht Nazi pogrom in 1938. Franziska Willer was previously married to a Christian man who left her in 1933 and later became a Nazi sympathizer. He committed suicide in 1964.
Through her brother, who was residing in London, and a pastor from Attlee’s area, it was arranged for Paul Willer to come live in the Attlee home for some four months.
“They took me inside what was a very large house,” recalled Willer of his first encounter with the Attlees. “They had a maid and a cook too. The next morning, their son Martin [the late Lord Attlee], who was my age, took me upstairs and ran a cold bath, bathed, and encouraged me to do the same. I thought, ‘Is this what they do for Easter?’ It turned out that cold baths were what the males in the family did every day.”
At the time, reported The Guardian, Attlee was composing his opposition to Nelson Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.
“He was a gentle man and a gentleman. He was very good with the children and affectionate. At breakfast, we would gather around the table and he played this game where he held out a coin and asked whose monarch’s head was on it. Whoever gave the correct answer was allowed to keep the coin,” said Willer.
The revelation by The Guardian came 51 years after Attlee’s death.
In 1945, Attlee was elected prime minister, a position he held until 1951. He was preceded and succeeded in the post by Winston Churchill.
It was under his watch that British Mandate was dissolved to make way for the State of Israel. Before the establishment of Israel, thousands of European Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, were barred from settling in Palestine under British immigration policy.