Wilfrid Israel, an unsung Holocaust hero, gets his due

Documentary uncovers some truths, and some questions, about the wealthy Berlin department store owner who negotiated with the Nazis

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

As International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, a film sheds light on an oft-forgotten wealthy German Jew who — through a combination of wily negotiations with the Nazis, large sums of his own money and a long series of selfless acts — saved thousands of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.

“The Essential Link, The Story of Wilfrid Israel” is a documentary by Israeli director Yonatan Nir, which is still making the screening rounds after being shown at a number of film festivals, including Tel Aviv’s DocAviv.

The story wasn’t a natural subject for Nir. In fact, the filmmaker was somewhat surprised to find himself working on a passion project about the Holocaust.

Yonatan Nir, the documentary filmmaker who took on an unknown hero of the Holocaust in his latest film about Wilfrid Israel (Courtesy Yonatan Nir)

“I do stories about animals, about personal journeys,” said Nir, who is known for the award-winning “Dolphin Boy” (2011) and “My Hero Brother”(2016). “This was totally different but I had no choice but to make it.”

This film, which was six years in the making and produced by Highlight Films, offered unexpected surprises to Nir about Kibbutz Hazorea, where he was born and raised, even about his own family.

For the viewer, the film offers a keen look at the history and lives of this particular kibbutz, throwing a spotlight on the community of people historically involved in establishing those first agricultural communities.

As a son of Hazorea, it wasn’t difficult for Nir to find information about the industrialist, but he couldn’t understand why the story was kept untold for so many years, and why Israel never became one of the heroes of the Holocaust.

The film, said Nir, attempts to answer those questions but keeps the details a little murky as well.

“It’s a question of psychology or public relations sometimes,” he said. “It’s basically the question of who is telling the story and what is the story they want to be told.”

The definitive biography written about Wilfrid Israel provided much of the biographical material that filmmaker Yonatan Nir needed for his film (Courtesy Halben Publishers)

It was about six years ago when a friend from the kibbutz came to Nir and said, “I have an amazing story for you. What if I told you that Wilfrid saved 15 times more people than Oskar Schindler?”

Wilfrid Israel was someone whose name Nir had been familiar with his entire life, having played on the grass in front of the Wilfrid House, a museum built for Israel’s collection at the kibbutz, with a wide, expansive lawn that was always a site for fun and games.

Nir’s grandparents’ house was just 50 meters away, and now Nir’s daughters play there, as he lives nearby, not on the kibbutz, but in the neighborhood.

“It’s the center of my memories,” he said. “We knew the story; Wilfrid was a very rich man who donated his art collection to the kibbutz, and I think my grandfather once told me he was a friend of the kibbutz founders. Everyone on the kibbutz knew this story.”

At least, they thought they knew the story.

Nir began his research by reading a biography written about Israel, Naomi Shepherd’s “Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador.”

Shepherd estimated that Israel, whose family owned Israel’s Department Store in Berlin, a large and established business, engineered the emigration of thousands of Jews, including his Jewish employees, and was one of the people who helped launch the Kindertransport, which saved 10,000 children.

From there, Nir dove into the kibbutz archives, finding letters Israel wrote to and received from people like Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, Rabbi Leo Baeck, Moshe Sharett and David Ben Gurion, although he and Ben-Gurion didn’t always get along.

“They wrote amazing things about this man,” said Nir. “Albert Einstein called him ‘the chosen one.’ Buber wrote a poem about him handwritten in Gothic letters.”

His death in 1943, said Nir, was as outlandish as his life, as he died in an airplane crash together with actor Leslie Howard, shot down by German fighter jets.

Nir spent time examining other questions, wondering how Israel, and those who worked with him, made the decisions of who to save among the 500,000 Jews in Germany.

“Someone had to prioritize, deciding who stayed behind and who got to go,” he said. “That went all the way up to the Jewish rescue organizations that Wilfrid worked with.”

The movie poster of ‘The Essential Link The Story of Wilfrid Israel’ (Courtesy Yonatan Nir)

It was a Pandora’s box of sorts, said Nir, as he discovered that the Zionist movement was involved in helping make those decisions, while Wilfrid Israel regularly negotiated with the Nazis.

“I found out that for the Jews of Germany, the Holocaust started, in a way, in 1933, when they were debating how to relate to this Nazi monster,” he said. “During that time, things were not black and white, there was a lot of gray. And a lot of Jews who didn’t do the most moral things.”

Nir doesn’t attempt to answer how Israel and his colleagues made those choices, nor does he offer his own suggestions. He does, however, conjecture about the Holocaust heroes he learned about as a child, such as Mordechai Anielewicz and Hannah Senesh who died as heroes, or victims like Anne Frank.

“Wilfrid Israel was not part of the Israel story because a person who had never held a gun, who negotiated with Nazis and was not 100 percent Zionist, and never spoke Hebrew, and believed in pacifism and was a homosexual, couldn’t be a hero,” said Nir. “The new country chose different kinds of heroes. But he deserves recognition and can be a role model, he was a real hero.”

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on January 27, “The Essential Link, the Story of Wilfrid Israel,” will be screened at the United Nations buildings in Vienna, Austria on January 26, 29 and 30.

The film will also be screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 1 and 2. Private screenings can also be arranged by contacting Yonatan Nir at

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