This letter is dedicated to the memory of my aunt, Blanche Tall – Esther Blema bas Avraham - a warm, caring, and hospitable person who will be greatly missed by all who knew her.
The uplifting story I am about to share with you took place in England, and it begins in the fall of 1938. Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld was a young rabbi of twenty-six, not yet married, who had taken over his late father’s positions as rabbi of a small congregation and principal of a small Jewish day school – the first in England. News of the persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria began to filter in, especially after the terrible pogrom in Germany: Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938.
Sitting in his modest office, Rabbi Schonfeld could not settle down to his daily work. He was a very sensitive man, and he understood the full impact of the tragedy. He had thought that such things could only happen in the Middle Ages, not in the modern age of progress. Here he sat, safe in his cozy room, while his fellow Jews on the other side of the Channel were being brutally persecuted in Germany and Austria; moreover, many had already been sent to concentration camps. What could he do to help them? Whatever he had managed to save from his own modest salary, he usually gave away when confronted with an emergency among his congregants. So the only thing left was compassion for his brethren, but this was clearly not enough.
Rabbi Schonfeld’s thoughts were interrupted by the sharp ring of the telephone. It was a Mr. Julius Steinfeld calling from Vienna. Rabbi Schonfeld had previously talked to this man several times. Steinfeld, a courageous Jewish communal leader in Vienna, had been doing his utmost for his brethren in Austria without regard for his own safety. Briefly and carefully, so as not to run afoul of the censors - who he was sure were listening in on the telephone conversation - Mr. Steinfeld now told Rabbi Schonfeld of hundreds of children whose parents had been arrested or killed and who were now left on their own. Could Rabbi Schonfeld help them? Rabbi Schonfeld, his voice choked with emotion, told him he would try.
This was a period when most countries were either closing their doors to Jewish refugees or they had rigid quotas which would only allow a small number to enter. Even children had difficulty finding refuge. For example, in 1939, a Congressional bill that would allow twenty thousand refugee children to enter the United States over a two-year period was defeated in Congress, especially since the State Department fought the bill, and President Roosevelt refused to support it, even after his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, asked him to endorse the bill. Rabbi Schonfeld was therefore aware of what he was up against, but he felt something drastic had to be done so that these children could be allowed to enter Great Britain. Could he find the right influential official within the British government who could help? Rabbi Schonfeld decided to visit the British Home Office. When he entered the office, he found favor with the staff, as Rabbi Schonfeld was an impressive figure – a handsome six-footer with gleaming eyes and a winning smile that helped him gain access to one important official. He told the official about the plight of the children, but the official muttered that he was very sorry but there was nothing he could do to help. Then Rabbi Schonfeld revealed his own plan. He said he wanted to bring 300 Jewish children from Vienna to London and care for them personally. The British official was stunned. How could one rabbi provide for so many children - to house, feed, and clothe them? Rabbi Schonfeld told him that he had neighbors who would be willing to help; he personally would guarantee with whatever assets he himself possessed so that the children would not become burdens to the British government. All that was necessary was that the children should be given permission to come to England.
The official, trying to be practical, asked, “Tell me, Rabbi, where will you put the children to sleep the first night they are here?” The Rabbi replied that they would sleep in the two schools that he heads, and that he would empty out the school to create the necessary space. The official said, “I want to see for myself where there is room for 300 children in your school.”
Rabbi Schonfeld and the official went out together, hailed a taxi and drove off to the schools. Before the eyes of the startled pupils, the two men measured the length and width of each classroom. They began to figure in terms of so many children and so many square feet. The official could not find enough space for forty children. “Well,” said the official, “in view of the circumstances, I can give you passports for only 260 children.” The official thought that the matter was finished, but the young rabbi replied: “I own the house in which I live. I will empty that out, too, in order to make room for the children.”
Back Rabbi Schonfeld went, the government official in tow, to his private home. Again the yardstick came out, and they discovered that there was just enough room for 40 children. The official by now was very moved by the overwhelming humanity of the rabbi, and he asked him where he himself would sleep. Rabbi Schonfeld took him upstairs to a tiny room in the attic. “I can sleep here,” he said. The official had tears in his eyes as he shook the rabbi’s hand and asked him to submit the names of the children to whom he should issue the permits to enter England. Immediately, in the presence of the official, Rabbi Shonfeld telephoned the leaders of Vienna’s Jewish community, and the process of saving the children began.
Neighbors and friends began to help the rabbi. The local Boy Scout troop had a sufficient number of beds and blankets at their summer camp. They were only too willing to lend them for such a purpose. The day the children were to arrive, a blizzard, the heaviest in eight years, blanketed London and the schools were snowbound. But this did not deter Rabbi Schonfeld. Together with a group of youngsters, he went out with shovels to clear the way for the trucks that would bring the refugee children. This accomplished, with the school and his own home ready for the children, he hurried to the port of Harwich to greet his 300 new charges.
What he saw moved him deeply. Here were ragged, starved, frightened youngsters, the remains of once-proud families. He shepherded them into the hired trucks to bring them to their new shelters. Neighbors were waiting there. Everyone was willing to help feed and wash the children and put them to bed on this, their first night in their new country. The rabbi was close to exhaustion, but he stayed on duty until all the children had been settled. Only after that did he go home for his first good night’s sleep in a week. Entering his house, he heard a little six-year old girl crying for her mother. He took the child in his arms, talked to her about her new home, and gave her whatever comfort he could. Then Rabbi Schonfeld went up to his attic chamber for a well-earned rest.
He continued to engage in rescue work, and he managed to find a path through the “sea” of cold bureaucracy – a path that allowed others to reach safe shores. During that pre-war period, there were many cases where only children could leave Nazi-controlled areas, so Rabbi Schonfeld traveled again and again to the Continent – often at a risk to his own life – to lead the children to life and freedom. Regarding this holy work, his assistant, Dr. Judith Grunfeld wrote:
“This young rabbi’s forceful persuasion, punctuated by laughter, comfort and assurance, seemed to banish the fearful memories and anticipations of these youngsters. He was their conquering hero, the Pied Piper, a fatherly youngster, and at the same time a gifted organizer. He seemed to them a messenger from that corner of the heavens whence our salvation cometh.” (Shefford by Dr. Judith Grunfeld)
May we be blessed with a comforting and healing Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The above story appears in Dr. David Kranzler’s book, “Thy Brother’s Blood” – a well-researched and documented historical work which discusses the noble work of Torah-committed rescue activists during the period of the Holocaust. As the moving stories in the book indicate, there were Jews of diverse beliefs, as well as non-Jews, who joined in their rescue efforts – despite the opposition of certain government leaders and even certain Jewish leaders who did not believe that this life-saving work should be a priority, for misguided reasons which are discussed in the book.
These stories of rescue remind us of the following Torah teaching. “Whoever saves one life - it’s as if one saved an entire world!” (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 2:5)