A REFUGE FROM DARKNESS: Wilfrid Israel and the Rescue of the Jews by Naomi Shepherd
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A REFUGE FROM DARKNESS: Wilfrid Israel and the Rescue of the Jews

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Wilfrid Israel (1899-1943) appears in some Holocaust histories as a shadowy businessman/philanthropist engaged in rescuing Jewish refugees when his plane was shot down, still-mysteriously (Leslie Howard was among those aboard), en route from Lisbon to Bristol. Israel is also known, incongruously, as the original of effete, languid Bernhard Landauer in Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. In a triumph of scholarly disinterment and broad, clear-eyed understanding, Shepherd shows Israel as a ""gentle rebel""--quick to recognize the Nazi threat, tenacious in behalf of Germany's Jews; but to the last a German idealist of the 1920s. He also emerges as a pivotal Holocaust figure: a natural intermediary between his several, dissonant worlds. Through his mother, Israel was linked to the upper stratum of British Jewry; through his father, he was heir-apparent to the Berlin department store N. Israel. By inclination, he was an aesthete, a utopian socialist, and a homosexual--all anathema to the wary, ultra-conformist Berlin Jewish society in which he was raised. ""The building of protective walls, excluding the outside world. . . was perhaps linked, in Wilfrid's character, with his passion and compassion for the persecuted and the hunted."" After WW I, he had experience in German and Russian famine relief: ""he never regarded indifference to Jewish suffering as unique."" Absorbing Martin Buber's ""intellectually exciting,"" undoctrinaire Judaism, he became a Zionist humanist, ""the perfect confidant to,"" and conduit between, those opposing giants, Einstein and Weizmann. But a visit to Poland's archaic shtetls produced, in this sponsor of the infant Hebrew National Theatre, a lasting belief in ""selective immigration"" to Palestine. These, then, were the strands that coalesced when Israel, pressured into the family business, set out to infuse its paternalism with his ideas of social reform; when, with Nazi rule, he refused to dismiss Jewish employees, and, securing the release of countless prisoners, came to seem a savior; when, on frequent trips abroad, he pressed for relief aid and rescue action. Here, two themes stand out boldly. ""The Jews of the West were already torn between their tradition of charity and solidarity with distressed Jews everywhere, and fears for their own reputation and security."" Zionist divisions were also fatal: on the one hand, American-led opposition to the transfer of German-Jewish assets to Palestine, for the purchase of German goods (The Transfer Agreement, of Edwin Black's recent overheated exhumation, p. 331); on the other, Palestinian-led opposition to any scheme for emigration elsewhere. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Israel arranged the exodus of 10,000 children to Britain and other last-minute rescues; in February 1938, he was forced to relinquish the store; in August, following a final, futile appeal abroad, he left Germany for good. In Britain--to briefly summarize the strangest, least-known episode of Israel's career--he was apparently influential, as a government adviser, both in softening Britain's attitude toward postwar Germany and in urging the resettlement of Eastern Europe's surviving Jews in their original lands, as against their mass-migration to Palestine (unsuitable for them, injurious to his utopian vision for Palestine). Richly detailed, revealing in large and small matters, and consistently absorbing.

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 1984
Publisher: Pantheon