July 11, 1899 – June 1, 1943
Holocaust Rescuer who saved tens of thousands of Jews
So what’s the big deal?
Wilfrid Israel saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. He was killed on a mission for the Jewish Agency to save even more Jews when his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe June 1, 1943, over the Bay of Biscay.
What was unique about him? The fact that he was a homosexual? The fact that he chose to save Jews? The fact that he decimated his personal fortune trying to save more Jews or the fact that he screamed into the wind, and no one would listen but went ahead and saved as many Jews as he could.
The fact that was unique about Wilfrid, a fact that Yad Vashem refuses to honor, was that he was a Jew.
Yad Vashem rightfully honors non-Jews who chose to save Jews through its Righteous Among the Nations programs. They do not honor, recognize or memorialize Jews who chose to save Jews.
The ironic twist of the Zionist idea is sinful. Israel exists not because non-Jews decided to save Jews. Israel exists because Jews, first led by Theodor Herzl, decided to save Jews.
It is very true many good friends of Israel are non-Jews. Non-Jews have served in Israel’s armed forces, raised money, political support, and smuggled weapons to help Israel in its infancy and importantly today.
But it was, is, and will be Jewish blood, will, and choice that will save Jews in the end.
Wilfrid Israel, the man almost no Israeli or Galut Jew has ever heard about, “Chose.”
In Israel, a small, aging group formed to honor Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. With meager resources and a diligent will to remember, they have identified a few hundred Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Some of the honorees saved one, some saved more. But no Jews has saved tens of thousands of Jews acting virtually alone. Wilfrid Israel did.
The Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP) attention was pointed to Wilfrid by a remarkable lady from Gibraltar.
She asked me, out of curiosity, if I had ever heard of Wilfrid Israel. She knew of his story because of the famed American Actor Leslie Howard.
Leslie Howard, the British Jewish actor, skyrocketed to fame when he played the role of Ashley Wilkes in the American blockbuster, Gone with the Wind. Howard was a passenger on board BOAC Flight 777, June 1, 1943 with Wilfrid, when the Nazis downed the defenseless plane carrying fourteen souls to their watery graves. There is a Memorial in Spain, beautifully looking to the Bay of Biscay, for Howard.
She asked if JASHP would be interested in supporting a small additional marker at the Howard memorial for Wilfrid. The answer was Yes. Howard was special. Wilfrid was a forgotten Saint.
JASHP’s search for Wilfrid began. There is a Wilfrid Israel Museum in Kibbutz Hazorea. Its purpose is to display his Oriental Art collection. The Ben Shemen Youth Village, he was a key funder and supporter of Youth Aliyah. Ben Shemen has an obscure plaque. A movie has been made about Hazorea’s opaque memory of Wilfrid. An incredible biography by Naomi Shepherd was written over fourty years ago about him.
The point is Wilfrid, nor any Jew who saved Jews during the Holocaust, has a Memorial in Israel or anywhere in the Jewish world. If the visible lesson is to teach Jews must save Jews, in our own small way, JASHP has taken up the challenge.
In the U.K., at the Hoops Lane Crematorium Holocaust Memorial wall of honor, JASHP placed the first-ever interpretive marker for Wilfrid Israel. The second step we are now engaged in is to place a marker on the modest building he lived in, Riverside Drive, in heavily Jewish Golders Green, London. The third step is being done in Israel.
A major memorial honoring Wilfrid Israel is being erected. When finished, 150,000 cars a day will drive by the Wilfrid asking what is a Wilfrid? An interpretive plaza is being built adjacent to the memorial.
The fourth step is in the U.K. JASHP has approached the Association of Jewish Refugees in the U.K., Wilfrid had been a leader in the Association before he was killed. Other U.K. Holocaust organizations are being contacted. The objective is to get Wilfrid Israel recognized as a British Hero of the Holocaust.
Will he be recognized – DK.
The Memorial in Israel is about him, and it is not. The real point of the Wilfrid Israel Memorial in Israel is Choice. Jews have a Choice, then, today, and tomorrow, to save Jewish life.
The text for the memorial plaque on the Hoops Lane Wall is adjacent to two other rescuers that JASHP has placed for recognition, Marie Schmolka and Reinhold Chrystman.
“Wilfrid Berthold Jacob Israel was born into a liberal Jewish family of extreme wealth. His mother, Amy, the granddaughter of the Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Herman Adler, insisted he be born in London. Wilfrid, however, grew up in Berlin, Germany, where his father, Berthold, was the owner and manager of N. Israel, the largest department store in Germany.
Following WWI, traveling the world collecting Oriental/Indian art, Wilfrid was deeply affected by the economic and social human suffering he encountered. Associating with British Quakers, he joined with them to help. The associations he established with the British Quakers would prove critical to the rescue of Jews and his establishment of the Kindertransport.
When the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933, Wilfrid decided to use his fortune to try and get Jews to safety. By 1938, Wilfrid was running the “Hilfsverein,” the main German Jewish organization helping Jews get out of Germany. He had already saved thousands of Jews using his own funds when Kristallnacht occurred. Wilfrid recognized the changed danger and knew the West would not save Jews, but they might save children. Using his contacts with the British Quakers, working round the clock, building a network or support politically, and socially using his own fortune, the British establishment relented and agreed to take in 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children to England. Wilfrid escaped Germany, returning to London in the summer 1939 only after he saw that the last Kindertransport was safely on its way.
For the next number of years, British intelligence relied upon Wilfrid for insights and connections into Germany. In 1943, Wilfrid flew to Spain with 1500 lifesaving visas to Palestine for trapped Jews. June 1, 1943, returning over the Bay of Biscay, his plane was shot down by Nazi fighters. His body was never located.
Much of Wilfrid’s rescue work, his support for Jews, Israel and humanity were never publicized. Only very recently is it becoming known. His friend, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described him as “a man of great moral stature, dedicated to the service of others”. Albert Einstein, another friend, wrote about Wilfrid after he learned of his death, “Never in my life have I come in contact with a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was – in very truth a living work of art. In these times of mass-misfortune, which so few are able to stand up to – one feels the presence of this “chosen one” as a Liberator from despair for mankind.”
“Wilfrid Israel, the philanthropist, the humanitarian, the socialist, and the supporter of Zionist enterprises, saved more Jews than any single Jew had during the Holocaust.”