Wilfrid Israel, a wealthy businessman, saved thousands of Jews in Nazi Germany and was instrumental in the founding of Kibbutz Hazorea. But for many years, he was an unsung hero, and to the consternation of Israeli filmmaker Yonatan Nir, not a single street in Israel has been named after this heroic figure.
Nir, who was born and raised on this kibbutz in the Jerzreel Valley, brings Israel to life in The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel, a vivid documentary the Israeli consulate in Toronto is presenting free of charge to viewers to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. Nir will discuss his film in a webinar on February 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Nir’s late grandfather left Berlin on the last Kindertransport train from Germany in August 1939. He arrived in London on the day Britain declared war on Germany. In 1940, he settled in Kibbutz Hazorea, which a group of German Jews established in 1936 with Israel’s encouragement and assistance. Israel visited the kibbutz once around this time.
Nir had a good relationship with his grandfather, a painter and sculptor, but never knew he owed his life to Israel. Nor did Nir realize that Wilfrid Israel House, an art and archeological museum on the grounds of Kibbutz Hazorea, was named after Israel.
According to Nir, the museum was the physical, spiritual and cultural center of the kibbutz. Yet he and his contemporaries, the grandsons and granddaughters of Jews who had been hounded out of Germany by the Nazi regime, had no idea that Israel had played a role in their immigration to what was then Palestine.
Nir’s 70-minute film is based, in part at least, on Naomi Shepherd’s biography of Israel, whose ancestors founded N. Israel, one of the biggest department stories in Berlin. But because Israel’s mother was a British citizen, Israel held dual British and German nationality.
Before he began working for the family firm in the mid-1920s, Israel was given a year to see the world. During his travels in the Far East, he bought a large selection of art and handicrafts, which eventually ended up in Wilfrid Israel House.
On his trip abroad, he met the Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi. And because he had a gift for friendship and was wealthy, Israel knew notables such as the scientist Albert Einstein, the Zionist luminary Chaim Weizmann and the philosopher Martin Buber.
Israel was also on a friendly terms with the British novelist Christopher Isherwood, whose book, Goodbye to Berlin, featured a rich Jewish businessman who bore a striking resemblance to Israel. Like Isherwood, Israel was gay, but unlike Isherwood, he was a closet homosexual. And despite his wealth, Israel was a socialist.
Following the Nazi seizure of power, Israel helped 700 of his Jewish employees leave Germany, paying their salaries for the next two years. And he was instrumental in assisting young German Jews to emigrate and build Kibbutz Hazorea.
After the Nazis confiscated Israel’s department store in April 1939, he went to live in Britain.
In the wake of Kristallnacht, the nation-wide pogrom in Germany which erupted in November 1938, he persuaded the British government to accept 10,000 European Jewish children under the Kindertransport program. In what Einstein called “a monumental act of courage,” Israel returned to Berlin in the summer of 1939 to arrange the final Kindertransport departure from Germany.
The Jewish Agency sent Israel to Lisbon on a rescue mission in 1943, but en route from Portugal to Britain, his aircraft was shot down by German planes. All the passengers on board, including the Hollywood movie star Leslie Howard, were killed.
Israel’s body was never found, but his legend endures.