Address given at a Service of solemn remembrance and hope on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht
10 November 2013 at 18:00 pm
Rabbi The Baroness Neuberger DBE, Senior Rabbi, West London Synagogue
We are here this evening, Jews and Christians together, to commemorate with sadness, but also to find, if at all possible, a message of hope out of Kristallnacht. So I want to remember those amazing British diplomats whose actions led to so many of us being here to tell the tale. The story is still unfolding. But it is becoming increasingly clear, amongst all the- justified- criticism of Britain for not taking in more Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, that there was a network of consular and diplomatic officials, good Christians, who helped desperate people well beyond the call of duty.
Take Frank Foley, Passport Control Officer in Berlin. Benno Cohn wrote: ‘The peak of Foley’s activities was reached during the dark weeks of the pogroms of November 1938. Approaching the building of the Consulate in the Tiergartenstrasse, you could see women queuing up to be allowed to enter. The rooms of the Consulate were transformed into a shelter for Jews, looking for protection from persecution. 32,000 men were in prison in concentration camps during those weeks, their wives besieging the consul for a visa that meant liberation for their husbands. It was a question of life or death for several thousands. During those days, Captain Foley’s extensive humanity became obvious. Day and night he was at the disposition of those seeking help. Generously, he distributed every kind of visa, thus helping the liberation of many thousands from the camps.’…..We asked ourselves very often, why he acted like this. The basic fact was – he was a Mensch….Perhaps his human behaviour was deepened by his being a Christian. Foley was a real Christian for whom help to others was the first commandment. He often told us that, as a Christian, he wanted to prove how little the Christians, governing Germany then, had to do with real Christianity…..” Foley was responsible for some 10000 visas.
Or take Robert Smallbones, Consul General in Frankfurt between 1932 and 1939, who, along with his vice-consul, Arthur Dowden, provided enormous help. Georg Salzberger, first rabbi at Belsize Square and grandfather of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, was rescued from concentration camp by Smallbones. He wrote of both men: ‘Day by day during a period of several months, these men provided comfort, advice and help to the unfortunate people filling the waiting room. This is surely a shining example of true humanity.’
Immediately after Kristallnacht, those men made extraordinary efforts to process as many British entry visas as possible - Dowden signed my maternal grandparents’ visas. They were also humane:
‘Those who came there hungry and in need (no Jew was allowed to buy food for nine days) were fed. And ….. the Vice-Consul even went through the streets, with food in his car, to feed those in want.’ One woman recalled: ‘My husband was in the concentration camp, and while I tried to get him out it was too terrible for one even to cry. Then at last I went to the British Consul to see if he could help me. And the first thing they asked me at the consulate was, “Have you had anything to eat today?” I hadn’t of course; I was too worried to think of food. And, before they did anything else, they fed me with coffee and sandwiches, as though I had been a guest. And then I cried.’
Smallbones was in London on Kristallnacht. He wrote: ‘(My mother) asked me to do something to help, after being up all night feeding and comforting desperate Jews. …. I went to see a senior official (at the Home Office)… who dealt with this question. He had seen ….. what was going on in Germany and I asked him what they proposed doing about it. He replied: “Nothing, What can we do? We cannot let them come in and cause unemployment amongst our own people. Have you got an idea?”
I said that I had… ‘We ……. could give some relief by allowing German refugees, bound eventually under the quota system for the United States of America, to spend a waiting period of a year or more in the United Kingdom on condition that they did not seek employment or were liable to become destitute.’…. ‘It was agreed that….. this was possible and I was asked whether I could draw up the details of procedure. … I was authorized the same afternoon to introduce this system in my district….’
Smallbones ‘went to see the local head of the Gestapo to arrange that Jews would be released from the concentration camps if they produced the promise of a British visa. (The guy made difficulties) …..We had a fierce argument and I started shouting in the proper German manner. When I jumped up and said that my proposal to help Germany to be rid of some of their Jews was off, and that I would report by telegram to my Government, the Gestapo bully collapsed and we made an agreement….. I know of no case in which a promise of a visa given by me did not lead to the immediate release of the interned.’ Smallbones and Dowden were responsible for some 48000 visas!
And there were others, in Munich, Vienna, Berlin, Kovno, Danzig and Istanbul, not to mention many ordinary people who helped, some of whom lost their lives as a result. I want to end with a lesser known - but related- story of how ordinary people can do good things in terrible times. John Buxton was among the British soldiers captured during the Norwegian campaign in April 1940. The first week in prisoner of war camp, he recalled, ‘the apparently very-civilized-seeming German commandant asked their colonel if, when they next lined up on parade, he could let him know how many Jews were numbered among the British POWs. It was, the commandant assured the English colonel, just for administrative purposes. The next morning the Regimental Sergeant Major bellowed out on the parade ground: “All Jews three paces FORWARD!” Every single “Anglo-Saxon” POW stepped forward.’
Not everyone was like that. But enough to give us hope. As we remember the terror, the death and destruction, the loss of parents, family and friends, let us use today, Jews and Christians together, to remember that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They are why we have an obligation, as ordinary people, to help those others who are in fear of their lives the world over, to get round bureaucracy, to save even one single human life. For in our tradition, he who saves a single human life is as if he has saved a whole world.