The personal records of more than 40,000 Jews who arrived in the UK before and after the Second World War have been made publicly available for the first time by World Jewish Relief.
Here, Jenni Frazer looks at the story behind the digitisation of these records, including those of US television host Jerry Springer
For the first time, the records of more than 40,000 Jews who came to Britain before and after the Second World War, under the auspices of the Central British Fund – now known as World Jewish Relief – are to be made open to the public.
The groundbreaking project by WJR has involved the digitising of “thousands and thousands of pieces of paper” which are held in the London Metropolitan Archives.
The records include the case files of the 10,000 children who came to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1938 and 1939. And there are files belonging to ‘The Boys’ – the 732 Jewish orphans, boys and girls, who arrived in the UK in 1945 and 1946.
Richard Verber, WJR’s campaigns and communications manager, said: “This project has taken more than a year to bring to fruition, as every case had at least one or more piece of paper, and some files had written and photographic material”.
Many of the files have fascinating personal details, with people’s occupations, or sometimes their degree of Jewish observance. Much of the information relates not only to an immediate arrival, but often follow-up over the next few years.
CBF, WJR’s ‘parent’ organisation, originally began raising funds for European Jews in 1933, when Hitler first rose to power. Initially, a group of Jewish leaders – who included Simon Marks, Chaim Weizmann, Sir Robert Waley-Cohen and two members of the Rothschild family, Lionel and Anthony – raised £250,000, equivalent to about £16million today.
“But it took Kristallnacht in 1938 to really galvanise opinion”, said Verber. It is thought that the equivalent of £168m was raised by British Jews between 1933 and 1947; and the files show all kinds of details – including the £50 guarantee (equivalent to £2,285 today) from a British citizen for each Jew, young or old, who arrived here.
Many who arrived in the UK, rescued by CBF, eventually emigrated to other countries. WJR expect requests from all over the world, as the sons and daughters of the lucky few Jews to escape the European Holocaust by coming to Britain, apply for their parents’ papers. Many of the 40,000 moved on to America, Australia, South Africa and, ultimately, to the new state of Israel. Five volunteers have been drafted into WJR to deal with the anticipated requests.
Behind the bureaucratic language of the forms lie emotional stories, families split apart and orphans bravely facing the unknown.
Julia Burton and Rosalind Gelbart, the daughters of David Herman, one of the ‘Boys’ who arrived in 1946, have already seen their father’s papers. The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn was on the same Lancaster Bomber flight to the UK with Herman.
“He was 18 when he arrived, from the Jewish orphanage in Prague,” said Burton, who is the welfare officer of the Second Generation of the ‘45 Aid Society.
“His file includes a picture I have never seen before, a gorgeous picture. He was so handsome.”
Also in her father’s file was a letter in his own handwriting, about six months after he had begun to learn English.
She said: “This is such an exciting project and I am sure the files contain so many things that people aren’t aware of.
“We have already tried to see what relates to ‘the Boys’ and on at least one file it is noted that the papers include ‘three small photographs’. I’m sure the family don’t know about these pictures.”
One woman who has already received her father’s papers told WJR: “You have filled in parts of my family’s history that I never knew about.”
Now the volunteers are readying themselves, as the WJR project goes some way to completing the jigsaw of British Jewry’s role in rescuing Europe’s Jews.
Paul Anticoni, chief executive of WJR said: “I have seen people in tears at the family memories that these records bring; a new story or unknown detail can provoke a flood of emotion.
“Our predecessor organisation, the CBF, brought tens of thousands of Jews out of Nazi-occupied Europe, a tale of rescue and redemption that we must never forget.
“It’s World Jewish Relief’s responsibility to give these records to their rightful owners within the community, so I encourage everyone to approach us to get your free family record.”
• To find out more about these family files, visit www.worldjewishrelief.org/get-involved/archives