Clement Attlee revealed to have sponsored a Jewish family from Germany in 1939
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Clement Attlee revealed to have sponsored a Jewish family from Germany in 1939

Paul Willer, 90, reflects on the 'remarkable kindness' of the former Labour Prime Minister who gave him refuge in the UK

Former Labour Prime Minister Clem Attlee. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credi: Anefo
Former Labour Prime Minister Clem Attlee. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credi: Anefo

Former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee sponsored a Jewish family in 1939, allowing them to leave Germany and come to Stanmore where he lived.

Details of Attlee’s little-known intervention were published in the Guardian this week, ahead of a reunion between Paul Willer, 90, who now lives in Gloucestershire, and Attlee’s surviving family, including his granddaughter Jo Roundell Greene.

Attlee, who had opposed Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler and Mussolini, led Labour to a huge victory in 1945. His government later nationalised public utilities and major industries, created the NHS, and partitioned India.

However, in a little-publicised yet highly personal story, the Labour leader had years earlier sponsored the 10-year old Willer, together with his brother and mother, allowing them to escape Nazi Germany.

“It was a remarkable kindness, a generous offer,” said Willer, speaking from his home ahead of this week’s Kindertransport event in London, organised by the Association of Jewish Refugees. “Attlee was a modest man. He did not try and glorify himself in any way. He did it for the right reasons.”

Willer’s mother Franziska was a doctor working in Bavaria, raising the children by herself after the boys’ father left in 1933, until November 1938, when Kristallnacht shattered any illusions that they could stay.

She sought ways to leave and contacted her London-based brother Otto, who in turn contacted Rev. William Hewett, the rector of Stanmore, who asked the Attlees to help. They agreed. Franziska and the boys came to live with the family for four months until war broke out, with a 56-year old Attlee then leading the Opposition.

“He was a gentle man and a gentleman,” said Willer. “He was very good with the children and affectionate. At breakfast, we would gather around the table and he played this game where he held out a coin and asked whose monarch’s head was on it. Whoever gave the correct answer was allowed to keep the coin.”

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