Wilfred Israel: The mystery philanthropist who helped save thousands

Wilfred Israel: The mystery philanthropist who helped save thousands

Roxzann Baker, a researcher at the Wiener Library, profiles a Jewish hero whose lifestyle masked a web of selfless acts

Kristallnacht - 80 years this week.
Kristallnacht - 80 years this week.

In her 1984 biography of Wilfrid Israel, Naomi Shepherd wrote: “In almost all books he enters without introduction and leaves without explanation.”

Israel was an Anglo-German Jewish businessman and philanthropist, responsible for helping to save thousands of lives from Nazi persecution. Yet, unlike others, he has remained a mysterious and elusive character in the history of the Holocaust.

He was born in London on 11 July 1899 as the first son of Amy and Berthold Israel.

The family were wealthy, and lived with Wilfrid’s two younger siblings in Berlin, where his father owned and directed the well-known department store N. Israel. In the 1920s, after travelling as a young man, Israel started work at the family business as personnel manager of the 2,000 staff.

The business provided him with a base for his relief work, and a circle of prominent contacts.

Following the Nazi rise to power, Israel repeatedly came to the aid of his employees and friends who found themselves victims of Nazi terror. Within five months of Hitler being appointed Chancellor in January 1933, he had been arrested three times.

The third arrest in June 1933 came as Israel was meeting others to formulate welfare plans for young unemployed Jews in the provinces. The Nazi Party’s paramilitary force, the SA, stormed into the meeting and herded the men into trucks.

The group were then abused and beaten. A friend who had witnessed their arrest hurried to Alfred Wiener, who would later found The Wiener Library.

He alerted the state police and eventually secured the group’s release the following morning. While this was a terrifying experience for Israel, the event did not deter him from continuing his work.

Five years later and 80 years ago this week, on 9-10 November 1938, the Nazis and their supporters broke into Jewish businesses, destroyed their property, burnt down synagogues, imprisoned more than 25,000 men and killed some 100 people, the event that later became known as Kristallnacht.

On 10 November, Israel’s store – after initially avoiding damage the evening before – was ransacked. SS guards rounded up the Jewish employees as other Nazis shattered display cases, slashed paintings and threw typewriters out of the windows.

Word soon reached Israel, who immediately focused on gathering a list of the staff taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

He used his contacts to contact the Nazi camp commander, Hermann Baranowski, and negotiate their release. After a promise of unlimited credit at the Israel store, the staff were freed.

Following the release, Israel again used his position, contacts and wealth to help the firm’s remaining 200 Jewish employees to emigrate, giving them two years’ salary in cash and securing many of them jobs abroad. This undoubtedly saved their lives.

Yet despite being constantly followed by the Gestapo and having his business ‘Aryanised’, Israel did not emigrate until shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, continuing with his mission to save as many of Germany’s Jews as possible after he left by means including lobbying key players abroad such as Herbert Samuel in Britain to organise Jewish aid.

Few know of Wilifred Israel, an Anglo-German Jewish businessman and philanthropist, responsible for helping to save thousands of lives from Nazi persecution

Israel finally left Berlin on 15 May 1939 for London. Before his departure, he played a central role in organising the Kindertransport and other rescue schemes for those already in the camps.

In Britain, he worked first for Bloomsbury House, an organisation dealing with German Jewish refugees, and then the Foreign Office.

He died on 1 June 1943 when his flight was shot down by a Luftwaffe fighter while he was returning from Lisbon, where had been on a mission for the Jewish Agency for Palestine arranging entry certificates for refugees.

Israel worked relentlessly to save those being persecuted by the Nazis, yet his contribution remains largely unacknowledged.

His fascinating life and selfless actions remind us of the importance of principle and bravery in our own troubling landscape today.

A copy of Wilfrid Israel, German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador by Naomi Shepherd (George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, 1984), can be found at The Wiener Library

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