World Jewish Relief – a visit

I made my way up to London yesterday, taking the Northern line on arrival, through to Golders Green. In an unexpected location among suburban housing, I located the London offices of World Jewish Relief, only running slightly late (apologies again!) for what I thought was to be a quiet meeting with their digital communications manager.

What seemed a fairly small office frontage opened into a long bright room, full of some of the sweetest, friendliest people you could ever hope to encounter. My slight nervousness about the meeting was soon assuaged by the warmth of the welcome, and by people standing up and smiling and saying hello as I passed by their desks to reach the meeting room.

I don’t know who organises their recruitment, but the people here are impressive – the choice of staff presumably reflecting a similarly warm, open management culture.

So far, so good!

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I’m trying to remember when I first heard of WJR: it can’t have been more than two years ago – if that. And it took even longer for me to put it all together that WJR is the present form of the organisation that saved our fathers’ and grandfathers’ lives by giving them an escape route out of Nazi Germany and the annexed lands of Austria and the ‘Sudentenland’ (the present-day Czech Republic).

I suppose it’s not surprising that it has taken me these long years to work it out, given that it’s only relatively recently that I started to put together what Kitchener camp was (via Clare Ungerson’s book), how it was funded and organised, and how it saved my father’s life – his being the only life saved among his close family members in Poland and Germany. Many of you reading this will have experienced similar levels of loss among those who had to be left behind.

Now that a better understanding of these events is starting to form among descendants of the Kitchener men, however, there have been a number of people getting in touch to ask whether there is some way in which we can say thank you to the Central British Fund, as was – or to World Jewish Relief, as it is today. This is something we are thinking about, and if anyone has any thoughts they would like to add to the mix, please get in touch.

Perhaps there is something we could do around the time we hand over this archive of material in 2019 – for the 80th anniversary of the opening of Kitchener camp? Anyway, please do have a think about it.

In the same way that we descendants are here today, to bring together our small parts of this larger history, so too will those men and women who worked so hard for our families have descendants who are alive today. They should know what their families did in this remarkable rescue of so many lives, and they should know that their families are remembered with gratitude.

It also seems important to mark these events on a broader level. This small part of our larger and terrible history speaks to the potential for a deep well of generosity among men and women – to the better side of who we can be. And even in this context of so much loss among our families, it is important to acknowledge that in these moments, great good was also done among us – and for us.

The Kitchener rescue was an important reminder, then and now, that we can – and should – consider the humanity of others, with compassion.

And in the 1930s, how much stronger this was, as a symbolic action: as well as the physical action taken to help, these events must have spoken volumes to our families, when their very humanity was being denied throughout their homelands.

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Yesterday’s visit was almost overwhelming in the end – in the nicest possible way. It was very touching that so many staff came to say hello and to ask questions about the project we are undertaking among all of us descendants here. Their enthusiastic interest is a testament to the willingness of descendant families to be involved in this together, adding to the sum of knowledge about these significant events.

I have said it elsewhere, but it bears repeating here: were it not for the CBF, our fathers and grandfathers would very probably not have survived the Shoah, and we would not be here today to commemorate these events.

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As I understand it, the organisational archives of the CBF are now housed in paper form at the Metropolitan archives in London, and on microfiche at the Wiener Library. World Jewish Relief itself has around half the records for individual people that were created during the 1930s, and into the late 1940s in some cases.

After the war, apparently, the records were supposed to be destroyed, but for various reasons only around half were disposed of, meaning that approximately 35,000 refugee records still exist, out of the original 65,000. Clearly, then, this is not just an archive of records pertaining to Kitchener camp residents, but includes records of the many tens of thousands who were helped to leave ‘Greater Germany’ by the CBF and others throughout those years, including, of course, the children of the Kindertransport.

Kitchener camp, Sandwich, From Hans Jackson's 'Kindertransport' series
From ‘Kindertransport’, by Hans Jackson, resident of Kitchener camp
With the kind permission of Allen Sternstein

In many cases the records include the small white ‘entry cards’ you may have noticed on these pages, and the green and the red German Jewish Aid forms, as well as some social work and school records, and in some cases, records of ongoing financial assistance.

There are in fact hundreds of thousands of records here – tragically including many cards made for people who never made it out to safety before war broke out.

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World Jewish Relief spent two years digitising this archive of family materials, and if you would like to know more about your family history it is certainly worth getting in touch to see if your records survived. There is no charge made to access your materials, and these lovely people are very keen to share the information they hold with you, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with them.

There is a page on their website to fill in, which will go to some of the people I met yesterday – a number of whom volunteer their own time to do this for us: https://www.worldjewishrelief.org/about-us/your-family-history

Please do get in touch with WJR if you haven’t already done so – they would love to hear from you.

For now, on behalf of all of us – many thanks indeed, World Jewish Relief