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September 07, 1984 - Image 54

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-09-07

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

54

Friday, September 7, 1984

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

LOTTIE D. HALPERIN, R.E.-F.E.S.A.

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Forty-one years have passed
since the death of British movie
idol Leslie Howard, whose name
became a household word in
America after his role in Gone
With The Wind. Howard was re-
turning from Lisbon to Bristol
when the commercial aircraft on
which he had booked passage was
intercepted over the Bay of Biscay
by a Luftwaffe patrol and shot
down. I don't recall that any of the
12 other passengers were named.
Wilfrid Israel was one of them. He
didn't count.
Many years later I read Christ-
opher Isherwood's Goodbye to Be-
rlin and years after that saw both
the stage and screen versions of
Cabaret based on Isherwood's
stories of life in Berlin as the
Nazis were coming to power. One
of the characters in Goodbye to
Berlin in Bernhard Landauer, a
young Jewish businessman, a de-
licate esthete yet one unafraid of
Nazi thugs. Landauer was mod-
eled after Wilfrid Israel. The
character was cut from Cabaret.
He didn't count.
The fact is that until now most
of the Western world has never
heard of Wilfrid Israel. Yet he was
well known not only to Isherwood
but to Isherwood's fellow-
traveler, Stephen Spender, and,
most importantly, to ' Martin
Buber, Chaim Weizmann and Al-
bert Einstein. In a long prose
poem, Buber described Israel as "a
man of great moral stature,"
while Einstein said of him after
his death that he was "one of the
finest and most noble individuals
I have ever known."

How does one who seemed not to
count earn accolades of such mag-
nitude? What did Buber, Weiz-
mann and Einstein know that we
are only just now finding out?
They know that Israel, from the
earliest days of the Nazis' anti-
Semitic provocations until he was
shot down at sea, had worked
ceaselessly, in great danger and
at astronomical personal expense,
to save the lives of thousands of
German Jews and others in
Europe, many of them children,
alive today, scattered over the
earth, unaware to whom it is that
they owe their survival.
Israel's story of courage, his
quiet determination in the face of
devastating odds (Nazi brutality
and deceit on the one hand,
British and American intransi-
gence on the other), and his
idealism and compassion, is now
for the first time compellingly told
by Welsh-born Naomi Shepherd
in A Refuge from Darkness; Wil-
frid Israel and the Rescue of the
Jews (Pantheon).
Shepherd was educated at Ox-
ford, and has made her home in
Jerusalem where for most of the
past two decades she has been the
political correspondent for the
New Statesman and a frequent
contributor to the New York
Times. She has also done
documentary film scripting. In
her biography of Israel, she has
skillfully blended an astute sense

Joseph Cohen is director of the
Jewish Studies Program at
Tulane University.

of timing and suspense with a
capacity for organizing succinctly
masses of documentary detail.
Consequently, her book consti-
tutes an unusually valuable con-
tribution to Holocaust literature:
she has resurrected an heroic,
self-sacrificing Jew, and through
her careful extrication and piec-
ing together of disparate bits of
otherwise disconnected evidence
from hundreds of archival sources
— Israel left no diaries or
memoirs and the British Foreign
Office, for whom he worked after
his escape from Germany, vetted
his correspondence and buried his
reports — she has written a fas-
cinating historical account of the
triumphs and failures of the ef-
forts to save the Jews of Germany
and of Western Europe.
Israel's progress a% he operated
in the belly of the beast is cast
against the dismaying backdrop
of the unfortunate factional dis-
putes between the Zionists and
other organizations involved in
resettlement; the duplicitous am-
bivalence of the British who paid
lip-service to saving the doomed
Jews While simultaneously deny-
ing them entry visas into Pales-
tine, and the astounding refusal of
the American government to
relax entry quotas even after the
existence of the death factories
was incontrovertibly established.
Israel was able to play his sig-
nificant role in these stirring and
tragic events by virtue of being a
member of a powerful Anglo-
German family, the owners of N.
Israel Co., Berlin's most prestigi-
ous department store. Born in
1899 in England and educated in
Germany, his dual citizenship,
coupled with the family's influ-
ence and its huge wealth, gave
him enormous mobility. He
wanted to be a sculptor; instead he
rose to prominence as the director
of a business employing 2,000
people, trading all over the world.
Whatever Israel's public image,
only a few people knew of his spe-
cial private agony. He was a
homosexual. Early in his life he
learned to devote himself to his
duty, to sublimate and rechannel
his needs, to remain detached, to
read carefully the countenances of
others, and to keep his,own coun-
sel.
Unquestionably, these were
valuable assets he used to great
advantage whether he was
negotiating with Nazi concentra-
tion camp commanders or pet-
tifogging British bureaucrats.
Assets apart, his sexual proclivity
brough him only loneliness and
despair. His solace was largely in
music and art. Knowing he would
never father children, he became
a surrogate-father to thousands of
them. His private shame effaced
most of the public esteem history
would have given him.
When Leslie Howard's plane
was shot down that fateful day in
•June 1943, more than one sig-
nificant world figure was lost. The
tragic irony is that the plane was
attacked by the Germans because
they knew a third world-figure
was flying across the Bay of. Bis-
cay at about that time. That per-
sonage crossed safely three days
later. His name was Winston
Churchill.

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