It was the fall of 1938. Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld was a young rabbi of twenty-six who had taken over his late father’s positions as rabbi of a small congregation and principal of a small day school – the first in England. News of the persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria began to filter in, especially the day after the terrible pogrom of Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938. Sitting in his modest office, Dr. Schonfeld could not settle down to his daily work. A sensitive man, he understood the full impact of the tragedy. He had thought that such things could only happen in the Middle Ages, not in our age of progress. Here he sat, safe in his cozy room, while his fellow Jews on the other side of the Channel languished in concentration camps. What could he do to help them? He had no money. His father had never been money-minded. Whatever he had managed to save from his own modest salary he usually gave away when confronted with an emergency among his congregants. So the only thing left was compassion for his brethren, but this was clearly not enough.
Dr. Schonfeld’s thoughts were interrupted by the sharp ring of the telephone. It was a Mr. Julius Steinfeld calling from Vienna. Dr. Schonfeld had talked to this man in Austria several times. Steinfeld, a courageous communal leader in Vienna, had been doing his utmost for his brethren in Austria without regard for his own safety. Briefly and carefully, so as not to run afoul of the censors, who he was sure were listening in on the telephone conversation, Mr. Steinfeld now told Dr. Schonfeld of hundreds of children whose parents had been arrested or killed in the pogrom and who were now left on their own. Could Dr. Schonfeld help them? His voice choked with emotion, Dr. Schonfeld promised to try. A council of members of Dr. Schonfeld’s congregation was hastily summoned to grapple with the problem. The gentlemen decided, for a start, to raise money to bring ten children over to England. Dr. Schonfeld left the meeting in a depressed mood. They were good men, but they didn’t understand that it would take weeks, even months to raise the large amount they thought would be necessary to care adequately for the children. Meanwhile, hunger, sickness and the threat of further pogroms would take a heavy toll. Ten children indeed! Something much more drastic had to be done. But Dr. Schonfeld did not dare spell out his plans. He was afraid he would be put into a straitjacket. He knew his congregation; they were a well-fed, well-housed community. The troubles on the Continent still seemed very far away. Bombs and war appeared highly unlikely. Perhaps the people of the congregation were a little too complacent.
After a sleepless night, mulling everything over again and again, Dr. Schonfeld went to the British Home Office. The impressive figure of a handsome six-footer with gleaming eyes and a winning smile gained ready access to one of the most important officials at the Home Office. Dr. Schonfeld told the official what had happened in Austria. This, of course, was no news to that gentleman. He, too, had read the newspapers. Then Dr. Schonfeld unfolded the details as he himself saw them, and reported what Mr. Steinfeld had told him on the telephone. The official muttered that he was very sorry but there was nothing he could do to help. Then, for the first time, Dr. Schonfeld revealed his plan. He said he wanted to bring three hundred Jewish children from Vienna to London and care for them personally. The British official was stunned. How could one rabbi provide for so many children; to house, feed and clothe them? Dr. Schonfeld told him he had neighbors who would be willing to help; he personally would guarantee with whatever assets he himself possessed that the children would not become burdens to the British government. All that was necessary was that the children should be given permission to come to England.
The British official sized up his petitioner with growing admiration. This was a young man, not yet thirty years old, with a pure soul, a good heart and a tremendous will to help others. Could he send this man away? Would he ever be able to sleep peacefully again if he said no now? Thinking of his own children and his own home, he was ready to give his approval. But his duties as an official of the British government forced him to hold back. “Tell me, Rabbi, where will you put the children to sleep the first night they are here?” he asked. Dr. Schonfeld fell silent, but suddenly he had an inspiration. “I have two schools of which I am principal. I will empty the school buildings. I will house the children there,” he replied. “I want to see for myself where there is room for three hundred children in your school,” said the man behind the desk. The rabbi and the British government official went out together, hailed a taxi and drove off to North London. Before the eyes of the startled pupils, the two men measured the length and width of each classroom. They began to figure in terms of so many children and so many square meters. It would have been barely enough, but there was one large room which could not be used. It had to be left clear as a dining room for the students. Forty children would still be without shelter. “Well,” said the official, “in view of the circumstances, I can give you passports for only 260 children.”
But the official had not reckoned with Rabbi Schonfeld. “Wait! I own the house in which I live!” the rabbi exclaimed. “I will empty that out, too, in order to make room for the children.” Back Dr. Schonfeld went, the government official in tow, to his private home. Again, the yardstick came out. Defeated by the overwhelming humanity of this man, the official diffidently asked Dr. Schonfeld where he himself would sleep. Dr. Schonfeld took him upstairs to a tiny room in the attic filled with bric-a-brac. “I can sleep here,” he said. The official had tears in his eyes as he shook the rabbi’s hand and asked him to submit the names of the children to whom he should issue the permits to enter England. Immediately, in the presence of the official, Rabbi Schonfeld telephoned the leaders of Vienna’s Jewish community. He asked them to draw up a list of names and admonished them to see to it that the children on this list would be ready to travel as soon as possible. Two days later he was back at the Home Office with all the data about the children. A passport official began to prepare the individual papers. He was only halfway through when it was closing time at the office. He told Dr. Schonfeld to come back the next day; he would finish the remaining passports then. But on being reminded of the joy which these papers would bring to three hundred families in Europe, this kind man disregarded closing time and worked on the papers until midnight. Then he helped Dr. Schonfeld pack the papers and carry them to the post office to speed them on their way to Austria.
Now that the first step had been taken, the real worries began. Upon an urgent call from Dr. Schonfeld early in the morning, his friends assembled at his home. He told them what he had done and asked them to help him. A search for beds began. The local Boy Scout troop had a sufficient number of beds and blankets at their summer camp. They were only too willing to lend them for such a purpose. Several trucks were sent out to the scout camp to bring these, as well as many dishes and large pots and pans which were necessary to cook for the refugees. Meanwhile, a cable reported that the children had left Vienna. Then disaster struck. A blizzard, the heaviest in eight years, blanketed London, and the schools were snowbound. But this did not deter Dr. Schonfeld. Together with a group of youngsters, he went out with shovels to clear the way for the trucks that would bring the refugee children. This accomplished, the school and his own home ready for the children, he hurried to the port of Harwich to greet his three hundred new charges. What he saw moved him deeply. Here were ragged, starved, frightened youngsters, the remains of once proud families. He shepherded them into the hired trucks to bring them to their new shelters. Neighbors were waiting there. Everyone was willing and ready to help feed and wash the children and put them to bed on this, their first night in a new country. The rabbi was close to exhaustion, but he stayed on duty until all the children had been settled. Only after that did he go home for his first good night’s sleep in a week. Entering his house, he heard a little six-year-old refugee girl crying for her mother. He took the child in his arms, talked to her about her new country and promised to bring her mommy to join her soon. Then Dr. Schonfeld went up to his attic chamber for a well-earned rest.
Heroes Of Faith