This Day in Jewish History / Enigmatic ‘Living Work of Art’ and Savior of German Jews Shot Down by Luftwaffe

Wilfrid Israel, canny but saintly savior of thousands of German Jews during the Nazi era, died when the Germans shot down a BOAC flight with him on board.

Unknown/Wikipedia Commons

June 1, 1943, is the day on which Wilfrid Israel, the mysterious but saintly savior of many thousands of German Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust, died when his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay.

Israel – mastermind of the Kindertransport and other schemes of rescue – was a figure who traveled in a wide range of circles, and was respected and loved in nearly all of them. When he died, for example, Albert Einstein wrote to Israel’s mother to tell her that he had never known “a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was – in very truth a living work of art.” Yet very few were close to Israel, or even knew much about him.

Wilfrid B. Israel was born in Berlin on July 11, 1899. His father was Berthold Israel, owner of the city’s largest department store, Kaufhaus N. Israel, situated on the Alexanderplatz. His mother was the former Amy Josefa Solomon, granddaughter of the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Nathan Marcus Adler.

At age 22, Israel became the manager of the family store, overseeing a staff of 2,000 employees. After the Nazis’ rise to political power, he shrewdly plied many of its officials with a wide variety of benefits – including owning accounts that they never had to pay off – and thus got away with things that other Jewish-owned businesses did not.

For example, on March 30, 1933, Israel received an order to fire his Jewish employees. He refused and was arrested, but soon released with the help of an employee who belonged to the Nazi party. And in the years leading up to the war, the name “Israel” continued to appear above the entrance to the store, which also had the privilege of not having to fly the swastika flag from its roof.

Beginning of the end

Kristallnacht, in November 1938, however, was the end for Kaufhaus N. Israel. Storm troopers entered the store on November 9-10, arresting all the Jewish employees and destroying inventory.

Wilfrid was able to arrange for the release of his workers from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp only by offering its commander the privilege of doing his Christmas shopping at the store at no cost.

Israel encouraged his large number of Jewish employees to leave the country while they could, and offered to give them the equivalent of two years’ salary on their departure.

He himself fled Germany for Britain in May 1939, after a forced sale of the store to new owners. Both before and after his move, however, Wilfrid’s real concern was getting Jewish children out of the German Reich.

He was part of a delegation who met with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in late 1938 to propose having the United Kingdom admit up to 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and other Nazi-controlled lands, until permanent homes in other countries could be found for them.

The operation was complex, politically and logistically, but largely through Israel’s efforts, 9,394 children, either partly or fully Jewish, were given refuge in the UK between December 1938 and September 1939.

A secretive life

Israel never married, and apparently led a discreet life as a homosexual, which may partly explain his secretive nature. He visited and fell in love with Kibbutz Hazorea, which had been founded by German Zionists, and apparently hoped to move there after the war.

In 1942, the Jewish Agency asked Israel to travel to Portugal to distribute entry certificates to British-controlled Palestine to Jewish refugees there. He arrived there on March 26, 1943, and spent two months meeting and screening candidates.

Israel’s return flight to England was on June 1. Among the 12 other passengers on his BOAC flight from Lisbon to Birmingham were the actor Leslie Howard and at least one British intelligence agent.

Although it remains unclear which one of them served as the basis for the German attack, that night Flight 777 was intercepted by eight German Junkers fighters. It crashed and sank into the Bay of Biscay, killing all its passengers and a crew of four.

Wilfrid Israel had arranged to leave his collection of Far Eastern sculpture to Kibbutz Hazorea. It serves as the basis for the kibbutz’s Wilfrid Israel Museum of Asian Art & Studies, which also specializes in archaeology.