Hidden Stories from
World Jewish Relief's Archives
by Debbie Cantor
Once a week I volunteer at World Jewish Relief as one member of a small team of volunteers (including Woodside Parker Michelle Werth). I work with the World Jewish Relief Archives and I’m delighted to be given the opportunity to tell you a little bit about the Archives and some of the fascinating stories we discover each week. The archives team responds to requests for family members’ records from all around the world that come in via our website and we love how each file tells its own story.
World Jewish Relief was originally called the Central British Fund for German Jewry. The Central British Fund was established in 1933 in response to Hitler coming to power.
The committee was made up of several prominent members of the British Jewish community including:
Simon Marks, Chaim Weizmann, Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Hertz –
There were also two high profile women – Rebecca Sieff and Elaine Laski
The Central British fund achieved 2 main things in its first year of operation:
Firstly Raising huge sums of money - £250,000 (close to £17 million in today’s money)
And secondly lobbying the British government to allow refugees into the country
Refugees came throughout the 1930s. We helped these people with finding a place to live, financial assistance and were their point of contact and support in the UK.
And then Kristallnacht happened and the CBF realized they needed to act:
On 15th November 1938 a small delegation of British Jews went to Chamberlain including two of our founders. They asked for help in rescuing the children – they proposed providing financial support, education and training.
They asked for German travel documents and British visas to be waived.
With funding from CBF and other organisations, the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany (The Kindertransport) swung into action.
During the 1930s and 40s The Central British Fund helped rescue approximately 65,000 people from Nazi Europe. Detailed records were kept on the majority of them. These are the documents that now make up the World Jewish Relief Archive.
After the war these documents were destined to be destroyed but due to good foresight they were stored in garages and basements.
They were eventually rescued from the basement of the Otto Schiff Care Home on The Bishop’s Avenue and have since been digitised in a huge two year project.
The originals are now stored at the London Metropolitan Archives. They include registration cards and case files on the refugees including files on many of the 10,000 children who came on the Kindertransport, many women who came as domestics including both my grandmothers who were from Vienna and the 4000 men who came directly to the Kitchener Camp (including my Grandfather) as well huge files as for the 732 child survivors known as The Boys.
The original paper records fill over 660 archive boxes and cover 99 meters of shelving.
I’ve been working with this archive for several years now and I’d like to tell you about just a few of the things we have found.
The first document that we search for are Registration Cards.
There are approximately 350,000 of these cards in our archive .
The card contains lots of valuable information including names and often name changes, date of birth, an arrival date and various addresses in the UK.
Searching for the right person is often a challenge; we have registration cards for over 128 H Rosenthal’salone! Thinking about the administrative overhead at the time is almost inconceivable and without a single computer in sight!
The most detailed documents are often the case files.
We have 35,000 of these – unfortunately just over half were destroyed, lost or damaged in the intervening years.
The level of detail about the lives of individuals can be astonishing.
Including where they were working, how much people were earning, ongoing education, social, health and welfare issues and training for employment.
There are many updates from Miss Smith, who we assume was the countries busiest social worker, who would write ‘welfare reports’ following her frequent visits.
Other details documented in the files discuss clothes that were given, cinema tickets provided, financial support and aid given to the refugees.
There was also an emphasis on ensuring the children maintained a connection with Judaism and they were often encouraged to join social clubs, participate in religious instruction and were given tickets for Yom Tov services. There are sometimes other documents included in the archive such as school reports, letters, passports and travel documents.
One of the files we found was for Lisa Jura, who some of you might know was featured in the play the Pianist of Willesden Lane. Her file includes reports about how she was helped to continue with her piano lessons after arriving in the UK on the Kindertransport.
There are so many stories contained in the archives, each record we find uncovers a new family history. Another file we have is for a boy named Sigfried Plaut. Siegfried arrived in the UK aged 14 on the Kindertransport from Berlin. His three sons came to the World Jewish Relief office to collect their father’s archive documents.
The file shows that at the age of 19 we helped him get training at City Central Garage and he went on to become car mechanic.
His son’s then told us that eventually their father ended up owning a garage on the Finchley Road where JW3 now stands. Siegfried’s sons were moved to hear how their father was helped by the Central British Fund as well as learning about his early years in the UK. Siegfreid had died at quite a young age and his sons had never taken the opportunity to ask their father about this part of his life.
In 1945 the file shows that Siegfried received a letter informing him that his parents had survived the Holocaust and were liberated at Theresienstadt. Unfortunately many of the children did not have such good news.
Work saving lives and giving assistance to refugees and Kindertransport children in the 1930s and 40s, informs everything World Jewish Relief does now. We are inspired by our history.
World Jewish Relief continues to help people who have been affected by disasters including those who have been forced to leave their homes.
We support the poorest Jewish Communities in Eastern Europe helping older people with social, welfare and health needs. Many of them have no family or anyone else who can care for them.
We have expertise in helping the younger generation get into work or start their own businesses so that they can support themselves.
We also respond to international disasters, helping people beyond the Jewish Community at times of crisis. At the moment we are delivering emergency assistance to thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique.
If you have family that arrived in the UK during the 1930s or 40s from Nazi Europe or know of people who might have, then World Jewish Relief may have their documents in our archive.
You can enter their details on our website at:
We especially love meeting individuals and family members to go through the files as we get to hear the ‘What happened next’ part of the story. I’m limited by time today but feel free to ask me or Michelle later about some of the other amazing stories we’ve uncovered.