Government honours Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld for saving 3,500 lives in Holocaust
A maverick Jewish leader who fearlessly risked his own life to help save thousands of people from the horror of the Nazi death camps is to be posthumously honoured by the government.
Orthodox rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, of Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate, ran Kindertransport and other rescue missions that helped 2,000 people escape Nazi Germany before the war.
Later the charismatic but controversial leader - described as six foot two and exceptionally handsome - travelled at great risk to his safety to help survivors of the concentration camps.
He will receive state recognition on Monday, almost 30 years after his death, when a British Hero of the Holocaust award is presented to his sons at a Lancaster House ceremony attended by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks.
Rabbi Schonfeld’s son, Dr Jeremy Schonfield, 61, of Woodland Rise, Muswell Hill, said: “I’m proud but I think it’s sad that he didn’t get the recognition when he was alive. But I’m not sure that he would have known what to do with it.
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“I think he felt that he wasn’t doing anything especially heroic.”
The award is given by the UK government in recognition of British citizens who rescued victims of the Holocaust.
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Born in 1912, Rabbi Schonfeld was the head of a growing Orthodox Jewish community in north London in 1933 when the Nazis took power and it became clear it would be necessary for Jews to leave Germany because of discriminatory legislation being passed.
While the young and fit were escaping to Palestine to build a new country, the elderly and scholars were not high on the priority list.
Rabbi Schonfeld went to the Home Office and secured visas for 500 rabbis and synagogue officials to come to the UK with their families - some 1,300 people in total - securing their safe passage before the worst atrocities of the Third Reich began.
After the terror of Kristallnacht, Rabbi Schonfeld also brought some 500 children and adults to the UK from December 1938 onwards.
Later in 1946, after the Allied victory, he undertook his bravest mission travelling with a convey of lorries to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
He wore a military uniform of his own making and travelled in an Austin Seven car, with soldiers armed with machine guns in the back as he was at risk of being shot, to reach survivors and help set up fledgling communities after the war.
Author Derek Taylor, who published a book on Rabbi Schonfeld, said: “He actually bought himself a military uniform and on the cap he put the 10 commandments and the Star of David, his own emblem to establish he was an army officer.
“If he needed to do something to save life, he would stretch the rules as far as necessary.”
The 80-year-old, who lives in Hampstead Way, Hampstead Garden Suburb, added: “There are tens of thousands of people alive in our country today who are only alive because Schonfeld saved their fathers or grandfathers from extermination.”
In total Rabbi Schonfeld is thought to have helped 3,500 people escape the Nazis and many of the refugees and their descendents still live in Hampstead and Golders Green today.
He later founded the schools that formed the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement.
But Rabbi Schonfeld’s son is keen to see his legacy recognised in Highgate with the erection of a blue plaque at the former family home at 73 Shepherd’s Hill.
The house is included in tours of Jewish interest sites in Highgate.
Dr Schonfield, who teaches at Leo Baeck College in East Finchley and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, said: “I think he’s one of the more extraordinary people that has lived in Highgate - the most extraordinary maybe.
“I think he’s far too little known. My father’s role in the orthodox community has made him less easy to popularise and celebrate.”