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July 11: The Department-Store Rescuer

July 10, 2015

Gedenkort-Papestrasse-Wilfrid-IsraelWilfrid Berthold Jacob Israel, an Anglo-German businessman who owned one of the largest department stores in Berlin before World War II and used his fortune and his contacts to enable German Jews to leave Germany, was born on this date in 1899. As soon as the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Israel worked to gain the release of prisoners from German concentration camps by giving Nazi leaders access to his store without payment. Israel also paid for the the emigration of his Jewish employees from Germany by giving them two years’ of salary at their point of departure, and used his contacts in Great Britain to gain admission to transit camps for some 8,000 young men, in partnership with Frank Foley, the passport officer at the British consulate in Berlin. Israel also played an important role in the Kindertransport, the rescue of ten thousand German Jewish children after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. Eventually his store was taken over by the Nazis and Israel, who’d already been arrested and roughed up by the Gestapo more than once, left for England — although he returned just before the war broke out to organize the last departure of Kindertransport children. Among his Jewish friends he counted Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, and Martin Buber. He died in 1943 when his civilian passenger plane was shot down by German warplanes over the Bay of Biscay; Israel was, at the time, exploring the possibilities of using Portugal as a safe haven for Jews. An art and archaeology museum named in his honor exists on Kibbutz HaZore’a in Israel.

“Never in my life have I come in contact with a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was — in very truth a living work of art. In these times of mass-misfortune, which so few are able to stand up to — one feels the presence of this “chosen one” as a Liberator from despair for mankind.” —Albert Einstein

Watch the trailer for the 2012 documentary Wilfrid Israel: The Savior from Berlin – The Story of a Forgotten Hero: