When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Hackney Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld learned of the dangers facing Jews across Europe and soon began to act.
As leader of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, which he founded, he made plans to bring people to safety in Britain. Obtaining travel documents, organising transport and using his extensive list of contacts to find people willing to offer safe homes to Jewish refugees.
As part of the Council’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony, which took place over YouTube virtually, Urswick School students shone a light on the wartime experiences of refugees rescued by Dr Schonfeld.
Lili Stern-Pohlmann, just nine when Poland was invaded during the Second World War, was one of the many children transported in a Swedish boat to England with Dr Schonfeld.
“For me, Dr Schonfeld was God,” she said. “He was marvellous. He was teaching children to sing on the boat because he could not communicate with all of them. English songs such as Rule Britannia. He was doing everything in the best interests of the children, some of whom were frightened or never wanted to speak. There was one boy who was a bandit, he was truly dangerous with a knife, even at the age of 10. But Dr Schonfeld was going to save the children no matter how and no matter what. When Tower Bridge opened up for us in London it was an amazing sight.”
In total, Dr Schonfeld saved about 3,700 children and adults from eastern and central Europe and brought them to England before and after the Second World War.
But it wasn’t until nearly 40 years after his death that the British Government declared him a British hero of the Holocaust due to his “extraordinary courage”.
Stoke Newington-born Dr Schonfeld, whose office was in Armhurst Park, is honoured in Hackney with the Schonfeld Square road named in his honour.
‘Be the light in the darkness’ was the message on January 27 when victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides around the world were remembered in Hackney.
The day remembers the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
The ceremony took place on 27 January, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
Contributions came from a variety of community groups, including Haggerston School students, as well as Rabbi Naphtali Tiefenbrun of the Hackney and East London Synagogue who gave a memorial prayer.
The laying of a floral tribute at the Holocaust Memorial Tree in the Town Hall square by the Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville and the Speaker of Hackney, Councillor Kam Adams followed the ceremony.