(Journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees VOL 12 No.6 June 2012 page 9)

Grim ‘game’


The title of this book is intriguing. If you overlook the early explanation, you have to read many pages before you find the answer: it refers to a game these children invented at the ‘castle’ in Ireland (yes, and Southern Ireland at that!) where most of them spent about a year. As the author points out, little has been written about the trials and tribulations of Slovakian Jewry during the Second World War. Is this because it is (again) a small country which borders Poland to the north and Hungary to the south and was formerly part of Czechoslovakia?

For me, the most interesting parts of this book are the detailed descriptions of how the children were found and the method by which they were brought to England after the war and before the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe. The main mover in this grim ‘game’ was Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, born in 1912 in London. His father was born in Sutto, between Bratislava and Budapest, in 1880. Rabbi Schonfeld had travelled extensively on the European continent before the outbreak of the Second World War and had been successful in bringing several hundred, mainly orthodox, families, as well as Viennese children, to safety in England. Although there is reference to the Kindertransport, Rabbi Schonfeld’s opinions, maverick attitude and unconventional methods made him work alone. He felt he was a brinkman with ‘a direct line to his Creator’. After the war, when the fate of Continental Jewry became clear, Rabbi Schonfeld was one of the first to take care of the survivors and search for hidden children. On several journeys he managed to bring some 800 children, mainly from Poland, to Britain. For his own safety, he had been advised to travel in a uniform – which he designed himself. He just about escaped an attempt on his life.

‘It is not entirely clear how Rabbi Schonfeld operated in Europe or how he selected the Slovakian group,’ the author writes. He extended an invitation to war-damaged children to spend a year in Britain in a traditional Jewish setting. This message was sent across Slovakia and reached the re-establishing Jewish communities. It resulted in a group of 148 children meeting at the Prague railway station for their journey to London. Some of the details read like a cloak-and-dagger story. I must include this quote: ‘He is said to have visited a convent where the Mother Superior told him she had no Jewish children. He asked to accompany her “good night” tour of the dormitories. At each doorway he quietly pronounced the opening words of the Shema. Several times little voices joined in. He left with a contingent in tow.’

It is unknown why Rabbi Schonfeld chose Ireland as the destination for this group of children. However, he had persuaded a well-to-do Manchester Jew to purchase Clonyn Castle as a home for these refugee children. At the time, the Dublin Jewish community was divided as to whether to offer help to the children. Before the group made it to Dublin, they first had to travel from Prague through Germany and Belgium to England. In Ostend, there was the small complication that the number of visas did not match the number of children. The administrative and bureaucratic obstacles overcome were numerous and are spelled out in some detail. At about this stage, the text becomes interspersed with extracts from the children’s memoirs. These include descriptions of daily life at the castle, how the older girls helped to look after the younger children, religious observance, visits to the nearby village, and a football match with the village children. There is ample description of the hard work by several adults responsible for the daily running of the ‘Clonyn Castle Children’s Hostel’. Finally, we come to a more detailed account of how this book came about. One of the (former) children suggested a reunion to commemorate 50 years since their arrival in Britain. A Jubilee Reunion Committee was set up in 1996 and, by 1998, addresses all over the globe for nearly half the original group had been found. No fewer than 160 people attended the grand reunion dinner! In the postscript to the first part of the book, the wish is expressed that it, together with the personal stories of the children, will be a monument to Rabbi Schonfeld’s endeavours. It is a huge achievement in itself.

In the 200 or so pages of the second part of the book, the stories of the children  as well as of members of staff are told in greater or lesser detail. The stories are subdivided in accordance with the children’s experience: children hidden with their mother and/or a sibling, on their own, in institutions, those that survived Auschwitz, and some post-war recollections. They are followed by appendices and notes. This is a well-written and liberally illustrated and documented book which adds to our knowledge of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Readers might also like to visit the website, www.thehideandseekchildren.org, which refers to texts of a similar nature.

Henri Obstfeld