from: "Jewish Tribune" 10 May 2012,  page 30


A year at Clonyn Castle

by Rachel Rogosnitzky

BARBARA Barnett’s book brings together a large number of personal records of Jewish orphans transported from the dangers of post-war mainland Europe to the rural idyll represented by Clonyn Castle, near Dublin.  The Hide and Seek Children celebrates the rescue exploits of Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, whose visits to continental Europe to find Jewish children and bring them to Britain are recorded through the voices of the hide-and-seek children.  “We (137 and me) arrived from Prague on April 22nd [1948]" Rabbi Schonfeld wrote to Miss M Wellstead at the Home Office, thanking her for the cooperation of the British Government without which the venture could not have taken place.  Around a hundred children came to Clonyn Castle, here the warmth and patience of the specially-chosen Orthodox Jewish staff helped to calm their traumatic memories and set them on the right course for their future lives.  

Rescuing Jewish children from a chaotic and anti-Semitic Europe had become the overriding purpose of Rabbi Schonfeld’s life.  As the son-in-law of Chief Rabbi Hertz, he was in a favourable position to approach influential people, setting up with his father-in-law the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council.  In some quarters regarded as a maverick, Rabbi Schonfeld allowed nothing to interfere with his purpose; he had no patience with Government bureaucracy and even less with elements in the Jewish community who claimed it was better to use quiet diplomacy.  Rabbi Schonfeld did not always find the support and sources of maintenance necessary to secure the transport of Jewish child refugees as well as their continuing care once they arrived in this country.  Before a visa could be issued, the British Government demanded guarantors for each child to ensure they would not become a burden on the state, which meant continuous efforts by a small overworked team.  

It wasn’t enough for Rabbi Schonfeld to bring the children across the Channel and consign them to any family that agreed to take them in.  He was frequently at odds with the Refugee Children’s Movement which had organised the Kindertransport and accommodated some children in non-Jewish as well as non-Orthodox homes. Some people in the community felt that, in a major crisis

such as the one they were facing, any port would do in the storm.  RabbiSchonfeld believed otherwise, especially for children torn away from their Orthodox families.  His protest, published by the Union of  Orthodox Hebrew  Congregations  in 1944, railed against the Home Office for failing to meet the religious needs of the child refugees; he called it the Child Estranging Movement:  “an expose of the alienation of Jewish refugee children in Great Britain.  Defend the rights of Jewish orphans!  Legal guardians are about to be appointed by the Home Office.  There is a veiled tendency to move them away from Orthodoxy.”

Rabbi Schonfeld refused to tolerate the bungling efforts of British bureaucrats and was aware of the urgency of the post-war situation as countries in eastern Europe began to fall to Communist rule.  This was a situation that would uproot any remaining vestiges of Yiddishkeit that had miraculously survived the Nazi onslaught.  It was the catalyst for Rabbi Schonfeld’s increased efforts in the rescue of the many ‘lost’ Jewish children.  From 1945, as soon as he could secure permission to travel to the Continent, Rabbi Schonfeld scoured European cities for Jewish children, hidden by their desperate parents before the war, anywhere he thought they might be hidden, including in convents. When a Mother Superior denied there were Jewish children in her care, Rabbi Schonfeld went up to the dormitories and, standing in the doorway, began to recite the opening verses of the Shema. A chorus of childish voices responded to his words; Rabbi Schonfeld whisked the children out of the convent to begin their journey home.

From the remoteness of the Villa Silvia in the High Tatra mountains, to Ohel David Children’s Home at Nove Mesto, north of Bratislava, to the cityof Prague, Rabbi Schonfeld’s reputation spread as he actively sought out children, many of whose names and identities had been concealed, the start of a process in which children were brought across the Channel and rehabilitated often in a surprisingly short time to enable them to move on to their destination, whether in Israel or America.

At Villa Silvia in the High Tatras Mountains, which was for a time a convalescent home for Slovak child survivors of the Holocaust.  Shimon Levy, who now lives in Stamford Hill, is seen here, the second boy from the front. His late brother is the fourth from the front and Tamas Kraus, who now lives in Bournemouth, is at the back.

He succeeded in bringing out 500 from Poland, 300 from Romania and Hungary and finally, the subject of this book, 137 from Czechoslovakia, a country with which he had some familiarity since he learnt at the Nitra Yeshiva.  Although he was met with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility, (at one stage while travelling in Europe, he foiled a plot to assassinate him) Rabbi Schonfeld continued to seek out Jewish children.  If some whose names were inscribed on his list failed to arrive at the meeting point, he would substitute other children desperate to leave Eastern Europe.  It made no difference to him that they temporarily had to assume names that were not their own.  Children were warned against speaking Czech since no Czech nationals were permitted to leave; a few of the children were older than the 16 years their visa stipulated.  Some were already 18 or 19, so Rabbi Schonfeld told them to stoop down to look smaller.  There was a huge sense of relief once they were all safely over the border.  

Accommodating around 100 children - some of the orphans were permitted to remain in Britain and a few of the older boys stayed in Dublin - proved a huge administrative headache with multiple issues for the handful of organisers.  In a Europe still ravaged by the effects of the war, they needed to make urgent improvements to the Clonyn Castle building, appoint teachers and other staff, organise supplies of kosher food, furniture, bedding, repair the building’s ancient heating system, persuade the Dublin community to help cope with the unexpected influx of children, and deal with recalcitrant authorities, who failed to understand the life-saving nature of Rabbi Schonfeld’s work, as well as some elements in the Irish Jewish community who baulked at his methods.  The Irish authorities agreed to the entry of 100 “Jewish war orphans” between the age of 7 and 16 for one year provided costs were covered by the Chief Rabbi’s Council.  

A major reason for Clonyn’s success was the quality of its staff, who were instrumental in making the children feel at home and fulfilling needs long denied during the years of turmoil.  Henry Pels, Executive Secretary of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, took on most of the administrative responsibility Rabbi Schonfeld appointed Mrs Olga Eppel, a “sergeant major” yet motherly type, who was chosen to represent the CRRC in Eire and on whose shoulders rested most of the responsibility for the daily administration and activities at Clonyn.  Rabbi and Mrs Yisroel Cohen, who had already helped with the rehabilitation of young Holocaust survivors at Windermere, were appointed by Rabbi Schonfeld to help educate and care for the children.

It was Anna Katscher, one of the young people from Slovakia, who suggested the idea of a fifty-year Jubilee Reunion to honour the memory of Rabbi Schonfeld and to meet up with other refugees who had experienced life at Clonyn Castle.  Mrs Barnett succeeded in getting in touch with half of the original group, some of whom came to London in 1998 for a programme of events, starting with a visit to the kever of Rabbi Schonfeld at the Adass Cemetery in Silver Street, Cheshunt.  

After a weekend at the Normandie Hotel, Bournemouth, a Sefer Torah was dedicated at the Adass Yisroel Shul in Stoke Newington.  The Sefer was conducted through the streets of Stamford Hill to the appropriately named Schonfeld Square.  That evening, the Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld Children’s Transport Jubilee Reunion Committee held a reunion dinner at Hendon United Synagogue, attended by a hundred and sixty people, many of whom would not have been present had their lives not been saved by Rabbi Schonfeld.  Among the many moving speeches was one by Rabbi Yisroel Cohen, who emphasised that Rabbi Schonfeld “was concerned with a higher ideal than simply saving life - he was rescuing the very neshomoh of Khal Yisroel.  His efforts obligate every one of his children to safeguard the spiritual future of our people.”

A large part of this book, which contains many fascinating photographs, is filled with the voices of the children who in a series of letters movingly describe their experiences in Europe and their growing attachment to the way of life at Clonyn.  Judit Wiesner wrote: “It was like a beautiful big family with freedom and kindness and love after the horrors that everybody had suffered . . . what a wonderful and loving person was Rabbi Schonfeld!  I cannot adequately express the kindness and devotion he showed to every one of us.”