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Review by Veronika Bernstein, Jaunary 2015

Book Review: The Hide and Seek Children: Recollection of Jewish Survivors from Slovakia

Barbara Barnett and Contributors, 2012, Mansion Field

Over the years I have often heard of ‘Schonfeld’s children’ and I knew that he was a British Rabbi who brought out of Europe several hundred Jewish children in order to provide them with a free orthodox Jewish life in the West. He realized that the Jewish education of young people was interrupted by the war years and that the annexation of Czechoslovakia to Soviet Union in 1948 basically put a stop to any religious life. Only by reading Barbara Barnett’s book do I fully appreciate intentions, efforts, political reasoning and practical difficulties of integrating 100 young strangers, aged under 16, in a foreign country. He managed to bring them to Ireland on a temporary visa for 1 year. The purpose was to provide respite and recovery for the children and to provide them with ashelter until tney can be futher resettled in Israel, uSa, Britain either with relatives or in yeshivas.

The author became involved with the group as a young social work student at LSE in 1946 and through personal connections she remained in touch with some members all her life. She became a member of the Reunion Committee and helped to trace people across the world, leading to a Reunion in 1998 of about one third of the children.
The first part of the book sets the scene by introducing the little known country in central Europe. The terrain and history of Slovakia are described in the context of its Jewish minority between the First and ,Second World Wars. Their lives were relatively peaceful with freedom to practice their religion with all provisions that are required to do so. The effect of the Holocaust is well known. After the war there was a short period of hope that life would return to its pre-war existence but the Soviet take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948 clearly signalled that no religious freedom will be tolerated under the new system. Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld in London decided to rescue orthodox Jewish children, orphaned or otherwise, and offered to bring them to England. However, UK authorities were not willing to issue a group visa and he succeeded get a temporary group visa for Ireland.

A detailed account of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld’s life and his own background sheds light on his activities and motivation for this remarkable project. The description of life in Clonyn Castle and later in Clonyn House is fascinatingly illustrated with original invoices for the inventory and photographs. The attitudes of the Irish authorities and of the local Jewish community are critically observed. The book is complimented by maps by Martin Gilbert, personal photographs donated by the children, and many original letters and documents.

The second part of the book is a collection of contributions from the staff in Ireland and recollections of the survivors’ experiences of their childhood. Some people brought written memories to the Reunion, some contributed later. Barbara managed to trace two thirds of the children but only about a half attended the reunion. About a third of survivors refused to share their experiences. Of those who did all are grateful to Rabbi Schonfeld for an opportunity to start a new life. Most seem to have carried on a religious life. They are all remarkable people who have managed to begin again after for us unimaginable traumas.

As a second generation person myself, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and managed to retain a non-orthodox Jewish identity, I cannot help hut think that Schonfeld played God with lives of these children and young people. He believed that saving them for an orthodox Jewish life would be most important aspect of their future. He disregarded the potential trauma of been separated again from their parents, for all he knew for ever, taking them to foreign countries, repeated international moves, new adopted homes, language, culture, etc., etc. As recollections show many children, having survived the Holocaust, were traumatised by being separated from their parents, often at very short notice and hardly ever with any consultation of their own wishes. The fact that some of them were later reunited with their parents in the West was due to the political willingness of the Slovak authorities of the time. I am not saying that life under communism was easy. My sister and I left at the earliest opportunity for us, in 1968, followed by our mother in 1975. I believe that even as non-orthodox Jews we make a valid contribution to people of Israel and that Schonfeld's motives were driven by religious fervour and not by altruism. The legacy of his work and of the work of some other orthodox survivors results today in the growing charedi communities in USA, UK and of course in Israel. Their dream of the revival of the pre-war European orthodox Jewish life succeeding beyond their expectations in the West. I presume at some of the Hide-and-seek children are part of such communities.

Barbara Barnett compiled a remarkable document of a little known chapter of Slovakian Jewry. She had done it with interest, love, care rjntf tact. 1 would like someone to take on the mantel and follow up the children of these survivors, some of whom must be in their 50s now. Life is a one-way journey and we will never know how the lives of the Holocaust surv ivors would have been without the passion of rabbi Schonfeld for orthodox Judaism.

Review by Melissa Rosenbaum, March 2012

The Hide-and-Seek Children: Recollections of Jewish Survivors from Slovakia Collected and introduced by Barbara Barnett with maps by Martin Gilbert

Published February 16, 2012.

Ten-year-old Hetty, when fleeing from Fascist guards in Slovakia during 1943, was hidden by strangers under the bedding of a crying baby. Her dramatic story is one of 40 collected by Barbara Barnett from child survivors of the Holocaust. We hear of youngsters used as slave labourers,
experimented on by Mengele or hidden and protected by non-Jews. There are descriptions of persecution under the Slovak Fascists and the Hlinka guards and the Hungarian Arrow Cross; some were incarcerated in Auschwitz or Thereisenstadt. In sharp contrast, we hear also about people who risked their own lives, and those of their families, by taking in Jewish children, of Christian orders who hid Jewish fugitives among other children in their convents and even from a Jewish Kapo, the official in charge of Hut 8 at Auschwitz concentration camp. 

When peace came many of the hideaways learned they were orphans; any surviving parents were destitute and all were suffering from malnutrition. Into this chaos came the charismatic Rabbi Solomon Schonfeid from London offering temporarv rare for children to allow parents time torecover and re-establish themselves and for orphans he gave assistance in planning their futures. A chapter is dedicated to his story.

Rabbi Schonfeld brought 148 children from Bratislava to London just as the Soviets were taking over Prague, heralding further catastrophe for the Jewish community. Of these, 50 orphans were found foster homes in London or joined relatives. The rest spent up to a year in a neo-Gothic castle in Eire, a blissfully peaceful place where they were cared for in a traditional Jewish milieu. Barnett uncovered from the Schonfeld archives in Southampton University the background of this venture and the many difficulties that were surmounted.

The Schonfeld children went on to start new lives in North America, Britain and Israel. Striking was their urge to study, to earn, to be independent and above all to marry and create new families. Their many achievements are remarkable as entrepreneurs and as professionals. At a Reunion in London in 1998, fifty years after they had reached England as children, forty-nine turned up. They exchanged memories and told each other how their lives had developed. This book has emerged from that gathering. It is dedicated to these stalwart survivors, a legacy for their grandchildren.

Notes to editors

Barbara Barnett, M.Phil, now aged 87, is a retired social worker. She assisted the organisers of the 1998 Reunion and went on to learn more about these young survivors: their pre-war lives, the impact of the Slovakian Fascists, the struggle of the Jewish community leaders, how families tried to protect themselves and their children. Some contributors narrated their stories to Barbara, others wrote their own memoirs.