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Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry's Secret Ambassador

Wilfrid Israel was a most unlikely hero. Heir to a Jewish business dynasty in Berlin, he was a contemporary of Einstein and Spender in the cosmopolitan circles of Weimar Berlin, and emerged from his world of privilege to become German Jewry'schief (and often anonymous) emissary to the outside world and one of the great unsung heroes of the Holocaust.  In the dark days of the 1930s, the ever tightening persecution of German Jews made the diffident Wilfrid Israel assume a major role in their escape. Using his British passport and high connections, he lobbied British diplomats and politicians with plans for Jewish support and rescue. At home he faced down stormtroopers and the Gestapo, enabled the emigration of the Jewish employees of his firm, and ransomed thousands of Jewish and anti-Nazi prisoners from the concentration camps.

When the Nazis finally requisitioned the Israel firm, and the Jewish leadership disintegrated, he ran the Jewish emigration office which enabled thousands to find refuge abroad, partly by his connection with the head of British intelligence in Berlin. After the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, through the Council for German Jewry in London, and with the help of his Quaker friends and German Jewish women’s organisations, he set in motion the famous Kindertransport. This was the admission to Britain without formalities of nearly ten thousand unaccompanied Jewish children. Leaving Germany days before the outbreak of the war, he lobbied on behalf of German Jews interned as enemy aliens.  In 1942 he was recruited by the British Foreign Office to put his extensive knowledge of German politics and economics at the disposal of the government – also his expertise in rescue to its Refugee Department.   


Wilfrid Israel was one of the first to warn of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe and the dimensions of the Holocaust. His final mission, to distribute certificates of admission to Palestine among the Jews of Spain and Portugal, ended when the plane in which he was returning to England was shot down by the Luftwaffe.    


This biography, first published in 1984 and now revised with a new foreword, restores Wilfrid Israel to his rightful place in the history of the Holocaust. It also brings into new focus the disturbing indifference of Allied leaders to the plight of the Jews, early arguments over the emerging Palestinian homeland, and questions still unresolved today about the politics of rescue and the practicality of humanist ideals.

‘The author has not only rescued Wilfrid Israel from the shadows; she has told from a new perspective the tragic story of the reaction of the outside world to the news of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews.’



Naomi Shepherd was born and educated in Britain but has lived most of her adult life in Israel. She is also a prize-wining historian, biographer, journalist and documentary maker.

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