By Julian Lewis
Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, vol.157, no.3 – June/July 2012
Lyn Smith: Heroes of the Holocaust: Ordinary Britons who Risked their Lives to make a Difference, Ebury Press, 2012, 272 pp, £16.99 (ISBN: 978-0091940676)
Awareness of the industrialised mass-murder of European Jewry has advanced and receded in waves. First came the discovery and liberation of the concentration camps, followed by the catalogue of evil forensically set out at Nuremberg. Next were the capture and the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. In Britain, Dr Dering’s failed libel suit against the author of Exodus and, in America, the 1970s television series Holocaust also played their part. More recently, Sir Martin Gilbert and other leading historians have produced monumental works. Yet, there is still a role for the inspiring catalogue of selflessness and courage which Lyn Smith has compiled.
Some of these tales are already well-known: Charles Coward, who with a fellow-POW – the father of Shimon Peres – smuggled Jews out of Auschwitz, was cockily portrayed by Dirk Bogarde in The Password is Courage. Biographies exist of Denis Avey, who tricked his way into and out of the death camp, and Frank Foley, who used his SIS cover as Passport Control Officer in Berlin to issue thousands of life-saving visas. Sir Nicholas Winton’s decision to cancel his ski-trip to Switzerland in 1938, and go privately to Prague where ultimately he saved 669 Czechoslovak Jewish children, has also been recognised.
Yet, who has heard of June Ravenhall, marooned in The Netherlands, her husband interned and with three children to support, who risked all their lives to shelter a Jewish youth for four years? Or the saintly Jane Haining, a Scottish missionary to Jewish children in Budapest, who insisted on returning there from the safety of Britain when war broke out?
“If these children need me in the days of sunshine,”
she told her sister,
“how much more do they need me in the days of darkness?”
From Auschwitz she managed to write:
“Even here on the road to Heaven, there is a mountain road to climb.”
Her murder followed shortly.
In Nazi-occupied Jersey, Albert Bedane helped escaped Soviet labourers and hid a Dutch Jewess in a secret cellar for more than two years. He was never found out – unlike Harold le Druillenec and his sisters Ivy Forster and Louisa Gould. Feigning TB, Ivy escaped deportation whilst Harold survived Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. Louisa was gassed at Ravensbruck. She had lost one son, killed in action with the Royal Navy, but had not hesitated to shelter a young Russian escapee.
Such tales say as much about the context as they do about their central figures. Ivy survived because a local medical officer, Dr Noel McKinstry, falsely diagnosed her ‘tuberculosis’. Yet it was a neighbour’s denunciation which had led to her arrest and ultimately the death of her sister. Lyn Smith quotes Mein Kampf, at the start of her book, with Hitler lamenting that thousands of
“Hebrew corruptors of the people”
had not been
“held under poison gas”
at the beginning of the First World War. At the end, she quotes Sara Matuson, a teenage escapee from a death march who had been saved and sheltered by ten British POWs. They risked reprisals, they said when honoured after the war, because “we are British”. They knew the values for which they had fought – as did the German girl who said to Sara, while they toiled in the fields waiting for the Russian advance:
“we lost the war, but we did win the war against the Jews”.
British eccentricities, as well as British values, enhance some of the narratives. Louise and Ida Cook lived for their love of the opera, saving every penny to travel to America and Continental Europe. Shocked by the persecution of Jews in their cultural network and empowered by Ida’s increased income from a new career writing romantic fiction, they used their opera trips as ostentatious cover in Germany and Austria. Not only did they rescue people, they smuggled out their valuables to provide the financial guarantees without which refugees would not be admitted to Britain. In this connection, the public appeal of former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, which raised £500,000 to underwrite the children of the Kindertransports, amongst others, deserves honourable mention. While others were fleeing the Continent, these two dauntless women returned time and again – finally coming home just two weeks before the outbreak of war.
This cohort of rescuers covered a very wide spectrum: from soldiers to socialites, from bankers and civil servants to farmers, physiotherapists and housewives. Religious beliefs often featured, political convictions also, up to a point. The Quakers had an outstanding record, as did others inclined towards pacifism; but, so did hard-bitten fighting men and ordinary folk who objected to being bullied and refused to stand by while the helpless were persecuted. Denis Avey’s fury at a guard who killed a slave-worker cost him a pistol-whipping and, eventually, an eye. His sense of empathy had made silence impossible.
Lyn Smith writes simply and clearly, keeping as close to original testimony as the passage of time permits. Her book takes its structure from the list of recipients of the Hero of the Holocaust Awards presented, in most cases to family members, at a ceremony at Ten Downing Street in March 2010. It sets individual deeds of valour in historical context and will endure as a source of role-models for the next generation. Throughout it all, however, the question remains: why did such individuals act so decisively, whilst powerful figures were often indifferent? Too many of the struggles which Lyn Smith describes were struggles against British restrictions and British requirements, despite Britain’s record comparing reasonably well with that of so many other countries.