‘When Tower Bridge opened for us it was an amazing sight’: Refugees tell story of Hackney hero who risked life to rescue thousands from Holocaust

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Hackney Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld learned of the dangers facing Jews across Europe and soon began to act.

As leader of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, he made plans to bring people to safety in Britain. He obtained travel documents, organised transport and used his extensive list of contacts to find people willing to offer safe homes for refugees.

As part of the Council’s Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) ceremony, which took place over YouTube virtually, students from The Urswick School shone a light on the wartime experiences of refugees rescued by Dr Schonfeld. 

Lili Stern-Pohlmann, just nine when Poland was invaded during the Second World War, was one of the many children transported in a Swedish boat to England with Dr Schonfeld. 

“For me, Dr Schonfeld was God,” she said. “He was marvellous. He was teaching children to sing on the boat because he could not communicate with all of them. English songs such as ‘Rule Britannia’. He was doing everything in the best interests of the children, some of whom were frightened or never wanted to speak. There was one boy who was a bandit, he was truly dangerous with a knife, even at the age of ten. But Dr Schonfeld was going to save the children no matter how and no matter what. When Tower Bridge opened up for us in London it was an amazing sight.”

Dr Schonfeld saved about 3,700 children and adults from eastern and central Europe and brought them to England before and after the Second World War.

But it was not until nearly 40 years after his death that the Government declared him a British Hero of the Holocaust due to his “extraordinary courage”.

Stoke Newington-born Dr Schonfeld, whose office was in Armhurst Park, is recognised in Hackney with Schonfeld Square named in his honour. 

‘Be the light in the darkness’ was the message on January 27 when victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides were remembered in Hackney and around the world. 

The day honours the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. 

The ceremony marked the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

Ceremony organiser Nicola Baboneau said, “I spent three months on this important project, building relationships and working collaboratively with a range of enlightened individuals and organisations committed to Holocaust education and its contemporary relevance. 

“This underpinned the sharing of personal recollections and unique insights into those who endured persecution and subsequently built new and fulfilling lives for themselves and their families in London. 

“With years of experience in organising successful HMD events for large audiences in Hackney Town Hall, producing and directing this ambitious online ceremony in the era of Covid presented untold challenges.

“Filming in Hackney Town Hall was achieved by adhering to strict pandemic restrictions and social distancing. Two young violinists were filmed in their music tutor’s living room prior to the current lockdown. With schools closed from December 2020, new and innovative ways of working replaced the interactive workshops planned for students attending Haggerston and The Urswick schools.

“Camilla Loewe of TimeLine and Hephzibah Rudofsky of Surviving the Holocaust skilfully devised slide presentations enriched with voice over narratives, photographs and short video clips of survivors’ powerful and moving testimonies made possible by the AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive. Students researched independently, filming and recording from home.”

The laying of a floral tribute at the Holocaust Memorial Tree in the Town Hall square by the Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville and the Speaker of Hackney, Councillor Kam Adams followed the ceremony. 

Speaker of Hackney, Cllr Kam Adams
We all share a responsibility to strive for a safer, better future for everyone in Hackney. This includes tackling prejudice, discrimination and intolerance wherever we encounter it. Together, at a time when the world feels fragile and divided, we can all stand in solidarity so that light can banish all darkness and good will triumph over evil.
Speaker of Hackney, Cllr Kam Adams

The Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony can still be watched in full on the Council’s YouTube. For more information about Holocaust Memorial Day, go to: hmd.org.uk.