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British rabbi proposes ‘Ukraine transport’

The child of a young Jew who was saved by England in 1938 proposes a project similar to the Nazi-era “Kindertransport” for victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2022.

Growing up in London in the 1950s and 1960s, less than a generation after WW II and the Holocaust ended, young Jonathan Romain heard little about how his mother had survived the Third Reich. Like other Jewish children from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia, she was taken into the home of a family in southwest England.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Romain heard “very few” stories from his mother about her early years as Gabriele Hertzberg in Leipzig, or about her coming-to-the-United Kingdom experience, or about the “Holocaust in general.”

But Romain, who later became a rabbi, knew, like most people his age, especially members of the Jewish community, about the Kindertransport project that had saved his mother’s life. He knew that his mother “was one of the lucky ones to get out” of Nazi Germany.

Now he wants to do the same for refugees from Ukraine. “It’s my turn to do the same for others in need.”

Rabbi Romain has proposed that Jews and non-Jews in England open their homes — and their hearts — to people who are threatened and displaced by the war begun by Russia in Ukraine two weeks ago.

He calls his proposal “Ukrainetransport.” He was to meet with British officials early this week to discuss his project.

“I have always wondered how I could repay the debt I owe to the Kindertransport, who saved my then 11-year-old mother,” he tweeted last week. “Now is the time, which is why I am helping to co-ordinate Ukrainetransport.”

“I feel a special responsibility,” he said. “Without [the Kindertransport] I would not be alive.”

The rabbi, spiritual leader since 1980 at the Maidenhead Synagogue, about 30 miles west of London, is a well-known figure in the British Jewish community; his articles appear frequently in the country’s prominent newspapers, and he makes frequent appearances on television and radio.

He has started to collect names of potential hosts for his project, which can go into operation as soon as England starts issuing visas to the approved number of Ukrainians applying for them.

He has called on the UK’s Jewish community to host in their homes Jewish families from Ukraine who have become homeless — for how long no one knows — during the Russian-initiated war.

As the Russian attack on Ukraine intensified last week, and the number of refugees mounted, the need for projects like Ukrainetransport became more apparent, the rabbi said in a telephone interview with the Intermountain Jewish News.

The rabbi’s plan will also include non-Jewish Ukrainians. “For [the motivation of] some people it’s solidarity with Ukraine but for other people it has to do with roots and their Jewish path because their great-great-grandparents came from Ukraine,” he said.

“We’ve had an amazing response . . . from rabbis themselves who are offering to host families,” he told the London Jewish Chronicle. 

“It’s about Jews helping Jews . . . when one Jew is in trouble, somewhere in the world, another Jew helps.”

“Everyone . . . right to left . . . wants to help,” he said. “It resonates particularly with Jews.”

The rabbi said he described his idea recently at a Jewish assembly, and asked, by a show of hands, how many people were part of, or knew a family, with a Kindertransport background. “Two-thirds of the room raised a hand.”

He praised the “amazing” response from people across the UK who have contacted him, offering rooms in their houses, mobile homes and even one who has a hotel. 

He cited an 84-year-old woman who told that he wants to offer her spare room despite being scheduled to have a cataract operation soon; and a woman whose husband receives kidney dialysis has offered to open up her home to a Ukrainian family in need of dialysis — she said she can take them all to hospital at the same time.

Just as England was the only country to sponsor a major rescue mission like the Kindertransport during the wartime era eight decades ago, Romain’s proposal is the only known one of its type to emerge since the war began last month.

In a press release urging members of the Jewish community to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, Romain stated, “we will work through whatever existing [Jewish communal] body comes forward” to help with the project. 

“I have kept [London-based] World Jewish Relief informed, whose expertise will be vital in the next stage — teaching language skills and finding employment . . . their specialties.”

With the total number of Ukrainians who will become refugees because of the war expected to reach four million, several European countries that border on Ukraine or are nearby have already accepted nearly a million refugees, and the British government has indicated that it is prepared to take in as-yet-undetermined-number of relatives of Ukrainians who are already in England.

Britain’s Home Office, responsible for immigration, security, and law and order, has come under criticism for its refusal so far to waive visa requirements and to simplify the asylum process.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to address the British Parliament by Zoom on March 8, and Rabbo Romain said he hoped that Zelensky’s words would advance the cause of Ukrainetransport, which would be easier to create with official government backing.

“I think there are potentially thousands and thousands of volunteers who would open their homes and schools whenever, particularly to child refugees or those in the most danger,” Mike Levy, a British expert on the Kindertransport who supports Romain’s initiative, told website. 

“I think the voluntary spirit is there” to take in large numbers of Ukrainians. I think there is no difference between people’s reactions to helping children [in the 1930s], as there is now.”

Levy, who has urged the government to waive visa requirements for the Ukrainian refugees, has criticized the government for “trying to treat refugees as migrants” and looking at the humanitarian crisis as a “bureaucratic” matter.

The official number of Ukrainian refugees who would be permitted to come to Britain was not announced by early this week, but it appeared that it might reach into six figures — “you could be talking about a couple of hundred thousand,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

Home Secretary Priti Patel also unveiled a separate sponsorship plan that would allow UK companies and citizens to bring to England Ukrainians “who may not have family ties with the UK but who are able to match with individuals, charities, businesses and community groups.”

The Independent newspaper, in an effort to pressure the government to grant sanctuary to more, last week launched a “Refugees Welcome” campaign, advocating a wider acceptance of the displaced people.

As a sign of Jewish support for the refugees, a fundraising campaign in England for Odessa’s Tikva orphanage and school, 450 of whose students have fled to safety in the Carpathian Mountains, raised nearly $2 million. A British synagogue collected more than $2,500 in supplies to be distributed by Chabad of Poland, which is assisting refugees who cross the Ukrainian border.

As a sign of the British government’s recognition of Jewish interest in the refugees issue, a Jewish former member of Parliament was this week appointed minister for refugees. Richard Harrington, who had served as chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, was also made a life peer, which allows him to work in the government as a member of the House of Lords.

All of this is reminiscent of the spirit of the Kindertransport, a series of rescue efforts that brought some 10,000 boys and girls, mostly Jewish, who managed to escape danger in Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia from in the aftermath of Kristallnacht in November, 1938, to safety in the United Kingdom.

The government allowed unaccompanied minors to enter the country as refugees. 

Child welfare organizations in England arranged for the children’s care, education, and eventual emigration — though many decided, as adults after the war, to settle in the country.

At least half of the parents of Kindertransport children are estimated to have died in the Holocaust, unable to leave their homelands and join their children abroad by the time the war broke out.

In addition to the official Kindertransport, such British individuals as stockbroker Nicholas Winton and educator Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld created their own, more modest rescue missions.

The current support for the Ukrainian refuges of some Jewish organizations is consistent with the outpouring of support for refugees from Afghanistan — especially translators and other people, mostly men, who worked with the US Army — among several organizations in England when US soldiers hurriedly left a half year ago, essentially leaving the threatened Afghanis to the whims of the Taliban.

Again, attributable to the memory of the Kindertransport.

“It resonates particularly with Jews,” Rabbi Romain said.

He said he has received “lots of enquiries” about Ukrainetransport “from those with similar backgrounds,” families of men and women who owe their lives to the Kindertransport. “Many non-Jews too.”

What would his mother, who came to England at 11 and died there at 87, say about the rabbi’s proposal? “Probably, very little,” he says. “But she would feel it is the right thing to do.”

To contact Rabbi Romain: [email protected].

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Contributing Writer

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