Rabbi, Principal, Hero: The story of Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld
The Kindertransport: A Children’s Adventure
London, Chanukah 1938
It was a freezing cold Shabbos morning, the winter sun shining low down in the sky. Liverpool Street station was crowded with Londoners enjoying their day off. Birds flew from perch to perch under the high roof, while families chattered and porters wheeled carts of luggage to the platforms.
Right on time, at 11:04, a black train steamed into the station, white clouds billowing from its engine. The train stopped at the platform, and the doors rolled open.
Passersby stopped to stare. Something was different about this train. Instead of adults or families, the passengers who stepped down were a large group of foreign-looking children. Tiny little boys and girls held tightly to bigger children. They were dressed for winter in fur-trimmed coats and warm gloves, knitted scarves, and hats. Each child carried a small suitcase, and some of the little ones had a numbered tag around their neck.
The children stood together on the platform in a big, tight group. They looked around, as if bewildered by the noise and the English language that swirled around them.
A very tall, handsome man with a top hat and a blond beard strode down the platform toward the children. This was Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, a young Jewish rabbi and principal. He stopped when he reached the group and spread his arms wide in welcome. There was a big smile on his face as he boomed, “Shalom aleichem, kinderlach!”
As if drawn by a magnet, the group of boys and girls came closer and grouped themselves around the rabbi. He spoke to them in German and Yiddish, and they followed him trustingly out of the station.
On the Train, Out of Danger
Who were these children, who had traveled so far, alone? These were the first children of Rabbi Schonfeld’s Kindertransport. Their parents were back home, in Vienna, Austria. They had once enjoyed beautiful homes and shuls and a special Jewish community, but now, Nazi soldiers marched through Vienna’s streets. Jews were beaten up, arrested, or forced to move out of their apartments. No one knew what the Nazis would do to the Jews, but people realized it would not be good.
Despite the Nazi danger, Rabbi Schonfeld had traveled to Vienna to help rescue Jewish children. “Vienna is not safe for Jewish children any longer! Hurry, give me lists of your children’s names, and I will bring them to safety in England,” Rabbi Schonfeld had persuaded the parents. “You will escape as soon as you can get visas, but meanwhile I’ll take care of your children.” Quickly, the parents made their decision: The children must go! They hugged them tightly and promised to write letters, then took their precious children to Vienna’s train station to travel on the Kindertransport.
It was a long, tiring train journey through Austria and Germany. Nazi soldiers came on the trains, screaming and cursing and stealing anything valuable from the children’s luggage. But they eventually crossed into the safety of Holland, took a ferry across the sea to England, and then another train to London.
A new home
Rabbi Schonfeld had walked for two hours to meet the Kindertransport on Shabbos, but there was no way the children could walk for two hours after their journey, and staying in the station was a matter of pikuach nefesh. Outside the station, a line of shiny black London taxis waited. Rabbi Schonfeld spoke to each driver, explaining that he was taking care of child refugees from Vienna, and each driver kindly gave the children a free ride.
“Where will we stay?” the children all wanted to know. Luckily, it was winter vacation in London. Rabbi Schonfeld had emptied the classrooms of his school and filled them with dozens of beds.
There still wasn’t enough space. So Rabbi Schonfeld arranged for his mother and younger brothers to go on vacation for a few weeks. He moved all his mother’s china and silver and dining room furniture, and filled the Schonfeld house with beds, too. The rabbi made do with a recliner in the attic. Later, he would slowly find each boy and girl a place to stay — with a family, or in a children’s hostel.
That first Shabbos was Shabbos Chanukah. Each child was missing and thinking of their parents, so far away and in danger. Rabbi Schonfeld stood up to speak. Looking around the room at each brave boy and girl, he announced “Yehzt zent ihr meine kinderlach — Now, you are my children!” And so they were — Schonfeld’s kinder.
Meanwhile, there were adults to take care of the children, a cook to make them good food, English lessons so they would learn the language, walks around London, and trips to the park.
The children came to Rabbi Schonfeld with any problems or difficulties. If he met a child feeling sad or homesick, he gave them pocket money and a hug.
On the move again
London, September 1, 1939
At six in the morning on Friday, the playground of Rabbi Schonfeld’s school was full of children waiting in lines. World War II had begun. Everyone knew the Germans would bomb British cities. All children had to leave London and be evacuated to the countryside. The school children, including the Kindertransport children, stood waiting in lines in the playground. Rabbi Schonfeld explained in English and in German that they were going to stay with families in the country for a short time. Then it was time to walk to the station. At the front of the line, the oldest boys carried the school’s sefer Torah.
It would go along with them as they left “home” once again.
The entire school traveled by train. The children stayed in four small villages. What funny names! Shefford, Stotfold, Clifton, and Meppershall. The villagers had never seen Jews before. They stared and wondered, Who were these children with beanies on their heads? Why did some of them not speak English?
As the children stood uncomfortably in the village square, Rabbi Schonfeld arrived in Shefford, too, in his own little car.
The children watched as he unloaded two huge pots, bread, and many packages of kosher hot dogs. Now they knew that they would have Shabbos meals! Rabbi Schonfeld shook hands and thanked the people of the village: “Thank you all for your hospitality to our children. Now let me explain — my children are Jewish children. They can’t eat your meat, and they can’t light your fires on the Sabbath.”
With a wave and a blessing, Rabbi Schonfeld then turned his car around and drove off to get back to London in time for Shabbos. In his short visit he had made the villagers happy and the children calm. They had food and somewhere to daven and eat their meals. They were in the strangest places, so far from home, but everything would be all right.
On every Friday after that, the children sat on the grass and waited for their principal. He came with his car loaded with wine for Kiddush, siddurim, tzitzis, kosher food, tefillin for the boys who were becoming bar mitzvah, and everything else they needed. While World War II raged across Europe, the Jewish school in Shefford was a calm, safe place, with the children and their teachers learning in their own school, davening together, and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Rabbi Schonfeld had created another childhood for children who had almost lost theirs.
War is over
At last, the war was over. Hitler had been defeated: There was no more bombing, no more gunfire, no more Nazis hurting Jews. But Rabbi Schonfeld could not relax as long as he knew that Jews in Europe still needed his help. They actually needed everything, for the Germans had taken their homes and their businesses and burned their shuls. How could he get things to them?
The young rabbi hit on a brilliant idea: “synagogue ambulances.” On the outside, an ambulance. On the inside, a shul, complete with sefer Torah, siddurim, and Chumashim, and crammed with kosher food!
The twenty-five “synagogue ambulances” which Rabbi Schonfeld prepared were sent by ship to France, and from France across Europe. They drove through France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and other countries. Everywhere they went, they helped helped any Jews they met.
In a Polish village, 1946
The convent was surrounded by tall walls. A narrow gate opened on to a path through the trees. Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld, wearing a British army officer’s uniform, walked down the path and knocked on the heavy wooden door. Eventually, it was opened by a short nun in a long black dress.
“Good morning, madam. I am a rabbi and officer from Britain.”
“What do you want?”
“I’m here for all the Jewish children you have here.”
“Jewish children?” The nun made a face as if she had never heard of such a thing.
“That’s right, the Jewish children. Their parents left the children with you when the Nazis forced them into ghettos. Now, the war is over, and I have come to take them back,” Rabbi Schonfeld repeated.
“We have no Jewish children,” the nun said.
“You have Jewish children here,” Schonfeld said again, calmly. He pushed the door open further and walked into the convent. “We know that many families from this village left children with you, and you have saved their lives. Now, it is time to return them to the Jewish people.”
The nun was turning colors. Again, she said, “We have no Jewish children,” but her eyes were darting back and forth.
Rabbi Schonfeld spoke louder. Nuns and children came to see what was going on. “I have the authority of the Chief Rabbi and of the British army. You must return all the Jewish children to me. We will not leave any behind.” He walked through to the dining hall, looking for children who looked Jewish. “Come, madam. I demand that you bring me all the Jewish children, and I will take them into my care. This is their parents’ wish.”
The nuns bent to his authority, and children thronged toward him. Soon Rabbi Schonfeld had rescued hundreds of children from convents and Christian families all over Europe. He hired ships and took them back with him to England. Sometimes, he found their relatives in America and sent the children to them. Once, he arranged for a big group to stay in a castle in Ireland, where they could recover from the war. Usually, he found them families, and helped them attend schools or yeshivos, or find jobs. They had a Jewish future.
With thousands of children attending Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld’s schools, and the tens of thousands descendants of those he rescued, so many Jews all over the world owe thanks to this great man today. He is an example of how much one person can accomplish, when he wants to do what Hashem wants!
Did You Know?
Rabbi Schonfeld was just 26 years old when the Nazis trapped the Jews of Europe, but he knew he had to fight to save everyone he could.
When Rabbi Schonfeld went to the British government offices to get visas to bring rabbis from Europe to safety in England, the government officials told Rabbi Schonfeld that these rabbis would only be allowed in if they had jobs. Rabbi Schonfeld promptly invented jobs for all the rabbis. Among other things, he told the official that there was a lack of tzitzis-knotters in England, and he was bringing over rabbis who were expert tzitzis-knotters! It sounded good… and he got 500 visas to save rabbis and their families.
Hasmonean, the school opened by Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld, still exists in London today. It has over 1,200 pupils.
Rabbi Schonfeld wore an army officer’s uniform when he went to rescue children in Europe after the war. But on his army cap was a badge he had made himself, with a picture of the Luchos.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 789)