History & Culture

Righteous amongst the Nations Part 1: Children of the Potter
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Thursday 22nd May 2014

Every year, Hertfordshire SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) arranges a Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in a different school and area in the county. This year, at the commemoration in Buntingford, the guest speaker was Sir Eric Reich, who arrived in London on 29 August 1939, age 4, on the last kindertransport. He, like his two elder brothers, was sponsored to come to the United Kingdom by JFS School. However, when JFS evacuated to Ely, Cambridgeshire, there was no place for a 4-year old in a secondary school. Just as he was being left among a few children whom the refugee committee at Bloomsbury House, London could not place, in walked the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, the chairman of the Dorking Refugee Committee. Vaughan Williams took the children to Burchett House, the refugee home in Dorking, Surrey [Burchett House was provided rent-free by the Duke of Newcastle], where about a dozen refugee families had been housed. Sir Eric was fostered by the Kreibichs, the one non-Jewish family; they were socialists who had fled from the Sudetenland.

Listening to Sir Erich, it occurred to me that there are many famous people who used their fame or position to save lives, but this altruistic kindness is less well-known than their other achievements.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was one of the leading composers of his generation. His equally famous colleague in the Dorking Refugee Committee was the novelist E M Forster (1879–1970), who lived with his mother in a town called Abinger Hammer, near Dorking, until her death in 1945.

Britain did not initially distinguish between Germans and German refugees from Nazism. When some of the refugees faced internment as enemy aliens, Vaughan Williams and Forster helped them in their applications to remain at liberty.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, through his mother, was part of the Wedgwood family. The potter Josiah Wedgwood was a great-greatgrandfather. His cousin was Colonel Josiah Wedgwood (1872-1943), a member of Britain’s first Labour Cabinet in 1924, subsequently ennobled as Lord Wedgwood.

Lord Wedgwood’s interest in Jews may have been engendered by a connection in South Africa where he was a magistrate in the years following the Boer War in which he had served as an army captain. During the First World War, as a naval commander in the Dardanelles Campaign, he encountered the Zion Mule Corps, from which time he became an active Zionist. In 1927, he published ‘The Seventh Dominion’, following a visit to Palestine. His thesis was that the British Mandate of Palestine was unsympathetic to Jews and that Britain regretted the Balfour Declaration. What was needed was for it to be replaced by a Dominion, an independent Jewish country under the British monarchy. The existing six dominions were Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. Just as Dutch South Africans and French Canadians were loyal to the crown, so Palestinian Jews would be. As an MP, he opposed the immigration limits on Jews to Palestine, and did all he could to help Jewish immigration into Britain.