Wilfrid Israel (1899-1943) was an Anglo-German Jewish businessman and philanthropist, responsible for helping to save thousands of lives from Nazi persecution. The Israel family were Jewish and lived in Berlin, where Wilfrid’s father, Berthold Israel, owned and directed the well-known department store N. Israel. Wilfrid Israel began working for the family business in the 1920s as personnel manager of the 2000 staff. The business provided Israel with a base from which to conduct relief work and a circle of prominent contacts.
Following the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, Israel repeatedly came to the aid of his employees and friends who found themselves victims of Nazi terror, and by June 1933 he had been arrested three times for these interventions.
On 9 November 1938, the Nazis instigated Kristallnacht. On 10 November, the N. Israel store, after initially avoiding damage the evening before, was completely ransacked. SS guards rounded up the Jewish employees whilst others shattered display cases, slashed paintings and threw typewriters out of the windows.
Word soon reached Israel, who immediately focused on gathering a list of the staff taken to Sachsenhausen. Israel then used his contacts to get in touch with the Nazi camp commander, Hermann Baranowski, and negotiate their release by promising unlimited credit at the N. Israel store. Following their release, Israel again used his position, contacts, and wealth to help the remaining two hundred Jews in the firm emigrate. As well as giving them two years salary in cash in advance, Israel secured many of them jobs abroad. This action undoubtedly saved their lives.
Despite being constantly followed by the Gestapo and his business being ‘Aryanised’, Israel himself did not emigrate until shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War as he continued to work relentlessly to save those being persecuted by the Nazis. On 15 May 1939, Wilfrid finally left Berlin for London. Prior to his departure he played a central role in organising the Kindertransport and other rescue schemes for those incarcerated in concentration camps. In Britain, he continued his relief efforts, working first for Bloomsbury House, an organisation dealing with German Jewish refugees, and then the Foreign Office.
On 1 June 1943, Israel died when his flight was shot down by a Luftwaffe fighter jet whilst returning from Lisbon, where he had been on a mission for The Jewish Agency for Palestine, arranging entry certificates for refugees.