Sunday, April 11, 2021

  • Sunday, April 11, 2021
  • Elder of Ziyon

Here is an extraordinary Twitter thread about a hero I had never heard of, by John Bull.


This is Robert Smallbones, career civil servant and diplomat, and his wife Inga.
Between November 1938 and the outbreak of WW2, they helped OVER FORTY THOUSAND Jews escape the Nazis and get to Britain. /1old couple, dressed in smar...

Robert Smallbones was the child of Austrian parents, who'd emigrated to Britain before he was born. He went to Oxford, then joined the Foreign Office. There he made a name as a competent diplomat and all round friendly chap.

In 1932, the Foreign Office sent him to Munich. More jobs in Germany followed until, by 1938 he was the British Consul-General in Frankfurt.
Throughout that time, Smallbones and his family witnessed the growing Nazi horror. He wrote warnings to the FO about it constantly.

Smallbones wasn't the only person in the Frankfurt Consulate horrified by this. His daughter once horse-whipped a Gestapo officer to try and prevent him taking a Jewish man off the street. By 1938, Consulate staff were also already secretly offering refuge to a number of Jews.

Then, on the 9th November: Kristallnacht.
As the horror and murder rages through Frankfurt. Desperate Jews begin arriving at the British Consulate pleading for help.
But Robert isn't there. He's back in England.
The women of the Smallbones family are, though.
They act.

Robert's mother and his wife order the gates of the British Consulate opened to all. Throughout Kristallnacht, to the fury and protest of the German authorities, the Frankfurt Consulate becomes a small, untouchable refuge for the Jewish community of Frankfurt.

Robert, still in England, finds out about this the next day when they manage to reach him.
These people need HELP. They tell him. Nationality be damned. We're not sending them back out there. We need to get them out of this country.
Robert agrees. He thinks. He acts.

The Home Office is responsible for immigration. So Robert calls in favours and rank. He gets a meeting with senior people in the Home Office.
What are we going to do about this?! He demands.
"Oh it's terrible, agreed." Is the response. "But we can't let lots of foreigners in."

The whole WORLD has been doing this since the beginning of the rise of Hitler. Helping the Jews is always someone else's problem.
But Robert's been thinking. He has a plan to let the Home Office PRETEND it's still someone else's problem whilst also acting:
The Smallbones Scheme

The issue was that nobody wanted to give Jews permanent immigration visas.
We don't need to. Robert says. We can exploit the fact that the USA is sneakier about how it blocks Jews from immigrating:
It gives them visas, but then only lets a certain percentage a year use them.

Robert proposes that the Home Office allow anyone who has a VALID US VISA to "wait" in Britain until their 'turn' in the US arrivals queue comes up. Essentially, a TEMPORARY visa for Britain, that expires when they get to America.
The Home Secretary, Viscount Hoare is summoned.

Hoare is horrified by what's happening in Germany, but antisemitism and anti-immigrant feeling in the public/Parliament limits his actions. He's already trying to force the Kinder Transport scheme through parliament.
He jumps on Robert's plan:
Do it. But QUIETLY.

Robert calls Otto Schiff of the Jewish Relief Agency. Over lunch at the Savoy they frantically draft up the scheme properly, following Hoare's order to do it in a way that means he doesn't need to go to Parliament with it.
The Home Office and Hoare sign it off that night.

The next day, a flash to all British Consulates in Germany:
You can grant temporary visas to those on the US waiting list. BUT (caveats):
1) EVERY exemption needs to be signed PERSONALLY by the relevant Consul.
2) We're not ordering you to do this, just highlighting you can.

The caveats were to avoid it spooking parliament or the German authorities:
"Don't worry this is just a minor thing and it's tricky to do at volume."
But that underestimated the drive of people like Robert Smallbones.

Smallbones returned to Frankfurt and kicked things into action. He immediately informed local Jewish Community leaders of the scheme's existence. And, importantly, that he would allow FAMILIES to apply on behalf of anyone seized by the Gestapo and sent to camps.

He then went to the GESTAPO, and informed them that if he approved a visa, that placed the person under the protection of the British and he expected them to be IMMEDIATELY released when he asked.
It was a lie, and a gamble. But it worked. From then on they fumed but complied.

Robert then turned the entire Frankfurt Consulate into a machine with one job: getting Jews out of Germany to safety in Britain. But the bottleneck remained:
The Consul (Robert) had to sign EVERYTHING, and often the gestapo would only release people if he went personally.

For the next 9 months Robert worked 18 hour days signing documents, arguing with the gestapo, helping desperate people. He couldn't stop. He later confessed that whenever he tried to sleep, he couldn't:

"After two hours sleep my conscience pricked me. The feeling was horrible that there were people in concentration camp whom I could get out and that I was comfortable in bed…. I returned to my desk and stayed there..."

Every moment was another life he could save. Elsewhere others were using the Smallbones Scheme too.
Frank Foley, a Passport Officer in Berlin (worth his own thread) was also using it. Word got around:
You can't get out? Get to the Frankfurt. They care there. They will help.

One survivor:
"My husband was in the concentration camp. And while I tried to get him out it was too terrible for one to even cry. Then at last I went to the British Consul to see if he could help me. And the first thing they asked me was: 'have you had anything to eat today?'"

"I hadn't of course. I was too worried to think of food. And before they did anything else, they fed me with coffee and sandwiches, as though I had been a guest. And then, I cried."

Romance author Ida Cook also met him, during her own desperate work to save lives. She gives us one of the few first-hand accounts we have of Robert.
He helped her get people out too. I don't think she realised the scheme she was using was designed by him

The desperate work went on. Every waking hour Smallbones spent signing exit visas. Arguing with the gestapo. Saving lives. He suffered a breakdown over his failure to get to one concentration camp victim in time. He forced himself to carry on.
Until eventually war was declared.

Back in Britain now, Robert, broken and exhausted went to the Home Office. How many Visas did we manage to grant?
Your scheme saved Forty Eight THOUSAND Jews, they told him. And fifty thousand more were being processed when war was declared.
Then they swore him to secrecy.

Because the Home Office now felt they had a problem. The Smallbones Scheme had saved tens of thousands of people.
People who were Jews and foreigners.
And, well, terribly sorry old chap, but can you IMAGINE if people or parliament knew we'd let all those people in?!

Which is why you've probably never heard of Robert Smallbones.
Because it wasn't until 2008 that the British Government and Foreign Office even officially acknowledge what he, and his scheme, had done.
And because Robert never liked talking about it.

Because, like Ida Cook, Nicholas Winton, Ho Feng-Shan, Raoul Wallenburg and so many other ordinary people who stood up and did the extraordinary, he could never forget the faces of the people he HADN'T managed to save.

Ironically, the Nazis certainly recognised what Robert Smallbones had achieved. It earned him a place in the infamous 'Black Book' of people to be rounded up by the Gestapo after the invasion of Britain.

But Robert died in 1976, long before any official British recognition of his work. I wish, like Winton, he'd at least got to see the impact his efforts had on thousands of lives. He never did.
I hope his family are proud of him though, and his story deserves to be better known.

Anyway. As usual, you can tip me a coffee if you like, but don't feel you have to!


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