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Rabbi Harry Jacobi

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
19 May 1940
Interview number:

Interview Summary:

Harry Jacobi was born Heinz Martin Hirschberg in 1925 in Berlin. His parents divorced when he was five and he moved with his mother to Auerbach/Vogtland, where she worked in her brother’s factory. He was the only Jewish boy in his class and experienced limited antisemitism in the school. He often travelled to Luckenwalde, where his parental grandparents lived. When he needed to go to the secondary school, they would not accept him as a Jewish boy. He therefore moved with his mother back to Berlin. There, he lived with his grandparents and went to the Theodor Herzl school. He was very close to his cousin Helmut, whose mother emigrated to the US. Bar Mitzvah 1938. 

He witnessed Kristallnacht and describes his experiences in detail: The school was vandalized and closed, shops in the building ransacked and an elderly couple committed suicide. His uncle and aunt who had owned the factory in Auerbach/Vogtland managed to emigrate to Amsterdam. His uncle facilitated that the grand parents could leave for Amsterdam and that Harry came on a Kindertransport to Amsterdam. As the living conditions were very crowded, Harry was sent to the orphanage in Amsterdam.  Harry tells us that his uncle could only save two of his nephews. His cousin Helmut perished in the Holocaust. 

In Amsterdam, Harry went to the ORT school, training in baking/confectionary. In the orphanage he remembers Truus Wejsmuller and her husband. His mother managed to get a domestic visa for the UK but WW2 had started and she could not leave Germany. He feels very strongly that the UK government should help the current refugees otherwise it will be too late, like in the case of his mother, who perished in Kovno in 1941. 

When the German Army invaded Holland Truus Weijsmuller did everything in her power to find a way of shipping the children from the orphanage to the UK. On the 14th of May 1940, buses were arranged to take the children to IJmuiden. The children boarded the SS Bodegraven and the ship sailed in the evening, just before the German Army occupied Amsterdam. Truss Weijsmuller had called Harry’s uncle to join the the journey on the SS Bodegraven but he declined as he did not want to leave his parents behind. A German plane shot attacked the SS Bodegraven and Harry found shelter behind a Life Boat. The SS Bodegraven was not allowed to dock in England (except for talking the body of famous art dealer Jacques Goudstikker to be buried) and only after five days did the ship land in Liverpool. Harry remembers that they only had biscuits and water on board. 

After landing in Liverpool, he stayed in a hostel in Manchester. He lived with a foster family for a year but went back to live in the hostel, which he preferred. As soon as he could, he joined the Jewish Brigade. He was stationed in Europe after the end of the war. When he was released in 1947 he went back to Amsterdam, where his uncle’s family was (having been deported to Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.) In Amsterdam he worked for his uncle and attended Jewish youth clubs. He recalls Rabbi Leo Baeck’s visit to Amsterdam. Instead of emigrating to Israel, he decided to start working in the Liberal Movement in the UK. He also recalls meeting Lily Montague, an important figure within the liberal movement. He started a pen friendship with a Jewish girl from Bombay (Bene Israel), who came to visit London and who he married. The couple settled in London. In 1955 he won a scholarship to obtain rabbinal training.  In 1961 he was ordained as a liberal rabbi and served as rabbi of Southgate Synagogue from 1956 to 1975. He also worked at several synagogues in London including Harrow and Wembley Liberal Synagogue and South Bucks Jewish Community, as well as spending seven years as a rabbi in Zurich, and 10 years as the Chair of the Liberal Judaism Rabbinic Board. 

He is very concerned about the treatment of refugees today and campaigned the government to allow more refugees settle in the UK. Two of Harry Jacobi’s children also became liberal rabbis (in the UK).  


@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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