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Rabbi Harry Jacobi

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


Dr Bea Lewkowicz

Date of Interview:

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).  


Full Interview


[Asked about Reichspogromnacht/ Pogrom night] Because, I had no idea the actual night. But in the morning I woke up, ready to go to walk to the Theodor- Herzl- Schule. And at the bottom of our…our flats were shops in Kantstraße. One particular shop was a dairy shop. The elderly couple were very, very friendly. And even in the darkest days of the beginning of the war, they supplied my grandparents always with milk and butter and cheese and so on. I had joyfully when going back - through the British Army going back - to the same couple after the war and it was wonderful. How they- How they were good. On the other hand, the next shop was a furrier. An elderly Jewish couple selling furs. Furs of course as you know were very fashionable in Berlin and in the world then. Well I came out of my flat and saw all this glass smashed. All the furs, the…furs had been robbed by the Germans, the Nazis, taken out of their shop! And later on in the day, when I got home from school I was told that elderly couple committed suicide. We knew them quite well. And so as a- as a thirteen year old boy, that was quite a shock. Went to the school… Now the Theodor-Herzl-Schule was built in the annexe or after the German Rundfunkgebäude, the German Radio. So the Nazis could not burn it down because it was property of the- of the radio station. But- So it wasn’t completely burned down, but everything inside was taken out and burned. So when we came to school we were told, “Go home! The school is closed.” And that’s the last I saw of Theodor- Herzl- Schule.

My mother was in tears, and …I couldn’t understand why she was crying. Why it was so emotional for her, to see her only son, you know, Bar Mitzvah. Well we couldn’t celebrate Bar Mitzvah outside the flat; we just invited a few friends for – for tea, I think. Or German Kaffeeklatsch. I got sixty-four Marks as present, for my Bar Mitzvah, which had to be given up soon afterwards because the German [ he means Jewish] population, as you probably heard from others as well, had to pay two million Marks compensation for all the damage done to synagogues and shops. And I heard just afterwards my father was sent to Sachsenhausen camp. He returned a few weeks later and because of his torture there, he must have aged twenty years. He was early in his fifties. And when I saw him again afterwards, you know…

Well I, I left to go to the ORT school in the morning and the streets were empty and I was told, “The Germans have invaded us.” Amsterdam was lucky. Because Rotterdam was completely destroyed. You know. Amsterdam was just two bombs. So when I got to the ORT School they said, the Germans have invaded us, we can’t teach you anymore. Because – now got home. So I went back to the orphanage. After five days we were waiting what was going to happen to us. We were very anxious to hear reports of the German invasion, you know? And, and we heard that the Dutch were completely unprepared. They hoped to become …Or to stay neutral as they stayed neutral in the First World War. Completely unprepared. So the Germans invaded quickly and May 15th then we were told, “Take your pyjamas and your best clothes, and leave [ inaudible] and on the Lijnbaansgracht in Amsterdam there were three buses ready. So we boarded the buses. And Truus Wijsmuller was there to see us and took us to the port of Ijmuiden which is the Dutch port on the North Sea. And she persuaded this captain of a cargo boat, called the “Bodegraven”. I’ve got a photograph of that too, to take us away, quickly. Which he did. The recollection of people who were with us, remembered that she left her handbag on board, but went back, wouldn’t come with us. Although she had an opportunity to go to England as well on the boat. She refused. And on my last impression of leaving is firstly were British soldiers were landing, to fight the Germans. And the last, the picture too of the harbour of Amsterdam. The Dutch Shell had big oil tanks there which the Dutch set on fire, because they didn’t want the oil to go into the German hands. So the smoke of these big oil refineries saw us off as we left. Soon after we had left the harbour, some German fighter planes came over. Luckily they had no bombs. They would have gladly bombed us, sank the ship. So I dived on the rescue boats and I wasn’t hit by the machine guns fortunately. Now the journey was… traumatic because we never knew what was going to happen, where we were going. No idea. And the sad part was an example of intolerance, because the Dutch crew was willing to give us some food. And all the orthodox people who were on the boat said, No, it’s not kosher; you can’t eat it. So for the days from leaving Holland until landing in Liverpool we had… dog’s biscuits and water, you know. We didn’t starve but the great under-, the great…understood, realised intolerance, you know, of the very orthodox not, not, not rising to the situation.

So my famous passage is the last passage in our Bible. Prophet Malachi says, the last sentence in our bible says, ‘Elijah will come and will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents’. So very often, even conducting funerals I quoted that. ‘If you do nothing else’, to quote Elijah to bring the Messianic age nearer, ‘you keep the family together.’

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