Lord Arthur James Balfour is best remembered for the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917 that bears his name.
This letter, signed by the cabinet of British prime minister David Lloyd George and delivered to Baron Walter Rothschild as a representative of the Zionist movement, affirmed that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”
But Lord Balfour’s legacy of concern for the Jewish people and their restoration in Eretz Israel found other notable expressions beyond his time of service as foreign secretary under Lloyd George and as a prime minister himself.
His niece Blanche Dugdale wrote about her famous uncle in a twovolume biography published in 1936.
“Balfour’s interest in the Jews and their history was lifelong,” she recalled. It originated in the Old Testament training that Balfour had received from his mother and in his Scottish upbringing.
“As he grew up, his intellectual admiration and sympathy for certain aspects of Jewish philosophy and culture grew also, and the problem of the Jews in the modern world seemed to him of immense importance,” wrote Dugdale. “He always talked eagerly on this, and I remember in childhood imbibing from him the idea that Christian religion and civilization owe to Judaism an immeasurable debt, shamefully ill repaid.”
Last April, I was in Scotland and England doing historical research and thought it would be appropriate to find where Balfour “rested” and place a small stone of respect on his gravesite, in the time-honored Jewish tradition. The simple gesture opened another door of understanding and appreciation for this unique Christian friend of the Jewish people.
Lord Balfour died on March 19, 1930. He was buried on his family’s estate at Whittingehame Tower, not far from Edinburgh, Scotland. The estate is isolated, difficult to find, but beautifully located a few miles from the sea, amidst sweeping dales dotted with sheep.
The family moved from the estate long ago. Whittingehame House, the family home, is stark in its cold, concrete-gray color, angular in its construction and impressive in its original approach down a broad treelined lane. Today, Whittingehame House has been converted, ignominiously, into a series of apartments. There is not so much as a historic marker to indicate the meaning of the site. They do not want the culturally curious.
Lord Balfour is buried nearby at a 15th-century military tower believed to have been the site of conspiratorial events contributing to the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots. The gravesite is worn and partly lichen covered. I placed my little stone and said a Kaddish prayer.
Whittingehame has another history – a history of saving lives of Jewish children from the Holocaust. That story is not very well known. The greatest irony is that Lord Balfour, who had strived so valiantly for so long to have the British government help create a national homeland for the Jewish people, did not live to see the fruits of his efforts.
British governments that came after him tried to thwart his pro-Zionist policies in the hope that a Jewish state would not arise. The tragic results were that, when a home in Palestine was most desperately needed to save Jewish lives from the Nazi genocide, the British authorities barred most Jews from entering its safe haven. Balfour was unable to save Jewish lives in their promised homeland, but he did save Jewish lives in his own home.
As the darkening clouds of Nazi Germany descended over Europe, many Jews in Germany and Austria feared for their lives. Where could they go? If they could not save themselves, could they save their children? Rescue efforts were being considered, but few were enacted.
The terrifying events of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in which Jews were attacked and their properties destroyed across Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938, pushed the British Jewish Refugee Committee to appeal to Members of Parliament. Shortly before, the British government had refused to allow 10,000 Jewish children entry into Palestine. The events of Kristallnacht reopened the issue.
The appeal was championed by such leading British Christian figures as Lord Baldwin, Sir Wyndham Deeds, Bertha Bracey and Jean Hoare. Assessing that “Here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends,” British foreign minister Samuel Hoare proposed admitting 10,000 Jewish refugee children into Britain. The British government agreed to admit the children, provided a fiftypound bond was paid for each children to guarantee that they would be sent back to their parents in Europe after the conflict was over. The government further stipulated that only children under the age of 17 could go, and none of their parents were allowed entry.
The first of the Kindertransport trains left in sealed cars for Britain on December 1, 1938. The last left for England on May 14, 1940, the very day Holland fell to the Nazis. The final ship was strafed by Luftwaffe planes but arrived safely in Britain. In all, approximately 10,000 children were saved.
A similar effort to save 20,000 Jewish children was co-sponsored in the United States by Sen. Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-MA) in early 1939. But the legislation failed to get Congressional approval. American isolationist sentiment, combined with latent anti-Semitism, grounded the measure. The American Jewish community thought it best not to protest.
In Britain, citizens were appealed to by radio to open their homes to the arriving children. Many of the children were taken in by Jewish and non-Jewish families. Some did not find homes.
Robert Arthur Lytton Balfour, Lord Balfour’s nephew, discussed the problem with his father: What can be done to help? They resolved to open Whittingehame House to the children. Some 180 of the young Jewish refugees were brought to Scotland. A school program was set up, called the Whittingehame Farm School. Its purpose was to teach the young refugee children how to be farmers, not in Britain but some future day in Palestine. The children were given instruction in Hebrew, Jewish songs and culture. A synagogue was established in the late Lord Arthur Balfour’s private rooms.
Jewish refugee children arrived at Whittingehame in 1939. A period of darkness and panic covered Britain in early 1940 when the European war turned hot. Britain feared invasion and the potential of a fifth column inside the country. The newly elected government of Winston Churchill responded to popular pressure to intern all citizens of enemy nations. Suddenly, any German or Austrian Jewish refugee over the age of 16 was arrested.
Whittingehame was no exception. Police arrived, and 37 refugees were taken away.
Most of the Whittingehame refugees returned after the national hysteria subsided. But some of the Jewish refugees in Britain were deported as enemy aliens to Canada and Australia. Two infamous transport ships from that period remain a blemish on Britain. One ship, the Dunera, became a hell hole of abuse as it carried Jews, Italians and some German POWs to Australia.
Another ship, the Andorra Star, carrying a large number of Italians and German Jews, as well as some captured German sailors, was sent to Canada. It was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland on July 1, 1940, taking down 600 passengers with it.
The Whittingehame Farm School remained open until 1941. The children were relocated into the local community. The young men of Whittingehame enlisted in the British armed forces, eager do what they could to end Nazi tyranny forever.
Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation; www.JASHP.org