UCL Holocaust Centre Beacon School Programme – Jewish Evacuees to Bedfordshire (1939-45)

Every year the Holocaust Centre at University College London (UCL) selects 20 schools nationally to participate in their Holocaust Beacon School Programme (https://holocausteducation.org.uk/local-support-through-beacon-schools/).  I’m pleased to say that for 2023-24, Wixams Academy has been designated a UCL Beacon School – the only new beacon school in the county.

The programme develops teachers’ understanding about how to teach the Holocaust and ends with the creation of a new scheme of learning to teach to their students.  The outcomes of the programme are shared with other schools in the local area to disseminate quality teaching resources.

To design our scheme of learning we have decided to use a little-known Bedfordshire connection to the Holocaust to frame our retelling of the Holocaust for Bedfordshire students.

In September 1939 around 450 Jewish children were evacuated from London and arrived in Shefford.  The children and their teachers were billeted in Shefford, Clifton, Chicksands, Campton and Meppershall.  Over the course of the war the evacuees and their teachers established a successful Jewish school in Shefford.  Although there were some initial teething issues – particularly about the requirements of a kosher diet – the villagers of Bedfordshire welcomed and nurtured the Jews to the extent that Shefford and the surrounding villages are remembered with great fondness in the world-wide Jewish community.

However, the story is even more impressive when taken out of its local context and placed in its wider international context: the evacuees were actually double-evacuees.  They had been rescued on a Kindertransport after the November Pogrom (sometimes referred to as Kristallnacht) in 1938 by a British Rabbi called Solomon Schonfeld.  Rabbi Schonfeld, at great danger to himself, travelled to Germany after the pogrom and organised his own Kindertransport – the 500 Jewish children he rescued initially settled in London.  When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 millions of children were evacuated from British towns and cities, and the Schonfeld Jews were moved from London to Bedfordshire.

The most impressive aspect of this whole story is simply this: at the same time as the villagers of Bedfordshire were welcoming and nurturing their Jewish residents, thousands of other settlements across mainland Europe were involved in the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ where local populations rounded up their local Jews and either placed them in ghettos or murdered them.  In the popular imagination the image most people associate with the Holocaust is Auschwitz – its gates and gas chambers.   Although it is true that the Final Solution was indeed carried out here in its most murderous form, the majority of the Holocaust’s victims were actually murdered by their neighbours in their own villages.

In other words, what the villagers of Bedfordshire did throughout the Second World War was remarkable and unusual in the context of what was happening to Jews in Europe at exactly the same time.

Our Beacon School project will focus on the story of why the Schonfeld Jews had to leave Germany (historical antisemitism and the November Pogrom), how the Schonfeld Jews arrived in Britain (the Kindertransport), what happened when they arrived (the experience of living in Bedfordshire), what happened to those left behind in Germany and Poland (the Holocaust by bullets and the death camps), and look at the aftermath for those who were evacuated here (the creation of the State of Israel and remembrance).

We aim to develop a series of 9-10 lessons to tell this story and we want children in Bedfordshire schools to know about the heroic efforts people in their county made to welcome and nurture the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

However, we need your help – particularly from the history associations of Shefford, Clifton, Chicksands, Campton and Meppershall.Do you happen to know of any sources within your archives or private collections that would help us to find out more about the experience of the Jewish evacuees?  Do you know of any living eyewitnesses who lived and witnessed the Jewish school or its students?   Has anyone in the village got links to the Jewish community, and especially links to any of the evacuees?

If you do have information we’d love to hear from you.  We will, of course, keep you updated with our project.

Kind regards,
Ryan Craze (rcraze@wixamsacademy.co.uk)
Head of History, Wixams Academy – on behalf of the Wixams History Department