by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Richard Sonnenfeldt, who passed away earlier this month, had the rare distinction of being a German Jew who served as one of the American interrogators of the Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg. What is not well known, however, is that just five years earlier, Sonnenfeldt himself was arrested and treated as a possible Nazi–at the order of none other than Winston Churchill.
Several recent books have lionized Churchill as a stalwart Zionist who did all he could to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. But such one-sided portrayals pay insufficient attention to a dark episode in which Churchill ordered the mass roundup and deportation of German Jewish refugees from England–including teenage Richard Sonnenfeldt.
Like many German Jews, Richard’s parents hoped to escape Hitler by immigrating to America. But the Roosevelt administration’s harsh policies blocked their way. U.S. law permitted 25, 957 German citizens to enter annually, but in 1937, the year the Sonnenfeldts applied for visas, only 11, 127 (43% of the total) were actually admitted– because U.S. officials went out of their way to find grounds to reject applicants. In desperation, the Sonnenfeldts sent 16 year-old Richard and his 12 year-old brother, Helmut, to a boarding school in England, expecting them to be safe there.
Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940. The next day, in one of his first official acts in office, he ordered the mass arrest of all “enemy aliens” (mostly Germans) between the ages of 16 and 70. Richard was taken away on a few minutes’ notice–not even enough time to say goodbye to his little brother.
The recent British failure to repulse the swift German conquest of Norway and Denmark had provoked a wave of public fear of Nazi fifth columnists within England’s own borders. Even “the paltriest kitchen-maid” might turn out to be a spy for Hitler, one British diplomat warned.
As a result, approximately 30,000 residents of England, most of them German Jewish refugees, were hauled off to makeshift internment camps. Incredibly, the Churchill government made no real effort to distinguish between German Jews, who were victims of the Nazis, and other German citizens, some of whom were indeed Nazi sympathizers. In a June 4 speech to the House of Commons, Churchill justified this bizarre policy:
“I know there are a great many people affected by the orders which we have made who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very sorry for them, but we cannot, at the present time, and under the present stress, draw all the distinctions which we should like to do.”
In July, the Churchill administration began deporting the internees to Canada and Australia. Richard Sonnenfeldt later recalled how, as he and the others boarded their ship, “my few possessions–textbooks, notepaper, my treasured Parker pen, my toilet articles and scant extra clothing, even my boots–were ripped from me. I had nothing left but the clothes on my back. Then soldiers with bayonets mounted on their rifles chased us down companionways to a hold far below the water line.”
After weeks on the filthy, disease-ridden ship, in the company of sadistic guards and a number of pro-Nazi prisoners, these German Jewish refugees found themselves in a detention camp in the Australian outback.
In the meantime, however, British public opinion started turning against the internment policy. The shift began when German torpedoes sank a Canada-bound internee ship, the Arandora Star, killing 714. That was followed by press reports of Jewish internees in Canada and Australia being housed alongside Nazi supporters. A brief scandal erupted when Orthodox Jewish deportees were compelled to work on the Sabbath, after a British official in Canada decided they were “using their Sabbatarian principles as a means of avoiding work.”
In response to criticism by the press, members of Parliament, and others (including the author H.G. Wells, who said deporting German Jewish refugees was “doing Goebbels’s work”), the Churchill government reversed itself. Over the course of the next year, most of the remaining internees were freed and the majority of the deportees were brought back to England. Many of the “enemy aliens” whose arrests Churchill ordered subsequently enlisted in the British armed forces.
Richard Sonnenfeldt never made it back to England. On the way back from Australia, his British guards inexplicably dumped the teenager in Bombay, India. From there he eventually made his way to America and joined the U.S. army. As one of the few soldiers who was both a native German speaker and completely fluent in English (due, ironically, to the time he spent in England), he was chosen in 1945 to serve as an interrogator, and chief interpreter, to the American prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials.
Sonnenfeldt’s remarkable experiences represented the triumph of perseverance over adversity. But his experiences are also a reminder of a disturbing and long-forgotten chapter of history that needs to be considered when assessing Winston Churchill’s response to the Holocaust.