Sir Erich Reich gives thought-provoking Josef Behrmann Lecture at The Perse
8 Feb 2019
The kindness of strangers was a recurring theme in Sir Erich Reich’s fascinating and thought-provoking talk about his life at The Perse School’s annual Josef Behrmann Lecture.
The lecture is held every year in memory of Old Persean Behrmann, who was a Holocaust survivor, and Sir Erich’s talk evoked the horrific situation faced by Jews under Germany’s Nazi regime during that era.
Titled ‘The Boy in the Statue’, the talk referenced Sir Erich’s young likeness being immortalised in Frank Meisler’s renowned work Kindertransport – The Arrival at London’s Liverpool Street station. The statue remembers the 10,000 Jewish children who were welcomed into the United Kingdom via the Kindertransport rescue shortly before the start of World War II.
Aged just four, Sir Erich was among those youngsters who arrived in this county. He explained to a packed audience in the Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre that he travelled by boat from the Polish port of Gdynia, arriving in Britain just three days before the outbreak of the war in August 1939.
He said: “I believe my parents gave me life twice – once when I was born and once when they let me go. The truth is it must have been very difficult to let a four-year-old go to a different country with a different culture and a different language.”
Highlighting the kindness of strangers, Sir Erich recounted how he was among many young Jewish refugees taken under the wing of leading composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who set up the Dorking & District Refugee Committee, and was housed in a home belonging to the Duke of Newcastle in the Surrey town.
Sir Erich, who is chairman of the Association of Jewish Refugees’ Kindertransport group, outlined how he went on to be fostered by a Christian family from Sudetenland, the German-speaking region of what is now the Czech Republic. They were themselves refugees having fled the Nazis, but Sir Erich said how he felt loved and “as far as I was concerned, they were my parents”.
Under pressure to have a Jewish education, he moved to London, but did not settle in his new environment and moved to Haifa in Israel at the age of 13, initially staying with an aunt before joining his cousin on a kibbutz.
Following a spell in the Israeli Army, he returned to London, where he went on to set up Classic Tours, a company organising fundraising challenges for charities, explaining that he wanted to give something back to the country as “the UK had saved me.” Sir Erich went on to be knighted for services to charity in 2010, with his company having helped raise £90million for hundreds of charities.
Sir Erich concluded his lecture with his view that the UK should take a leaf out of the Kindertransport effort by helping more unaccompanied children escape suffering in war-torn countries such as Syria, by providing them with a new life and hope.
He said: “I believe Kindertransport was a beacon in a very dark period. It reminds everybody what Britain was able to do 80 years ago and should be able to do today.”