06 January 2008

Bill Barazetti - Local Hero

I feel proud that Havering has a connection with the Kinder transport. Bill Barazetti, who did so much to arrange the evacuation of Jewish children from Prague, was a resident of Hornchurch until his death in 2000. His role in the Kinder transport was not known at all until 1990 (but then again neither was Sir Nicholas Winton’s). Until very recently there was very little about Mr Barazetti available on the internet. I am pleased to see that his Times obituary is now available online. This following is taken from this obituary

A retiring hero of the struggle against Nazism, whose story came to light only ten years ago, Bill Barazetti, helped thousands of victims of discrimination to get out of pre-war Germany. In a Schindler-style operation carried out in conjunction with a British stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, he also played a major part in organising the escape of children from German-occupied Prague in the spring and summer months of 1939 before war broke out. Between May and July that year three trainloads of mainly Jewish children — the Kindertransport — left the city and, thanks to a complicated system of false identity papers engineered by Barazetti, succeeded in reaching London via Holland.

Born Werner Theodore Barazetti, he was the son of a Swiss Professor of French at Heidelberg University. As a 19-year-old in 1933, Barazetti was studying law at Hamburg University when he saw Nazi thugs beat up Jewish, socialist and communist students and academics in the university precinct. He was determined to help members of groups deemed undesirable by the authorities to escape from Germany. One of his co-workers in this aim was Anna, an idealistic student from the Czech Sudetenland, who was at that time sending photographs of Nazi training camps and of the burgeoning rash of labour camps by courier to the press in London.

Anna was eventually detected in this work, but slipped over the Czech border near her home. The Gestapo, however, caught up with Barazetti, who was also trying to make his escape using the same route. But he was apprehended on the border, beaten up and left for dead. He was found by Anna, who took him home and nursed him back to health. They were married in Prague in 1936, a union which gave Barazetti Czech citizenship. (It was Anna’s second marriage — her first husband had been killed by the Nazis). Barazetti made the perfect Czech agent, able to cross over into Germany, visit the highly sensitive border areas and report on Hitler’s plans for aggression, work he was able to carry out until the Munich agreement of September 1938. Thereafter, in Prague he worked with church-based charities to help to channel the flood of refugees into Czechoslovakia, many from post-Anschluss Austria, towards Britain and Scandinavia. Between 50,000 and 70,000 people were helped to escape by these organisations.

When British stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, decided that children were an urgent priority for evacuation, Barazetti was recommended as a partner in the enterprise. Winton returned to England where he was engaged in arranging for visas, homes and £50-a-head sponsors for each child. Barazetti made all the arrangements at the Prague end. He organised the trains, interviewed the families and sent Winton the details and photographs of each child. Because English visas were often slow to come through, Barazetti got a Jewish printer in Prague to produce forged papers to show to the German authorities. By the time the first train reached Holland, the genuine visas were ready to hand out to the children on the train. Barazetti managed to organise the return to Prague of the forged documents for re-use. Three trains full of children left Prague that spring and summer. A fourth was ready to go on the eve of war — but it never reached Holland and was not heard of again.

In August 1939 Barazetti finally came to Britain himself, and was subsequently employed in a War Office unit which interrogated captured German pilots. After the war he got a job with the United Nations helping to establish government organisation in various newly independent countries, notably in India. He become naturalised as a British citizen in 1953.

In all this time the story of his role in the Kinder transport remained completely unknown to the world. It was only many years later, when he became treasurer of the international writers’ society, PEN, that it came out, quite by chance. At a PEN conference in Maastricht in 1989 he struck up a conversation in English with an Israeli visitor. During this he remarked on the fact that the Israeli spoke English with a pronounced German accent. The Israeli said it was because he had come to England on a Kinder transport from Berlin. Barazetti said he knew something about that, since he had had some slight involvement with the transport of children from Prague. The conversation, which included a discussion of recognition for Nicholas Winton’s rescue work, was reported to another Israeli friend, who had come out on a Prague train as a ten-year-old child. No one recognised the “Italian-sounding name” but they were determined to pursue the story and finally tracked down Barazetti through the diaries which Winton had not long before passed over to the Holocaust conference organiser, Dr Elisabeth Maxwell. In the diaries, copies of which are now held by the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial institute, Yad Vashem, Winton noted that he had left the entire Prague Kinder transport operation to Barazetti. Finally, in 1993 Yad Vashem honoured Barazetti as one of the Righteous among the Gentiles.

“But we had to drag the story out of him. He did not want to talk about his experiences.” recalled Hugo Marom, another Czech Kinder transport evacuee, who after his escape served with the RAF during the war and is now an Israeli aviation consultant. He had written to Dr Maxwell in his efforts to find his unknown saviour. In retirement in a listed but run-down 16th-century mill cottage in Hornchurch, Essex, Barazetti had begun work on a biography of Masaryk, but ill-health prevented him from completing it.

Like Sir Nicholas Winton, Bill Barazetti did something magnificent, not for glory or adulation, but because it was the right thing to do. Because of this his actions did not become known until towards the end of what was a very full life. He may not have thought so but he was a hero.

I often go to the churchyard of St Andrew’s in Hornchurch to take photographs. On a couple of occasions I have chatted with a middle aged man who is accompanied by his elderly mother. The old lady, I discovered, is Anna Barazetti, a brave and principled woman in her own right.


beakerkin said...

Where are men like that today? Lost in the news is the work of Catholic charities with orphans in Sudan. Perhaps the handful of honest asylum practitioners carry on the spirit of the deceased.

It is a shame that the asylum and refugee system is badly abused by charlatans. The Kinder transport era reminds us of asylum at its best.

jams o donnell said...

They still exist tday, Beakerkin. They always have and they always will

I conducted quite a few asylim interviews as an IO back in the late 80s. As cycnical as I was I would come across a case that made me realise that I should not be quite so hard bitten.

Richard Havers said...

Great piece, thanks Jams

jams o donnell said...

Glad you like it Richard

Anonymous said...

In the interests of justice and accuracy it must be pointed out that it was not Barazetti who ran the Winton kindertransport operation. It was Trevor Chadwick. It is unclear how this fabrication, which was perpetuated in Barazetti's Times obituary, came about. The true story is well told in Vera Gissing's book Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation. And elsewhere. As Winton himself said of Chadwick's efforts, "no one else could have done it."

Anonymous said...

See: The rescue of the Prague refugees by William Chadwick.