• Published 02:29 11.03.11
  • Latest update 02:29 11.03.11

WIZO honors British-Israeli who dared to find and bring French Holocaust survivors back to Jewish fold

Evelyn Chenkin has been an active WIZO volunteer since 1951 and headed its public relations department in Britain.

By Raphael Ahren

Evelyn Chenkin was only 22 when she was sent on an illegal and risky mission to locate children who had survived the Holocaust by being given to French Christian families, convents and monasteries and bring them back into the fold of the local Jewish community.

"I had never been abroad in my life, my French was schoolgirl French but I said yes," the London-born Chenkin, who today is in her late 80s, recalled this week. "I had no idea what I was going to do, no idea what I was being sent to do," she said, adding that she had also been tasked to bring money to needy Jewish organizations there. Her pockets stuffed with money from British donors, she crossed the English Channel 26 times from 1946 until 1948, bringing back some 60 French Jewish children who had lost contact with their parents or whose families perished in the Holocaust.

Evelyn Chenkin - Assaf Ronen Photography

Evelyn Chenkin

Photo by: Assaf Ronen Photography

"I was the center of anybody who needed monetary help, and I tried to get children out by whatever means I could - legally or illegally," Chenkin told Anglo File.

This Wednesday, Chenkin, who lives in Kibbutz Tzora near Beit Shemesh, is being honored with the Women's International Zionist Organization's Rebecca Sieff Award, the group's highest honor. Chenkin has been an active WIZO volunteer since 1951 and headed its public relations department in Britain. Celebrating its 90th birthday this year, the organization is holding several events, including the one this week in Rehovot, which honors volunteers who moved here from English speaking countries and volunteered for the nonprofit in various capacities.

"I take my hat off to her because Zionism is not just a word for her but something she put into practice," said WIZO chairwoman Tova Ben Dov. "She moved to Israel with her entire family and continued here to work tirelessly for WIZO and the country's needy." Chenkin immigrated to Israel in 1983 to be with her daughters, who were already living here.

Chenkin says she was working after the war in the office of the London Beith Din, or rabbinical court, when she heard the chief rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, asking the British community to help the remnants of French Jewry.

"But it was illegal at the time to send money out of Britain," she explained. "They couldn't send anybody who was well-known. I happened to be in the room with Dan Grunfeld, who was one of the dayanim [rabbinical judges] in the Beith Din, and he said, Evelyn would you go to France?"

After Chenkin, then called Evelyn Freedman, arrived she started distributing funds and "redeeming" children - a work that she today describes as extremely distressing. "Yes, it was terribly traumatic to know that you kidnapped two kids from a convent and that somebody might recognize you in the street. On one very traumatic occasion, a kid actually had to go back to her convent because she had taken so ill I couldn't take her back to Paris," she recalled.

In a handwritten letter, which was recently found in a Jerusalem archive, Chenkin in 1947 wrote Herzog "that no stone is being left unturned to rescue a child." She lamented that the passage of time made her work more difficult. "Each case presents difficulties and complications, which involve complete breaking down of tutelage and legal guardianships, search for relatives and cooperation of authorities, not withstanding the continual fight against these non-Jews who have these children - not one has offered understanding or cooperation."

Upon her return to the U.K. in 1948, she started her own family and started writing children books. "I didn't speak about what I did for 30 years," she said. "First of all what I've done was illegal and would have meant trouble for Beith Din. Secondly that was just not something that you talk about. People who go through traumatic experiences don't talk about them usually."

Only in 1990, Chenkin published a book about her experiences, called "Gathering the Remnants." She remains exceedingly discreet about her work, however. "I have met some of those children since but under no circumstance would I divulge who they were and where they are."

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