Bloomsbury House

Two key place names keep being repeated in relation to the refugee rescue organisations of the 1930s – Woburn House and Bloomsbury House.

This page will look at what they were and why they were so significant in terms of this history.

Walter Brill, Interview excerpt, DigiBaeck online, Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
Walter Brill, Interview excerpt, DigiBaeck online, Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
With kind permission from Winston Brill

Woburn House

In the 1930s, Woburn House was the head office of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, as well as the base for a number of British Jewish aid organisations.

Richborough transit camp for Jewish refugees, Woburn House, London 2018
Kitchener camp, Woburn House, London 2018

In the late 1930s, the name Woburn House would have been familiar to the Kitchener men even before they left mainland Europe; it features extensively in family letters and postcards from this era.

Woburn House, to some extent, seems to have symbolised escape, or rescue, from National Socialist Germany. Almost inevitably, perhaps, it also became known for delays and bureaucracy as the numbers of people trying to leave increased, especially after the events of November 1938.

Families and colleagues advised each other to apply for emigration through Woburn House, which probably worsened the delays and chaos. Applications were meant to be processed in Germany and dealt with by German Jewish aid organisations such as the Reichsvertretung and the Hilfsverien.

Some will not have understood this situation fully, some will have tried to bypass the system by going through colleagues and acquaintances, and some no doubt will have written directly to Woburn House out of sheer desperation at the delays in Germany.

It is clear from correspondence in the Council for German Jewry archives that on occasion some were indeed successful in obtaining help in this way, which may well have fuelled the attempt by many others. Although it almost certainly slowed things down, it was a very human response to the terror experienced by Jews in Germany at this time.

Letter extract - English translation 
From a friend and colleague, discussing the possibility of help from Woburn House 

6 March 1939
Of importance – I will try to obtain an affidavit for you. I hope I will be successful. For that I need your date of birth, your present place of residence, your place and country of birth. It will take some time to complete all the formalities, so it would be best if you could provide the information by telegram. Also, I need your quota number and to which country you intend to emigrate temporarily. This isn’t just dependent on the time you will have to wait, but also the possibilities of admission and maintaining yourself. Perhaps Woburn House in London can be of assistance. Please write without fail to Director Driesen, Berlin, Chalottenberg 4 Waitzstr. 7. He has connections with Woburn House. Also write to Dr L Goldschmidt, Berlin, Grunewald Hohenzollermndamm 110. She wants to set up a branch – a school in England for the purpose of employing teachers, as she wrote to me today, to give them a chance of employment, because they can only stay for a short length of time now in this country. 

Translation by Helga Brown BA Dip. Ed. (geboren Steinhardt). Original letter from the personal archives of Werner Weissenberg. See Copyright retained by Clare Weissenberg.

In fact, by December 1938, Woburn House was receiving around 1,500 letters each day, and around 1,000 people were calling daily at the offices. By the end of March this had risen to 17,000 letters and around 6,000 personal interviews per week. By July 1939, over 400 staff were receiving 21,000 letters a week – and hence the move to larger premises at Bloomsbury House (Shatzkes 2002, p. 78).

As a rough guide to the scale of the task to coordinate all this, the expenses of the German Jewish Aid Committee "were no less than £10,000 per week" (Shatkes 2002, p. 79).

In today’s terms, according to the British National Archives 'Currency Converter' to 2017, that would have been approaching £400,000 – each week.

Dear Brother*

Woburn House does not provide employment and is not able to deal with the daily receipt of 6,000 letters. It is difficult to do anything for you. I cannot make promises because I know I will not be able to keep them.

In any case, please send me 3 photos and 3 copies of your C.V., written in perfect English with a typewriter, a clean copy. I beg you also to type all further correspondence with me, as handwriting cannot be read by me considering the vast number of letters I receive, and my English secretary cannot deal with them at all. Please obtain 2 medical reports with photocopies.

I will try to obtain a trainee post for you, but it is very difficult as these positions are rarely available. I will do my best.

Dr Engel

Translation by Helga Brown BA Dip. Ed. (geboren Steinhardt)

*Note: 'Brother' – German students joined a ‘Brotherhood’, or fraternity. Jewish students had historically been excluded from university fraternities, and so they had started their own. Werner Weissenberg was in the Kartell-Convent (KC) fraternity at the University of Breslau, as was Lothar Nelken.

Original letter from the personal archives of Werner Weissenberg. See Copyright retained by Clare Weissenberg.

The aid organisations moved from Woburn to Bloomsbury House in March 1939.

Once again, the name of the building – because of what it represented – is often seen in correspondence and news articles of the era.

Did you read the latest edition of the Jewish paper that Woburn House has moved to Bloomsbury House? It’s a pity about Cambridge because one doesn’t hear anything good about the camp. It is a bit like imprisonment, you can only withdraw cash at certain times, obviously no one wants to work there. It is doubtful whether Dr Engel or anyone else can find employment as he hasn’t promised you anything before you emigrated. It would have been more use to apply to Woburn House, but what can you do if you don’t have the sponsorship. We have to thank God for what we have.

Listen, you have to get mothballs for your winter coat because there aren’t enough secure wardrobes in the [Kitchener] camp. I hope the package will arrive safely. I wish you bon appetite with the edibles and pleasant holy days and holidays. Have you applied for a passport? What news are you expecting from the R.V. [Reichsvertretung]?

Translation by Helga Brown BA Dip. Ed. (geboren Steinhardt). Original letter from the personal archives of Werner Weissenberg. See Copyright retained by Clare Weissenberg.

Bloomsbury House

On 8th December 1938, Lord Baldwin gave a speech on the radio (which was also transmitted in the USA) to help raise funds for Jewish refugees. The appeal brought in over £500,000 in donations from over a million British people (Gottlieb 1998, p. 199).

The speech can be heard at the following link:

Some of this money was used to lease the Palace Hotel on Bloomsbury Street, WC1, which was to become Bloomsbury House – the headquarters for around eleven refugee organisations working under the umbrella of the Central Office for Refugees.

These organisations included the German Jewish Aid Committee, Friends Germany Emergency Committee, the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, International Student Service, Catholic Committee for Refugees from Germany, and the Domestic Bureau (Carlebach, et al. 1991, p. 521).

The range of organisations working out of this single building explains why Bloomsbury House crops up in the Kindertransport histories, and in the Domestic Visa narratives; and when the St Louis ran into difficulties, unable to land anywhere with its cargo of desperate refugees, enquiries and negotiations were also channelled through the people working here (Garbarini, et al. 2011, p. 71).

Some of the St Louis passengers, of course, finally ended up in Kitchener camp.

And regarding Dr E[ngel] - why shouldn’t you contact him, when he has already done so much for others? You can explain to him that it concerns a visit to Bloomsbury House in London to contact the American Consulate. Kurt Berg is still living in Bloomsbury House. Do you think you could try and enclose a note - a mark? I don’t think it is possible that I misunderstood - the possessors of affidavits that haven’t been registered have to register and must inform the American Consulate. I didn’t think I could have made that up. I think you didn’t want to take the information with you in case you mislaid it. Do you want me to send it on to you? In any case, write a letter to the consulate to say that you can’t appear personally right now. Don’t worry, dear boy, about your future while there is something you can do. There is nothing you can do if the paths are obstructed - just wait and hope, don’t you agree.

Translation by Helga Brown BA Dip. Ed. (geboren Steinhardt). Original letter from the personal archives of Werner Weissenberg. See Copyright retained by Clare Weissenberg.

Once the war was underway and most borders had closed (effectively), the nature of the work at Bloomsbury House changed. Part of the new challenge was to assist those refugees who were judged at the tribunals  to be ‘enemy’ aliens in categories A and B.

In a significant new departure, in June 1940, the Central Committee for Internees was established at Bloomsbury House (Shatkes 2002, p. 94), amalgamating the many different organisational bodies that had been working in this area.

Bloomsbury House, Peisech Mendzigurski, 25 July 1941

Applications for release from internment were now to be made here, and the committee was working directly with the Home Office: almost a thousand people were released through sponsorship by the committee.

For some time, the committee also maintained regular correspondence with internees who had been deported to Australia and Canada.

Finally, the aid agencies working out of Bloomsbury House also continued to field many thousands of letters, as theirs was often the only valid address for the  men who were now away fighting – most serving as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

Bloomsbury House, Peisech Mendzigurski, 21 November 1941


There are a number of books in the references section of this website that will give the interested reader far more information than it has been possible - or appropriate - to provide here.

There was a substantial amount of in-fighting among the various organisations, as one would probably expect in such a time of extreme crisis: many desperate needs at home and aboard would have been pulling in many different ways.

It has never been the intention of this project to revisit old arguments and the documented politics of the time, however. I hope that the outline provided here will have given a sufficient overview of what was represented by the names of Woburn House and Bloomsbury House for the needs of most present-day families.