MAURICE PERLZWEIG was one of the great n a m e s o f J e w i s h diplomacy during the inter-war and postwar periods. When he died in New York in 1985, a lonely, forgotten figure, police had to break into his apartment where they discovered a large number of books, newspapers, pamphlets — ephemera from the tragedies of the 20th century. Yet he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in the early 1940s. In Perlzweig: Pioneer of British Zionism (Vallentine Mitchell, £40), his nephew, the academic and writer, David Caute, has attempted to reclaim him for today’s generation by editing a series of interviews, given by Perlzweig to Columbia University in 1981. Perlzweig’s father was a chazan at a synagogue in Finsbury Park. He himself broke away from Orthodoxy, becoming a minister at St John’s Liberal in 1924 and then moving to Alyth Gardens Reform in 1938. A wunderkind at the universities of Cambridge and London, Perlzweig’s talents were recognised by Claude Montefiore, doyen of Liberal Judaism. Montefiore cultivated the young graduate despite Perlzweig’s passionate adherence to Zionism (at that time, the Liberal Synagogue prayer book omitted any mention of “Zion” and Montefiore was convinced of “the evil of Zionism”). As Perlzweig recalls in this book, to define yourself as a Zionist in polite circles was the equivalent of being “a believer in a flat earth”. Perlzweig was also an early member of the Labour party, yet he was highly critical of the Fabian Sydney Webb, the Colonial Secretary in 1930 and author of the Passfield White Paper that castigated the “Zionist experiment” in Palestine. Perlzweig became involved with the newly founded World Jewish Congress in the mid-1930s as the storm clouds gathered over Europe. Among his initiatives was an attempt to secure free passage of Jewish refugees into fascist Spain, to stop antisemitism in Romania by meeting the king’s mistress, Magda Lupescu, and trying to persuade the Poles to take in the Jews of Zbaszyn, on the border with Germany, forced out by the Nazis. During the dark days of the Battle of Britain, Perlzweig’s friend “Rab” Butler at the Foreign Office told him that, if Britain fell, then the struggle would be carried on from Canada. Butler asked Perlzweig for a list of vulnerable British Jews who should be taken to Canada. A nonplussed Perlzweig responded that he would have to consult his colleagues — in effect, who would live and who would die in the event of a Nazi invasion. Perlzweig’s mentor, Chaim Weizmann refused to allow his name to go on any list. Perlzweig was a committed and independent man who was called upon to act in the most difficult of times. His nephew has created a fitting memorial to him.
Jewish Chronicle 9 March 2019