Bernat Hecht was born in Ruscova on 13 November 1916, a member of Romania’s Jewish minority, three hundred thousand of whom would be murdered during the Second World War. (There’s a page memorialising the Ruscova dead, who include members of the Hecht family, here.)
Thanks to the assistance provided by the Landys, a South Wales family descended from refugees from Tsarist Russia, Bernat Hecht was able to come to the UK. In 1940, he married Hilda Kershion, a Landy cousin, and in 1941 a son was born in Llanelli. Bernat Hecht changed his name to Bernard Howard, and was naturalised as a British citizen in December 1947.
That son, Michael, is about to be anointed Leader of the Conservative Party.
On the whole, as we all know, the authorities were keen to keep Jews out of this country throughout the 1930s, and they were supported in this by influential sections of the British press. In a now famous passage, the Daily Mail wrote on 20 August 1938 that “The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming a an outrage – the number of aliens entering the country through the back door… a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed”. (So, no change there.)
But the numbers had not been large, and only 11,000 German Jews were resettled in Britain between 1933 and November 1938. Following the vicious state-sponsored pogrom on 9 November 1938 known as Kristallnacht, however, public pressure on the Home Office led to an increase in the number of visas offered to foreign Jews, and 40,000 Jews were able to come to Britain between November 1938 and the start of the war in September 1939. Although I don’t think we do know quite when Bernat Hecht made it to Wales, it’s very likely that it was in this period, and that he was able to come here thanks to this relaxation in the rules on immigration and asylum and the sponsorship (which was still required) of a family in this country.
It is excellent news that the child of an asylum-seeker is about to become Leader of the Opposition.
It is extraordinary, however, to reflect on the fact that this child is one of the key architects of the politics of persecuting and demonising asylum-seekers which has so disfigured British politics over the last decade, and shamed so much of our political class and our press in the process.
In the 1995 article from which I learned most of the above information, Nick Cohen asks the uncomfortable question, “whether Hecht would have reached a safe haven if his son had been in office at the time”? He ends the piece with these sentences:
“For the moment race is impinging on politics in the loud campaign to keep out refugees. Any Jewish politician who adds his voice to the clamour must, inevitably, be asked what would have happened to him if the new authoritarianism had been in place in the Thirties. And, with an equal inevitability, the answer will be that he would have been shut out and left to die.”
— Nick Cohen, from an article in The Jewish Quarterly, December 1995, reprinted as pp.208-217 of his excellent book, Cruel Britannia.
UPDATE [1/11/2003]: Today’s Guardian has more details on Mr Howard’s family background.