23 December 2022
Hanukkah is a time to
Celebrate the Jews who
worked at Bletchley Park
During my recent visit to Bletchley Park, I heard about a remarkable group of Jewish staff who worked there during World War II and the years that followed. Their role in codebreaking and in the ‘signals intelligence’ mission was out of all proportion to the size of the Jewish community in Britain at the time. In turn, Bletchley’s contribution to winning and shortening the course of the war and therefore bringing to an end the Holocaust in Europe is clear.
Hanukkah, which began last Sunday (18 December 2022), continues throughout this week and ends on Sunday (25 December 2022).
The rabbis taught that during the eight days of Hannukah there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. The story is not a story of rebellion or war, violence or victory, but a story of a miracle wrought by God, the triumph of light over darkness, and the victory of liberty against hatred and oppression.
Hanukkah is a fitting occasion to remember the story of the unique contribution of the Jews who worked at Bletchley Park and their role in the triumph of light over darkness, the triumph of liberty over hatred and oppression.
The Jewish history of Bletchley Park pre-dates World War II. The mansion at the heart of the Bletchley Park, was once the home of the home of Sir Herbert Leon MP and Lady Fanny Leon, who were non-observant Jews. Leon was a wealthy stockbroker, MP and atheist.
Jewish men and women were well represented at Bletchely Park during World War II and they worked there in many of the departments. At least 205 Jews, including some Americans, out of total staff of about 8,000 in all, served at the secret facility. They came from a variety of social and religious backgrounds and were selected on their ability and education, though many were recruited direct from Oxford and Cambridge.
These Jewish recruits often had well developed linguistic skills, especially in Oriental languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, as well as Classics, which were thought to be useful. Others had ability in mathematics, analysis and chess. Many, due to their family origins, spoke fluent German, a key language.
There was no organised Jewish religious life on site – before World War II there only one known Jewish family was living in Bletchley. During the war, three very Orthodox Jewish evacuee families formed a tiny informal congregation or shtieble that was used by some of the Jews at Bletchley Park.
In the early days of World War II, the Jewish staff at Bletchley Park were invited to share the Sabbath meal with Rebecca and Philip Bogush and their daughters — the only known Jewish family in Bletchley village, who had been evacuated from Stamford Hill during the Blitz.
Most Jews travelled to Oxford or London for religious services, or to their homes. However, many Jews kept kosher by eating vegetarian food as an alternative, which was not a problem, and at least one took each Saturday off for the Jewish Sabbath. While there are some reports of antisemitism at Bletchley Park, and attempts were sometimes made to block recruitment of Jews, it does not seem to have been universal.
Many of the Jewish decoders at Bletchley Park had family connections with Germany and other European countries overrun by the Nazis and knew the threat Hitler posed to their relatives and other Jews and many of their families or relatives were murdered.
Some of the decoders read distressing messages relating to Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews, such as the transport of the Jews from Rhodes in 1944, ‘for the final solution’ and the last futile attempt of Jews to flee to Palestine in 1942, with the torpedoing of the Struma with the loss of 769 lives. This disaster was covered up by both the British and Turkish authorities. However, there is no doubt that the work at Bletchley Park not only shortened World War II but saved Jewish lives too.
The Jews working at Bletchley Park included established academics at the height of their careers, young servicemen recruited for their mathematical or linguistic skills, and clerks and messengers who combined fast typing with languages. They came from a variety of social backgrounds, the famous names of Anglo-Jewry alongside recent immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe.
Jewish staff at Bletchley Park, included Professor Maxwell Newman (1897-1984). Alan Turing attended Newman’s lectures at Cambridge. Newman’s work at Bletchley was critical to cracking the ‘Tunny’ code used by the German High Command. Convinced that codebreaking could be mechanised, he was a driving force in the creation of Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer.
Irving John Goodman, originally Isidore Jacob Gudak, was Alan Turing’s chief statistical assistant, who used statistics to work out probable meanings in messages that had yet to be fully decoded. He also found a method of speeding up the Collosus computer and was an inventor of the modern computer.
It was the remarkable technological breakthroughs of Newman, Turing, Welchman and others that the scholar George Steiner had in mind when he described Bletchley as perhaps the greatest achievement of Britain not just in the Second World War but in the 20th Century.
Walter Ettinghausen formed a group, the Professional and Technical Aliya Association (PTWA), that met on Wednesday evenings in the flat of Joe Gillis (1911-1993), a lecturer in the Maths faculty at Queen’s University Belfast. Apart from social activities, they promoted the emigration of Jewish professionals to Palestine at the end of the war to help found a Jewish state.
Some of Bletchley’s most talented staff were regular attenders: Rolf Noskwith; Morris Hoffman, a young civil servant who had been one of the earliest members of the Federation of Zionist Youth before the war; Jack Good, a gifted mathematician and British chess champion, who was Turing’s statistical assistant; Michael Cohen, a Scot who had been studying theology in Glasgow in the hope of becoming a rabbi; and the remarkable Ettinghausen brothers, Walter and Ernest.
These brothers had been recruited from Oxford and both worked in Hut 4, in the German Naval Section, where Walter ran ‘Z Watch’. Their team’s work was critical to the protection of trans-Atlantic convoys – Walter came to know the name of every U Boat commander – and to Royal Navy operations. ‘Z Watch’ was closely involved in the hunt for the German battleship, the Bismarck, and Walter handled some of the vessel’s last messages in May 1941.
The extreme secrecy necessary at Bletchley, which was maintained until the 1970s. But some personal testimonies and the work of historian such as Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Martin Sugarman and Michael A Kushner, offer glimpses into the experience of being Jewish in a place that, through its work, gained unique insights into the mass murder of Jews across Europe.
During the summer of 1941, Bletchley was intercepting top secret German police radio and SS Enigma messages cataloguing the systematic killing of Jews as the German army advanced into Russia, village by village. Based on these statistics of tens of thousands of deaths, Bletchley’s assessment was that this was a high-level Nazi policy and that the SS and police were vying with each other as to their ‘score’ of victims.
The War Office believed Bletchley’s view to be an exaggeration, but Winston Churchill was reading the reports himself and decided in August to risk revealing some of the Ultra operation by speaking in some detail about ‘this merciless butchery’. The scale of what was later to be seen as the beginning of the Holocaust was already sensed by Churchill – ‘we are in the presence of a crime without a name,’ he said.
In reaction to Churchill’s speech, German police were instructed to send details of all future ‘executions’ to Berlin by hand, to avoid interception. Bletchley continued to collect material for the later investigation of war crimes, but the priority was to use the Ultra intelligence to win the war and bring the Holocaust to an end. Having established the systematic nature of the mass murders, Bletchley staff noted to Churchill that ‘it is not therefore proposed to continue reporting these butcheries specially, unless requested to do so.’
By the autumn of 1941, there were enough non-secret sources pointing to mass murder, particularly that of 33,000 Jews near Kiev, that Churchill felt able to send his famous personal message to the Jewish Chronicle in November without risking the Ultra secret: ‘… in the day of victory the Jew’s sufferings will not be forgotten … he will see vindicated those principles of righteousness which it was the glory of his fathers to proclaim to the world.’
Two years later, on the 25th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he sent an almost identical message to the Jewish Chronicleon the ‘unspeakable evils’ suffered by the Jewish people.
Among Jewish staff at Bletchley, there was clearly some awareness of what was happening but it was partial and fragmentary. There were reminders of what they were confronting – Morris Hoffman remembered seeing a captured German book bound with a looted Torah scroll.
Writing in the 1990s, Walter Ettinghausen recorded movingly the personal impact of an intercepted signal from a German ship in the Aegean, transporting Jews from the islands to Piraeus zur Endlösung (‘for the Final Solution’). In 1944, he had never heard this phrase before, but instinctively knew what it meant. Typically of the man and the culture of Bletchley, he did not mention this to his brother or anyone else on ‘Z Watch’, until asked to write an official account in the 1990s.
Walter Ettinghausen left Britain in 1946, and as Walter Eytan he played a key role in Israeli foreign policy and public service.
Joe Gillis from Belfast became a founder and professor of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute. Michael Cohen helped to found the ‘British Kibbutz’ in Upper Galilee.
Some of the other, many notable Jewish connections with Bletchley include:
• Richard Barnett (1909-1986), a distinguished orientalist and Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum.
• Peter Benenson (1921-2005), a lawyer who founded Amnesty International.
• Laurence Jonathan Cohen (1923-2006), a leading Oxford philosopher.
• Joe Dindol (1920-2008) Jewish comedian, grew up in Bletchley where his parents opened a small draper’s shop in the 1920s.
• Professor Samuel Julius Gould (1924-2019), sociologist at Nottingham University and co-author of Jewish Life in Modern Britain (1964).
• Professor Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), historian of Islam and the Middle East.
• Vivian David Lipman (1921-1990), later Director of Ancient Monuments and leading Anglo-Jewish historian.
• Hyam Z Maccoby (1904-2004), Professor of Jewish Studies at Leeds and author on Biblical subjects.
• Rolf Noskwith (1919-2017) who at the age of 22 broke the ‘Offizier’ Enigma code used by the German navy’s headquarters to communicate with officers in U-boats.
• Dame Miriam Louisa Rothschild-Land, (1908-2005), daughter of Nathaniel Charles Rothschild and a noted zoologist.
• Ruth Sebag-Montefiore (1916-2015), a great niece of Sir Herbert Samuel Leon and the matriarch of the Sebag-Montefiore family.
Hanukkah symbolises the struggle of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, an eternal struggle for faith and existence. To the world, it proclaims the eternal message of the prophet Zechariah: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.’
For the best part of half a century I have been using Service of the Heart for personal prayers and reflections. It includes this prayer and reflection for For the Sabbath in Chanukkah:
‘We thank you, O God, for the redeeming wonders and the mighty deeds with which you saved our fathers in days of old at this season.
‘In the days of the Hasmoneans, a tyrant nation rose up against our ancestors, determined to make them forget your Law, and to turn them away from obedience to your will. But in your abundant mercy, you stood at their side in their time of trouble. You gave them strength to struggle and to triumph, that they might serve you in freedom.
‘Through your spirit the weak defeated the strong, the few prevailed over the many, and the righteous were triumphant. Then did your children return to your house, to purify your sanctuary and kindle its lights. And they appointed these eight days of Dedication, to give thanks and praise to your great name.
‘Grant, O God, that the heroic example of the Maccabees may inspire us always to be loyal to our heritage and valiant for truth. May your holy spirit help us to overcome the darkness of prejudice and hatred, and spread the light of liberty and love.’
Shabbas Shalom, Chag Sameach
Michael A Kushner and Martin Sugarman, Jewish Bletchley Park the Jewish contribution: Jewish Bletchley Park 1939-1940 ( 2019).
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Enigma: The Battle for the Code (Wiley, 2004).
Martin Sugarman, ‘Breaking the Codes; Jewish personnel at Bletchley Park in WW2,’ Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of England, (November 2005).