Friday 4 September 2015

The Israelite in whom there was no guile and the boys he saved from the Nazis; Paul Philip Levertoff (1878-1954), Barkingside Cemetery

Schneur Zalman
The intriguing epitaph on this modest grave reads “In loving memory of the Reverend Dr. Paul Phillip Levertoff, Scholar and Saint, who departed this life July 31 1954, aged 75 years. An Israelite in whom there is no guile. Erected by his wife and the boys he saved from the Nazis.” Paul Levertoff was the Vicar of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch who lived at 5 Mansfield Road in Ilford, was married with two daughters, the youngest of which was the poet Denise Levertov and who came from what seems an almost impossibly exotic background for an Anglican clergyman. Paul Phillip had been born Feivel Levertoff, a Russian Jew, in the town of Orsha, Belarus in 1878 to a distinguished family of Hassidim. One of his ancestors was the miracle working Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the Rav of White Russia, who as a child was so precociously clever that at 12 his teachers sent him home from the yeshiva with instructions not to bother returning as there was nothing else they could teach him and who at his Bar-mitzvah address spoke with such passion, prescience and learning that the community immediately pronounced him an 'Iluy', a prodigy of learning.
A young Paul Levertoff in his missionary days with Robert
Feinsilber, who helped hatch the plan to save the boys, at his side
Feivel Levertoff was also an outstanding scholar and in her book of memoirs, “Tesserae”, Denise Levertov recounts an episode when her 8 or 9 year old father picked up a scrap of paper in the snow “about a boy like himself who – it said – was found in the Temple expounding the scriptures to the old, reverent, important rabbis!” Entranced he took the scrap of paper home to show his father, who was furious, tore the paper to shreds and threw it in the fire. It was, of course, the story of Jesus and Feivel’s fascination was prophetic because a few years later, as a student in Germany at a Rabbinical Seminary , he came across a copy of the Gospels translated into Hebrew. These he read clandestinely and as he read he became stirred by a ‘profound and shaking new conviction’ that this man, this renegade Palestinian Jew who had died during the height of the Roman Empire, really was the Messiah. Paul Levertoff became a JBJ, a Jewish Believer in Jesus, had himself baptised as Paul Philip and for fifteen years became a professional missionary visiting Jewish communities in places as far apart as Hungary, Bosnia, Egypt and Palestine.  In 1910 he took a post as Evangelist in Constantinople offered to him by the United Free Church of Scotland where he met Beatrice Spooner-Jones, a teacher at the Scottish mission school.  Beatrice was an orphan from Holywell who had been brought up in the guardianship of her uncle, a Congregationalist minister who consented, when she 19, to her going abroad. Her first hope had been to go to Paris but her horrified uncle rejected the suggestion out of hand, the French capital being a totally unsuitable place for an unattached young woman. He agreed to the more dubious proposition of Constantinople because it was to teach at a church school. So the naïve young Welsh woman who spoke no language other than English and had only previously set foot outside of Wales to visit Liverpool and Chester set off unaccompanied to travel across Europe and take up residence in the Sublime Porte.
The couple were married in 1911 and lived in Warsaw until the outbreak of the first World War when, as a Russian citizen, Paul was placed under house arrest and was technically a prisoner of war for the duration of hostilities.  After the war Beatrice persuaded Paul to leave battle ravaged Europe and return with her to Wales where family contacts helped arrange work for him as a Librarian at St. Deiniol’s Library in Flintshire whilst he prepared for ordination into the Church of England.  From Flintshire the Levertoff’s moved to Ilford, Beatrice already pregnant with Denise and their eldest daughter Olga a toddler. Paul had been made Director of the East London Fund for the Jews and vicar of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch. He began to conduct liturgy in Hebrew and gathered a small but loyal congregation of Jewish converts who were ecstatic to find a spiritual leader who recognised their Jewishness as much as he accepted their Christianity.  The Levertoff’s lived at Mansfield Road for the next 31 years and Paul worked on many of his most influential books in Ilford. He produced a noted translation into English of sections of the Zohar, a key text of the Kabbalah as well as translating St Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ into Hebrew. Amongst his many books were ‘The Son of Man; A Survey of the Life and Deeds of Jesus Christ’, ‘St Paul in Jewish Thought’ and his most renowned work ‘Love and the Messianic Age.’ According to Denise her father was fluent in Russian, German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, English, Yiddish and Arabic.
Levertoff and the boys - his wife Beatrice is standing in front of him and Denise is being carried.
The boys saved from the Nazis were 10 teenage ‘mischling’ boys, who even though raised as Christians had one Jewish and were therefore ‘crossbreeds’ according to the third Reich. In July 1938 after the Anschluss when Germany had annexed Austria  Levertoff announced to his Stepney congregation his plan to establish a hostel where ten “Jewish Christian refugees of student age and type will be given  hospitality, taught English, shorthand and typing and assisted to complete their studies…”  Levertoff had a friend and colleague in Vienna, Robert Feinsilber, who urged him to help ethnic Jews raised as Christians. The pair recruited a pastor from the Swedish mission in Vienna to help them find suitable candidates and soon identified their ten mischlings. Levertoff had difficulties obtaining visas for the ten boys, his application to the Home Office apparently going nowhere. His eldest daughter Olga, then 8 ½ months pregnant came to the rescue, marching into  the Home Office and demanding an explanation then fainting away in front of the horrified civil servants eyes. Terrified that she was about to go into labour they quickly came up with the required ten visas and then hustled Olga out into the street.  The ten new arrivals were initially billeted at Mansfield Road but then moved into the church hall at Holy Trinity. When Levertoff died in 1954 “the boys” paid for the headstone and also for the maintenance of his grave when Beatrice Levertoff decided to leave England and follow Denise to the United States.   


  1. Thanks David - can you tell me the sources for the photos of the family and the details of the rescue of the boys?
    many thanks
    Richard Harvey -

  2. I think i can put you in touch with the daughter of one of the rescued boys. Can you tell me your interest in the subject?

  3. Many thanks - I am writing a history of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance of which Paul Levertoff was a part - I am also applying for Blue Plaques to be put on his home in Ilford commemorating him and his daughter the famous American poet Denise Levertov. I would be interested in recollections of those he helped rescue, and any other details that may be available - best regards, Richard Harvey, PhD