How Bernat Hecht, father of the Home Secretary, sought asylum

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The Independent Online
HE IS the man proposing to make it much more difficult for a desperate asylum-seeker to enter Britain; yet the father of the Home Secretary, Michael Howard - born Michael Hecht in Llanelli 54 years ago - was himself a refugee who fled here from persecution in Romania.

Bernat Hecht was one of many Jews who escaped continental Europe in the 1930s. Romania then was heading towards a Fascist dictatorship and many of its citizens were terrorised by the anti-Semitic Iron Guard "legionaries". Anti-Jewish laws restricted entry to schools, universities and the civil service.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Hecht moved to Britain as Nazi influence was about to overwhelm his country. He was able to do so partly because the British government had liberalised immigration restrictions.

Now, more than half a century later, his son is proposing to do the opposite: the Home Secretary's Asylum and Immigration Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech last week, will restrict the numbers who can claim asylum.

Though Mr Howard argues that his Bill will deny entry only to those who face no real threat in their own country, his critics insist that it could affect many victims of intolerance who are fleeing genuine persecution.

Little is known of Mr Howard's family background - in interviews, he has given only the barest details. Journalists compiling profiles have reported him saying that his grandparents "came from Romania".

A slightly better picture - but still not a complete one - emerges from investigations at the Public Record Office and interviews with members of the small Jewish community in Llanelli, south Wales, where Mr Howard was born.

Bernat Hecht was born in Ruscova, a small Romanian town, on 13 November, 1916, according to his British naturalisation certificate. He is thought to have had a religious education.

By 1938, life was becoming intolerable for many Jews in central Europe, and some already feared that worse was to come. The 1919 Immigration and Asylum Act stopped refugees coming to Britain unless they had a job or had sponsors who could guarantee they would not be a burden on the tax- payer.

But after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the regulations were relaxed. "Newsreel pictures of Jews being forced to scrub the streets provoked a huge wave of public sympathy," said David Cesarani, professor of modern Jewish studies at Manchester University. "And the Government was embarrassed by reports of Jews queuing at British embassies to try to claim asylum being beaten up. It allowed Jews to get bloc visas so they could get out quickly. The effect was dramatic. Between the spring of 1938 and the outbreak of war, 40,000 Jews were allowed into Britain and saved from the gas chambers." It seems that Bernat Hecht left Romania just before the war and was assisted by sponsorship from the Landys, a south Wales Jewish family, said Michael Paster, who was a page boy at the refugee's wedding. The Landy family was descended from refugees who fled from the pogroms in Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century.

It was through the Landys that Mr Hecht met his wife. Hilda Kershion was a cousin of the family and, in 1940, aged 28, she married the penniless Bernat, then 23. Her late father had run a drapery business in Llanelli and her new husband went in to the family trade. Their son Michael was born in 1941.

"All we talked about at the time was what was happening in Europe," said Esther Savinson, who knew the family. "We kept saying how lucky we were to have found refuge."

Renee Woolf, Michael Howard's cousin, said his father's brother, Wally, and sister were thrown into concentration camps and came to Wales after the war.

The family was very orthodox and lived in James Street, which was at the centre of the small, poor Jewish community in Llanelli, which has long since disappeared. "Everyone mucked in together during the war years," said Alan Cohen, who now lives in Cardiff. "Nobody had very much but the atmosphere was friendly."

The naturalisation certificate found by researchers from the Channel 4 programme A Week in Politics shows that Bernat was naturalised as a British citizen in December 1947 and took an oath of allegiance in Llanelli on 8 January, 1948. Shortly afterwards, Bernat was changed to Bernard, Hecht to Howard and the young Michael Hecht became Michael Howard. Bernard died in 1966 and Hilda now lives in north London.

Could any of this happen under the present government's proposed asylum laws? Many refugee organisations think not. For example, refugees who arrive in Britain seeking asylum are not allowed to work for six months. Nor, under plans from Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, would they be allowed to claim benefit while awaiting a decision or while going to an appeal against deportation. Many will be left destitute, says the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has already complained to ministers about the Government's proposals.

A modern Bernat Hecht would stand little chance of even getting to Britain, say the refugee organisations. If he told a British embassy that he wanted a visa because he planned to claim asylum, he would be refused. If he nevertheless came to Britain, after travelling through a "safe" third country, he would face the prospect of being deported back there. Under Mr Howard's proposals, he would lose rights of appeal against deportation and be presumed to have an unfounded case if he came from a "white list" of countries the Home Secretary decides are not dangerous. These are likely to include Romania - whose regime has been condemned by Amnesty International.

Claude Moraes, general secretary of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "A Home Secretary who may owe his life to the ability of his father to find sanctuary has to face up to the moral consequences of denying genuine refugees a haven. Lives are being put at risk and that is simply immoral."

n John Major yesterday turned down Labour's call for a special Commons standing committee of MPs to consider the controversial Immigration and Asylum Bill.

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