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Apr 2005 Journal

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RICHARD GRUNBERGER 1924-2005

In mourning Richard Grunberger, the editor of our AJR Journal, we mourn the loss of a towering figure, almost certainly the last of the refugee generation to occupy the editor's chair.

The AJR has been extraordinarily fortunate in the editors of its journal. For most of the nearly 60 years of its existence, the journal has had only two longstanding editors, both of them distinguished figures: Werner Rosenstock (1946-82) and Richard Grunberger (1988-2005). Rosenstock, the AJR's founding General Secretary, was editor from January 1946, at first in collaboration with Ernst Lowenthal and Herbert Freeden. His long term in office was followed by two short-lived editorships - those of Murray Mindlin and the scholarly C.C. Aronsfeld - until in 1988 the AJR made the inspired choice of Richard Grunberger as the man to take the journal on into the change of century.

Whereas Rosenstock had been a cautious and diplomatic editor who rarely advertised his learning, Richard Grunberger demonstrated a flamboyance of style and a delight in scholarship that were almost impossible to resist. Whereas Rosenstock, who hailed from the orderly middle-class world of Berlin's Hansaviertel, had the Prussian ability to subordinate his personality to the task in hand, Grunberger displayed something of the expansiveness of the Viennese coffee-house intellectual, perennially eager to communicate to an audience the world of culture and history that so enthralled him. Grunberger's fascination with ideas, with historical details, parallels and intricacies, and with arguments and counter-arguments flowed into his prose and gripped his readers by sheer force of intellect. In his articles, especially his sparkling editorials, one could not but be aware of the man behind the words.

From Kindertransportee to historian of Nazi Germany

Richard Grunberger was born in Vienna in 1924, into a family in modest circumstances. His father died when he was ten, and he was brought up by his mother and grandfather, from whom he was parted in late 1938, when he was taken to a suburban station and put on the first Kindertransport train to Britain, never to see them again. His subsequent career was a record of success against all the odds. His education, interrupted by the Nazis, seemed at first to be a lost cause in Britain as well. He passed from Dovercourt, near Harwich, through a succession of camps for refugee children and transient jobs, until he found a home with a Jewish family in Stoke Newington and went to work in a tailoring business in the East End - a source of the Yiddish quips that were to enliven his humorous pieces in the journal.

From these unpromising beginnings Grunberger worked his way up the educational ladder, from evening classes to Birkbeck College and on to a degree in history at King's College, London. Within a few years, the refugee boy with little education and less English had become a teacher. He also had the inestimable good fortune to meet his wife Liesl, a fellow refugee from Vienna. They married in 1947 and were blessed with a marriage that lasted in true happiness and concord for nearly 60 years. Richard's family - he and Liesl had three children, Peter, Helen and Michael, and several grandchildren - was an enormous source of strength and stability to him.

Though he rose to be a respected teacher at the Hasmonean School, Richard wanted more. He wrote historical studies of the SS and of the revolutionary period in Bavaria in 1918-19, but it was with the success of his Social History of the Third Reich (1971) that he made the bold decision to become an independent writer. His social history of Nazi Germany - now about to go into its third edition - was a book ahead of its time, in that its focus on everyday life - it has chapters on consumption, health, humour and, of course, literature - anticipated the trend towards Alltagsgeschichte and even the investigation of individual experience through oral history.

'Voice of the AJR'

At an age when other men are contemplating retirement, Richard Grunberger took over the editorship of our journal, and in it found his true calling. He became the voice of the AJR, articulating the past heritage of our community, the Jews from Central Europe, while placing it in the context of contemporary developments. He was formidably erudite, with an extraordinary ability to recall facts, names and historical and cultural details. His articles could start in Biblical Judea and sweep on, via a pit-stop in nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary, to the Jewish experience of the mid-twentieth century and the present-day Middle East.

Richard always set his encyclopaedic knowledge within a clear historical framework; he could build it into patterns and structures that illuminated and brought meaning to the historical experience of our community. Above all, he set that history in the context of values, the moral, social and cultural values of Central European Jewry - humane, civilised, democratic, and reinforced by an infusion of British pragmatism and tolerance. Richard was, beyond doubt, a polemical writer who loved an argument; he was proud, for example, of his exchanges with Sir Ernst Gombrich about the Jewishness of Viennese culture. But he was also a generous man who was always willing to give his opponents a hearing and who accepted bouquets and brickbats alike with equanimity. He was a convinced supporter of the state of Israel, but never in a spirit of militaristic triumphalism or tribal superiority, attacking only what he perceived as obscurantism or hypocrisy.

That a man so intensely alive to ideas, knowledge and culture has gone forever is hard to comprehend. We will treasure his memory and the power of his pen - we will not look on its like again.

Anthony Grenville

previous article:Future generations to hear 'Refugee Voices'
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