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Apr 2013 Journal

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Hermann Sinsheimer, a German Jew

The beautiful little town of Freinsheim in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate) nestles like a gem among the abundant vineyards and orchards of this sunlit, fertile area of south-western Germany. It lies just off the Deutsche Weinstrasse (German Wine Route), which may help to explain the humorous, humane, tolerant temperament of its citizens, including its most famous son, the Jewish writer, journalist and theatre critic Hermann Sinsheimer, who was born there in 1883 and died in London in 1950. Sinsheimer was one of the many literary and cultural figures who adorned the community of the Jewish refugees from Nazism in Britain in general and AJR Information in particular.
Sinsheimer studied law, but his great love was the theatre, and he soon abandoned the legal profession to become a theatre critic in Mannheim. In 1916 he moved to Munich, spending two years in charge of a major theatre, the Münchner Kammerspiele. He then wrote literary and theatrical reviews for Munich’s leading newspaper, the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, demonstrating a rare talent for his vocation. However, in 1923 the Bavarian government expelled Jews from Eastern Europe, even those long settled in Munich, if they had not been naturalised; among them were two families of Sinsheimer’s acquaintance whose sons had died fighting for Germany in the First World War. When the newspaper refused to protest against this blatant injustice, Sinsheimer, a man of principle, resigned and became editor-in-chief of the celebrated satirical weekly magazine Simplicissimus.
In 1929 he moved with Anny Balder, his first wife, to Berlin, to the liberal Berliner Tageblatt, one of the capital’s great dailies. Sinsheimer’s articles graced the Feuilleton (arts section) of the paper, though, as the renowned theatre critic Alfred Kerr (father of the writer Judith Kerr) was already on the paper’s staff, Sinsheimer concentrated instead on film reviews and articles on literary and other matters, including an attack on Dr Goebbels in April 1931. His articles and his numerous longer publications brim with wit and erudition, with clarity and originality of thought and elegance of style. In March 1933, when Alfred Kerr fled Germany, Sinsheimer took over the position of leading theatre critic at the Berliner Tageblatt, but in September 1933 himself fell victim to a Berufsverbot (ban on exercising his profession) as a result of his defiant gesture in publishing a sixtieth birthday tribute to the great theatre director Max Reinhardt, a Jew.
Proud of both sides of his German-Jewish heritage and deeply rooted in German culture, Sinsheimer stayed on in Germany until 1938, when it became clear that he had to leave. He went first to Palestine, which did not suit him; in a lecture delivered at the Hebrew University, he declared that he had not come to Jerusalem to stand at the Wailing Wall but to sit in the lecture theatres of the university. He moved on to London, which was to become his home for the remaining 12 years of his life. Already 55 years of age in 1938, he felt something of an outsider in England, a country whose customs he found hard to fathom and where he became an ‘enemy alien’ on the outbreak of war.
Though profoundly aware of his Jewish heritage, Sinsheimer retained throughout his life his love for his native Freinsheim and for his native region, the Palatinate. He began his short autobiographical piece An den Wassern von Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon, 1920) with the evocative words ‘The town of Freinsheim in the Palatinate, where I was born, overflows with history, wine and fruit.’ And he ended it with a defiant declaration that he was ‘a German and a Jew’. This defined his relationship to Germany even after the Nazi period. Writing to a German acquaintance in 1946, he declared that whereas the German people had betrayed and defiled the best values of Germany after 1933, those values had been preserved by the German-Jewish émigrés, who had become the true representatives of what had been best in German culture. The title of his posthumously published autobiographical volume, Gelebt im Paradies (Dwelt in Paradise, 1953), aptly conveys his image of the town in which he had grown up.
On balance, Sinsheimer adapted well to life in Britain, taking on a formidable workload in the post-war years. For German publications, he reviewed German books ranging from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus to the memoirs of Rudolf Pechel and Hans Bernd Gisevius, members of the resistance to Hitler, and the diaries of Ulrich von Hassell, who had been executed by the Nazis in the wake of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944. Sinsheimer was also a reviewer for very distinguished British publications: the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the Political Quarterly, founded in 1930 by Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband. One of Sinsheimer’s most important books, a study of Shakespeare’s Shylock, was first published in English by Victor Gollancz in 1947, as Shylock: The History of a Character or the Myth of the Jew. An appreciative review of the book by Lutz Weltmann appeared in AJR Information of July 1947. It had a foreword by John Middleton Murry, who had been married to the writer Katherine Mansfield and was himself a leading figure in London literary life, an indication of how well connected Sinsheimer was in British cultural and intellectual circles.
Sinsheimer’s second wife helped him enormously in settling more or less contentedly in Britain. Christobel May Fowler was born in Lancashire in 1897 and attended Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied Modern Languages. She spoke excellent German. She became a Quaker, worked as a teacher, then became active in charitable work; after visiting Germany in 1936, she concentrated on relief work for the refugees from Nazism. Sinsheimer had met Christobel in 1938, and in 1940, when she came to work in London, she nursed him through a bout of shingles. They married in 1947 and moved into a flat at 135A, High Street Kensington - an address to which Sinsheimer became reconciled once he had discovered the joys of walking through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park on his way to the University of London Library in Bloomsbury. Though he had many contacts with fellow refugees from Germany, Sinsheimer never lived in those districts of north-west London where the Jews from Germany and Austria congregated, and he did not join the literary and cultural organisations that they founded.
Christobel Fowler belonged to that cultured, liberal stratum of British middle-class society which made refugees like Sinsheimer welcome. Her young nieces, unable to pronounce the German name, simply called her new husband ‘Dr Sunshine’. Through people like the Fowlers, Sinsheimer came to admire British pragmatism and tolerance, though he could never come to terms with the culture of a nation that did not grow wine and he declared that, as an orderly German, he despaired of a country where heat waves in February were followed by rain and fog in June. Nevertheless, he came to act as an important intermediary between Britain and Germany through the many lectures that he gave between 1946 and 1948, at the invitation of the Control Office for Germany and Austria, to German prisoners of war. In August 1948, he travelled long distances to speak at six PoW camps in ten days, receiving an enthusiastic reception for his talks on German culture and history. On another occasion, when visiting Island Farm Camp in Bridgend, Glamorgan, where high-ranking officers were held, he delivered a stinging rebuke to Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, who had attempted a clumsy defence of Germany’s history. He did his able best to convert his audiences to the values of democracy, international reconciliation and a political culture founded on individual morality and responsibility.
Sinsheimer published a major front-page article in AJR Information of August 1947, a thought-provoking piece entitled ‘Twice a Jew’, on the identity and responsibilities of the German Jews who had survived the Nazis. The journal reported Sinsheimer’s death in 1950, and in October 1955 it published a review by Otto Zarek of Gelebt im Paradies, which included an affectionate appreciation of Sinsheimer’s life and work. Nor has Sinsheimer been neglected by his home town, which in 1983, the centenary of his birth, instituted a prize in his name, the Hermann-Sinsheimer-Preis für Literatur und Publizistik, supplemented since 2000 by a medal, the Hermann-Sinsheimer-Plakette.
In 2012, in an admirable example of dedicated local research, an edition of Hermann and Christobel Sinsheimer’s letters from London to Sinsheimer’s former classmate Frida Schaffner-Reibold in Freinsheim was published by the Stiftung zur Förderung der pfälzischen Geschichtsforschung, the institution that conducts research into the history of the Palatinate. Edited to the highest scholarly standards by Hans-Helmut Görtz and Gabriele and Erik Giersberg, the volume, Briefe aus England in die Pfalz (Neustadt an der Weinstraße, ISBN 978-3-942189-12-5), contains in its 768 pages a mine of information about every aspect of Sinsheimer’s life. At €49, it offers the reader an invaluable insight into the mind of a major cultural figure from Germany as he adapted to life in post-war Britain.

Anthony Grenville

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