Aug 2002 Journal

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Continental Britons

Lectures and discussions fill exhibition programme

Changing Countries: Refugee Voices

Dr Anthony Grenville, Dr Marian Malet and Dr Charmian Brinson, authors of a major recent book based on a programme of detailed interviews with former refugees, Changing Countries: The Experiences and Achievements of German-Speaking Refugees from Hitler in Britain, participated in a seminar at the Jewish Museum. They discussed the writing of the book with three distinguished interviewees: Peter Gellhorn, composer and conductor, Hans Seelig, lecturer and chairman of Club '43, and Elisabeth Rosenthal, educationalist and lecturer. Contributions from panel members were followed by a lively and enjoyable discussion.

Self-educating Internees

Professor Maxine Seller discussed Education Among Jewish Refugees Interned by Britain in World War II, under the aegis of the Jewish Historical Society. Prof Seller stressed the paradox of the - mainly Jewish - refugees "being imprisoned by the country that saved their lives." Faced with an imminent Nazi invasion the British government interned 28,000 men and women of 'enemy' nationality living in Britain in the Spring of 1940, in the Isle of Man, Canada, Australia and on mainland Britain. Although adequately housed, fed and rarely mistreated, they were cut off from family, friends, school and work. The internees made the best of a bad situation by creating educational resources and social networks.
We Built Up Our Lives, Maxine Seller, Greenwood Press/EDS.

Refugees - 60 Years On

Nick Hardwick, Director of the Refugee Council, discussed whether 1930s experiences offered Britain guidance when faced with today's asylum seekers. The vast majority of refugees go from one poor country to another. Of the 2% of the world's refugees seeking residence in the UK, the European average, about half were eventually permitted to stay. A comparison of newspaper headlines in the 1930s and those of today showed striking similarities with refugees 'flooding in', etc. Even the arguments were similar, belittling the persecution from which people were escaping. The right to asylum was an absolute right and asylum seekers should not be required to give up their identity. Perhaps, like Continental Britons, they would possess more than one!

'Immigration and Settlement'

'Continental Britons: Immigration and Settlement of Jewish Refugees from Nazi Europe' was the title of a lecture given by AJR historian Dr Anthony Grenville at the Jewish Museum, drawing on his research for the associated exhibition. He concentrated on three areas of refugee history: the little-known early years of the Association of Jewish Refugees, which grew into the organisation that represented the Jews from Central Europe over the following decades; the experience of wartime Britain as a key factor influencing the refugees' attitudes to their adopted homeland; and the refugees' relations with the British in the post-war period, as revealed through the pages of the AJR Information. A large and appreciative audience then contributed to an entertaining and informative discussion.

'Exile, Legacy and Memory'

Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Spiral Extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum, addressed the symposium on refugee architects organised by the London Jewish Cultural Centre in association with the Royal Institute of British Architects. Polish born, his parents were the only two survivors from an immediate family of 85, yet he stressed the importance of one's contribution to life. "Lucky" to win the competition for Berlin's Jewish Museum, he felt that "buildings and civic space" were the key dimensions in cities, and spoke of the "vitality of history shaping what we human beings think we are." The Imperial War Museum North, opening in Manchester, despite suffering considerable cuts in budget, provided "the maximum of architectural input with the minimum of resources," as a "large barn", parts of the roof of which could be touched. "Architecture has to be memorable," said Libeskind.

The exhibition 'Continental Britons - Jewish Refugees from Nazi Persecution' is at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, Camden Town, London NW1, Sunday to Thursday, until 20th October. For details call 0207 284 1997.
Ronald Channing

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