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Aug 2012 Journal

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From living memory to cultural memory (review)

Volumes concerned with the emigration of individuals due to the so-called ‘seizure of power’ by National Socialists and its consequences, including the Anschluss, have not been uncommon over the past few years. In Stimmen der Flucht, however, we have something slightly different, namely an account of the lives of a whole group - that of the Austrian Jews who left for Britain in the 1930s and settled here. Official records are incomplete, but it is estimated that over 30,000 came, which, according to no less an authority than the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde in Vienna, made Britain, along with the USA, the most important country of refuge for Jews who fled Austria. To put it differently, of the 120,000 Viennese Jews who survived the Holocaust one quarter did so thanks to having been taken in by Great Britain.

The raw material that underpins this fascinating book forms part of Refugee Voices, the collection of in-depth interviews conducted by two scholars, Anthony Grenville and Bea Lewkowicz, and others, with ex-refugees from Central Europe between 2003 and 2008. Drs Grenville and Lewkowicz need no introduction to readers of this magazine, of course. Dr Grenville has used the 25 ‘Austrian’ interviews in the collection to form the basis of his account, which actually spans a much longer period than the title would suggest, as it starts with the parents - even grandparents - of the interviewees and thus reaches back into the later 19th century, well before the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire. Surprising as it may seem for such a distinct group, their story had not been fully researched in its particularity: only a few separate topics had been addressed. This was largely due to the fact that it is not easy to access, as the post-war sources – even AJR Information – mostly do not differentiate between Austrians and Germans.

The scrupulous tracing of the backgrounds of the group and their lives in Vienna occupies roughly the first third of the volume and is told through their recollections, their voices – Stimmen – having pride of place. All bar one were born in the Austrian capital between 1912 and 1937 and together they represent a cross-section of that society. The account is thus no less than a social history of Vienna, which by the close of the previous century had become one of the great European Jewish metropolises. Grenville then goes on to chronicle their uprooting, flight and settlement in Britain, where they developed a particular mix of Continental (Central European) and British culture and greatly enriched life in what came to be their adopted land. Their influence in a wide range of fields is, thankfully, now being recognised. Their number is, however, fast diminishing; hence the direct link is being broken to the extraordinary set of circumstances through which they lived in the country of their birth and that forced them into flight. In a word, living memory is being replaced by cultural memory and their story is moving into the realm of history. So it is all the more precious to have a chronicle of their lives and identities filtered through their own experience, as we do in this book.

This is a scholarly account, but as it is also intended for the general reader it does not include any methodological discussion. It is highly readable. It is to be hoped that the original English version of the manuscript will find a publisher so that this crucial contribution to the history of immigrants into twentieth-century Britain can be made easily accessible to non-German speakers, which of course includes many of the descendants of the interviewees. Since interest in life histories has grown so much over the past decades, it would also be welcomed by a wider public.

Marian Malet

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