in the garden


Dec 2002 Journal

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Continental Britons: The Continental heritage

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, chief executive of the Kings Fund, led a symposium on ‘The Heritage of the Past: Blessing or Burden?’ attended by a packed audience at the Jewish Museum. Having German Jewish parents “completely shaped my life,” said Julia Neuberger, who from her earliest years recalled the German accents of her parents’ friends. A feeling of social superiority appeared unavoidable. Even a Continental diet played a role in defining their cultural identity.

In the German Jewish scholarly tradition “culture mattered,” she said. A love of literature and the arts certainly prevailed and “it was important to discuss what you thought of a book or a picture.” There was a strong sense of obligation to other members of their group, then to the wider Jewish community, and thereafter to Britain as their country of refuge.

Anne Karpf, journalist and author of the seminal work The War After, disapproved of the concept of a ‘second generation’ as it articulated a claim to victimhood, and found it “grotesque to focus on our background.” She divided refugees into two camps: the ‘kvetchers’ and the ‘fine brigade’. Kvetchers enjoyed a culture of complaint and special pleading - a sort of Woody Allen-like neuroticism. Fine brigaders, on the other hand, were “obsessed with assimilating and not making a fuss.” They would much prefer to brush everything under the carpet and always sought happy endings.

Ms Karpf called for a truce between the two camps. The children of refugees and survivors had probably allowed for a little too much of the past in their lives. While “connecting with the past” could be a blessing - for example, the raising of consciousness through audio and video testimonies - she believed it was time to move on.

Author of a study of Anglo-Jewry, The Club, Stephen Brook confirmed that his parents had instilled in him the best bourgeois values, yet the loss of many of his relatives in the camps was “not my tragedy.” Despite limited finances, he had been taken to concerts and opera at Covent Garden from the age of eight. He had experienced no bitterness in the parental home, had an excellent education and had encountered no discrimination whatsoever at university.

While we should not forget about the past, Stephen Brook said, it was well to remember the achievements of such people as the architect Daniel Liebeskind. On a recent visit to Berlin’s large Holocaust memorial construction site, it had occurred to him that there were possibly enough memorials already. Like Anne Karpf, he believed that his generation, the children of refugees, should not dwell on the past. Katherine Klinger, founder of the Second Generation Trust, and Dr Anthony Grenville, AJR researcher and historian, joined in a panel discussion. Speakers from the floor reflected the diverse experiences of refugees from Central Europe and Holocaust survivors, many of whom had successfully integrated into British society and culture.
Ronald Channing

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