Dec 2011 Journal

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Club 1943

In December 2011, Club 1943, the venerable and much-loved forum for cultural and political discussion, will be meeting for the last time. Founded by a group of refugee intellectuals, predominantly Jewish, at the beginning of 1943, the Club has been a prominent and distinguished feature of the refugee community in Britain for 69 years, and its weekly meetings, held for many years at Belsize Square Synagogue, have attracted a host of eminent speakers as well as a discerning and loyal audience. But with the death of its last chairman, Hans Seelig, in June 2009, and the inevitable toll taken on the membership by the passing years, it has become impossible to continue the Club’s activities. With its passing, the community of Jewish refugees from the German-speaking lands of Central Europe is losing one of its most important institutions. Only the stalwart efforts of Ernst Flesch and Leni Ehrenberg have kept the Club functioning for the past two years.

Those accustomed to the benign, expansive chairmanship of Mannheim-born Hans Seelig could easily have believed that Club 1943 had always been an amiable gathering of refugees, their descendants and British friends, meeting weekly to listen to a talk on a matter of cultural, historical or political interest, followed by discussion, then tea and biscuits. But that was far from the truth. As Jennifer Taylor has shown in an absorbing account of the Club’s early years, published in 1995 in Zwischenwelt, the magazine of the Vienna-based Theodor Kramer Gesellschaft, it was born in conflict.

Club 1943 came into being as a result of fundamental disagreements within the Free German League of Culture (FGLC), which had been founded shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War to represent the cultural traditions of the refugees from Germany in Britain, and had by 1942 come under strong Communist influence. At a meeting of the FGLC’s management board in December 1942, Professor Alfred Meusel, an outspoken Communist, proposed that the FGLC should send a letter to Prime Minister Winston Churchill in support of the call for a ‘Second Front now’, to relieve the sorely pressed forces of the Soviet Union. This was opposed by the dramatist Alfred H. Unger, who objected that it was no business of the refugees from Germany to be interfering overtly in British wartime politics. In protest, Unger resigned from the FGLC.

According to Unger, the playwright Hans José Rehfisch, who had also resigned from the FGLC, came to see him on 1 January 1943. When they considered forming a breakaway association, they simply named it after the dawning New Year. The founding members of Club 1943 included some of the cream of the refugee community’s intellectual and artistic talent: alongside Rehfisch, its first chairman, and Unger, these included writers like the latter’s brother Wilhelm and Hans Flesch, the painter Fred Uhlman, the journalist and literary scholar Grete Fischer, the theatre critic Monty Jacobs, the lawyer Hermann Friedmann, the theatre owner Arthur Hellmer, the literary historian of the exiled writers Wilhelm Sternfeld and the theatre producer, author and philosopher Karl Wollf (so spelt). Those admitted to the Club early on included the poet Erich Fried, the Goethe biographer Richard Friedenthal, the journalist Hans Jäger and – after a spat characteristic of the Club - the novelist Gabriele Tergit.

Reacting against the politicisation of culture by the FGLC, Club 1943 drew on older traditions of humanism and individual freedom, of culture as an autonomous sphere with its own ‘unpolitical’ values, and of the democratic heritage of the West that had been suppressed in Germany since 1933. As one of its documents stated around 1947, the Club ‘was founded in 1943 by writers, scholars and artists from the German-speaking lands as a free association devoted to the preservation of the cultural tradition’ (my translation from the German). The Club continued to emphasise that membership was open to all those of a ‘freiheitliche Gesinnung’ (‘freedom-loving persuasion’). Within that framework of political independence, the Club dedicated itself to its task of maintaining in Britain the cultural heritage that its members had brought with them from Europe.

The early years of the Club were not without turbulence. It attracted a number of unaligned left-wing intellectuals, a group not renowned for its ability to co-operate harmoniously, and there were numerous internal disputes, arising from both personal frictions and differences over matters of policy. Rehfisch, the first president (chairman), left for the USA in 1946, later returning to Germany, and his successor, Hermann Friedmann, returned there in 1950. Friedmann had played a major role in the P.E.N. Centre of German-speaking Writers Abroad, the London-based organisation of exiled writers from Germany; in 1948 he announced the cessation of his interest in Club 1943, devoting himself to the re-establishment of the P.E.N. Club in Germany.

Under Friedmann’s successor, Karl Wollf, a measure of stability was established, and the leading position of the Club in the refugee community assured. His obituary in AJR Information of July 1952 stated: ‘The death of Dr. Karl Wolff, President of the London “Club 1943” means a grave loss for the refugee community … In the “Club 1943” he was the leading personality. His numerous talks revealed a widespread knowledge, wisdom and experience. It is in the first place due to his devotion that the Club acquired its position as an intellectual centre for refugees.’ In the 1950s, the Club entered on its greatest period, under the chairmanship of Hans Jäger, which continued until his death in 1975. Out of respect for Jäger’s achievements, it was only in 1982 that he was formally replaced as chairman by Erwin Seligmann, a rabbi’s son who had been a lawyer in Germany.

From the early 1950s, the Club has been characterised by a large measure of continuity: Berta Sterly, who had acted as secretary under both Jäger and Seligmann, succeeded the latter in 1987, and was in turn succeeded in 1993 by Hans Seelig, who had lectured in German at Middlesex Polytechnic. The Club latterly called itself ‘an Anglo-German cultural forum’, indicating its function as a cultural intermediary between British society and the culture of the refugees from German-speaking Central Europe.

Sources on Club 1943 are sparse: only Jens Brüning - whose death earlier this year robbed us of a leading German authority on refugee writers - has published a survey of the Club’s entire history, which appeared in the 2008 issue of the Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies. This contains a section on the collective volume In Tyrannos (Against Tyrants): Four Centuries of Struggle against Tyranny in Germany, written by Club members and published in London in 1944. Even the venues of its earlier meetings are hard to ascertain accurately. In the immediate post-war years it frequently met at the Jewish Arts Centre at 1 Broadhurst Gardens, NW3 (behind the present Waitrose John Barnes), moving to 57 Eton Avenue (which housed the AJR Club, the Day Centre’s predecessor), and then to Hannah Karminski House at 9 Adamson Road (close to where the AJR office was then located), before settling at Belsize Square Synagogue.

The cultural and intellectual distinction of the Club emerges unmistakably from the records of the thousands of lectures and events held under its auspices over the decades and covering the arts, history, literature and politics, as well as issues of Jewish interest and travelogues or slide shows. AJR Information of December 1963 celebrated the Club’s twentieth anniversary by declaring that it had become ‘a spiritual home for all those immigrants from German-speaking countries who, due to their common background, have a common range of interests and a common approach to many problems of our times.’

Club 1943 was above all concerned to meet the high standards of culture to which the refugees from the Continent aspired. In 1955, no fewer than 250 people attended an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of the dramatist Friedrich Schiller, at which Hans José Rehfisch, Wilhelm Unger and Hans Flesch spoke, while the actors Lilly Kann, Li Nolden, Hanne Norbert, Leo Bieber, Gerard Heinz and Friedrich Valk recited from Schiller’s works. A memorial meeting for Albert Einstein was held in June 1955, at which the speakers were Erwin Freundlich, Professor of Astronomy at St Andrews University and formerly a close associate of Einstein, and Henry Fürth, formerly Professor of Physics at the German University of Prague. In October 1955, the Club celebrated the 80th birthday of Carl Jung, and in July 1956 it and the P.E.N. Centre of German-speaking Writers Abroad jointly presented the celebrated German authors Erich Kästner, Marie Luise Kaschnitz and Hermann Kesten reading from their works.

Music was, as always in refugee circles, a prominent theme. A Schubert evening was held in May 1951, with the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rauter, founder of the Anglo-Austrian Music Society, and in May 1956 a memorial concert was held for the conductor Fritz Berend, featuring the Amadeus Quartet among other artists. It is with such world-famous names in mind that we bid farewell to Club 1943.

Anthony Grenville

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