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Dec 2012 Journal

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Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish refugees from Nazism

The article and letter by Susanne Medas that appeared in our August 2012 issue prompted a number of responses that raised the important but sensitive question of relations between Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish refugees from Hitler who fled to Britain after 1933. Whereas many refugees retain grateful memories of support and friendship from Anglo-Jewish organisations and individual British Jews, others, like Edith Holden (October 2012, Letters), harbour a continuing sense of grievance at what they see as the lack of assistance proffered to them and their families by Anglo-Jewish organisations. These two opposing points of view reflect a deeper division within the refugee community about its relations with Anglo-Jewry, going back to the reception afforded to the refugees in the 1930s and 1940s by the Jewish community in Britain.

At the institutional level, the response of Anglo-Jewry to the influx of Jews fleeing Nazism was often generous and energetic. Faced with the Nazi threat to its co-religionists in Germany, and later beyond, Anglo-Jewry reacted in the Jewish tradition of establishing communal organisations to provide material aid and financial support to fellow Jews in distress. It made the organisational arrangements to help the Jewish refugees from the Nazi terror, lobbied the British government on their behalf and raised money. In the early months of 1933, leading members of the Anglo-Jewish community, including Anthony de Rothschild, Leonard G. Montefiore and the German-born banker Otto M. Schiff, founded the Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief) to raise funds for the refugees from Hitler. At the same time, Otto Schiff organised the Jewish Refugees Committee (later German Jewish Aid Committee), which, with the money raised by the CBF, arranged for the admission of refugees to Britain, their maintenance and employment.

One of the most important contributions that Anglo-Jewry made to the rescue of Jewish refugees from the Reich was to give an undertaking to the British government in 1933 that ‘all expense [relating to the refugees], whether in respect of temporary or permanent accommodation or maintenance will be borne by the Jewish community without ultimate charge to the State’. The Jewish community maintained this undertaking for six years, even though the numbers of refugees, and the corresponding expense, vastly exceeded the initial estimate of 3-4,000. Without that undertaking, the British government, intent as ever on preventing immigrants from becoming a burden on the state, would have been even less willing than it was to admit Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism.

As the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis intensified in the late 1930s, Anglo-Jewry increased its efforts on their behalf. By 1938, the number of organisations dealing with the many aspects of the refugee problem had proliferated, and new premises were found for them in Bloomsbury House, a former hotel in Bloomsbury Street. Here the administrative apparatus was established to cope with the influx of Jews leaving Germany after the ‘Crystal Night’ pogroms of November 1938, with the arrival of nearly 10,000 unaccompanied children on Kindertransports from December 1938, or with the many thousands of Jews, mainly young women, who came to Britain on domestic service visas. It was on the initiative of Anglo-Jewry that the Kitchener Camp at Richborough, Kent, was set up, to accommodate Jewish men admitted to Britain as ‘transmigrants’. British Jews created a nationwide network of refugee committees that assisted the Jews from Germany and Austria, found places for Jewish children at hostels and orphanages, or helped to support the agricultural settlements where young refugees were trained for work in Palestine.

Saving the young was a priority for Anglo-Jewry. On 15 November 1938, a deputation of leading members of the Jewish community, consisting of Viscount Samuel, Viscount Bearsted, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz, Neville Laski, Lionel de Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann, met Prime Minister Chamberlain and urged him to admit children under the age of 17. A few days later, the Home Secretary made the announcement that initiated the Kindertransports, to which British Jews like Norman Bentwich, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld and Nicholas Winton contributed so notably.

Yet at the human level of personal contact and social interaction, relations between Anglo-Jewry and the refugees from Hitler were not so smooth. The tensions went back to the divide that had opened up at the time of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century, between the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, which held fast to their traditional beliefs, practices and lifestyle, and the assimilated, secularised communities of German-speaking Central Europe, which had abandoned much of the traditional heritage of Judaism as they integrated into the society of cities like Vienna or Berlin. The latter tended to look down on the ‘Ostjuden’ as backward and uneducated, while the traditional Jews accused their assimilated cousins of betraying the ancestral faith.

Much of Anglo-Jewry in the 1930s consisted of the descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe who had come to Britain before the First World War, and as a result the friction between Eastern and Central European Jews was to some extent replicated in Britain. There was a sharp difference in social culture between the two groups of Jews. The British descendants of the Jews from the East had tended to settle in areas like London’s East End, where poor foreign immigrants clustered, whereas the refugees from Hitler preferred more affluent areas, reflecting their middle-class origins and aspirations.

AJR Information pinpointed this issue as early as July 1948:

In Germany, the Jew was assimilated and belonged to the middle class; even when losing his fortune, he did not become a proletarian but a petty bourgeois. In the London East End he belonged to a Yiddish-speaking proletarian stratum, though, at a later stage, either he or his children managed to improve their position. The dispossessed refugee did not begin at the lowest rung of the ladder in Whitechapel, but, penniless as he was, took his furnished room in Hampstead or other North-Western parts of the town.

The journal commented aptly: ‘Many misunderstandings between the refugees from Germany and other sections of the Anglo-Jewish community may be explained by this different background.’

In his unpublished autobiography, Werner Rosenstock, long-serving General Secretary of the AJR and Editor of its journal, related his encounter with a poor Anglo-Jewish family from the East End; it encapsulated that divide in social class and lifestyle, in Jewishness and religious observance. After the pogroms of November 1938, the family had taken in a young refugee girl. Expecting ‘a downtrodden impoverished child’, they were surprised when their guest arrived with several cases full of expensive clothing. Her first request was for a hot bath - in a house that probably had no proper bathroom. Worse still, when the family sat down to the Friday evening meal, the girl had never heard the Sabbath blessings. The family, Rosenstock wrote, was outraged: ‘There we are told of the poor Jews in Germany, who are persecuted because they are Jews, and now we learn to our dismay that they still lived in comfort and had no Jewish bonds though their Jewishness was the reason of their plight.’

Anglo-Jewry also saw the security of its position in Britain, recently established and still fragile, endangered by the fresh influx of Jews from Germany and Austria. These foreigners, it feared, could all too easily inflame the anti-Semitism that lurked in certain sections of British society. That sense of insecurity came out clearly in the brochure ‘Helpful Information and Guidance for Every Refugee’, distributed to refugees by the Jewish Board of Deputies and the German Jewish Aid Committee, both Anglo-Jewish organisations. It urged the newcomers - in terms that many found demeaning - to modify their behaviour so as to avoid giving offence to the British and, by implication, jeopardising the precarious position of the entire Jewish community.

Relations between individual refugees and British Jews could also be difficult, and were sometimes publicised in AJR Information. A dramatic example was the experience of the writer and historian C. C. Aronsfeld, who recalled in February 1952 how in the mid-1930s he had incurred the wrath of his employer, an Anglo-Jewish tailor and pillar of the local refugees committee in Leeds. Aronsfeld’s offence had been to publish an article in a German-Jewish periodical, an activity that the employer considered so unsuitable for a mere factory hand that he threatened to have Aronsfeld sent back to Germany.

Similar incidents crop up in interviews with refugee domestic servants, who were largely defenceless against their employers. One, for example, was threatened with deportation to Germany, while another was forced to scrub the floors before being allowed to leave her employers, something, she recalled bitterly, that not even the Nazis in her native Vienna had forced on her. Domestic servants were, on balance, treated no worse in Anglo-Jewish households than they were in British ones. But cases of poor treatment by co-religionists, from whom Jewish refugees might have expected better, have lived on in their memories, colouring their attitude to Anglo-Jewry to this day.

Anthony Grenville

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