Leo Baeck 2


Feb 2001 Journal

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1940 and All That

Children in the 1950s were brought up to be proud of Britain, even the children of refugees like myself. Not so much because I revelled in feeling part of the great and victorious empire that had coloured half the globe red – anyone with any sense of history understood even then that, with India independent, Britain had reverted to a smaller, European role. No, it was pride in the imperial power’s last act on the grand stage of world history, when for a year after the fall of France it had stood alone against Germany, had administered the first crucial setback to the all-conquering Nazi machine, and had made Hitler’s defeat at least a possibility.

All schoolboys love to be members of a winning team, especially if it is a team of romantic underdogs. That is probably why seeing the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition Spitfire Summer or the TV series Finest Hour still carries echoes of a sunlit realm of courage in the air and solidarity of purpose on the ground, a rock of national spirit on which even the might of Nazism foundered. I remember how my parents’ generation quoted as the incarnation of that spirit Churchill’s tribute to ‘the few’, itself deliberately crafted from the Agincourt peroration of Henry V, ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ - and felt as if they, and I, were latecomers to a modern Crispin Crispian’s day, with Olivier as the king and music by William Walton.

The supreme psychological significance of Churchill, wrote the ex-refugee historian Sebastian Haffner, was that in him Hitler met a personality who eclipsed him in charisma and, especially, oratory. “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills”, then, instead of rising to a rhetorical crescendo, dropping his voice to an almost matter-of-fact tone, “we shall never surrender”. Churchill became a living myth, inspiring in turn the myth of British invincibility against all the odds.

But it was also Churchill who issued the order ‘Collar the Lot!’ that condemned thousands of innocent and loyal refugees to internment and deportation overseas. He failed to alleviate the restrictions on immigration to Palestine for Jews fleeing the Nazis, and his government accorded a low priority to stopping the Holocaust.

Were the Jewish refugees from Hitler properly part of the community created by the spirit of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the blitz? True, they experienced the blitz along with London and the other bomb-ravaged cities, some of them were in Pioneer Corps units evacuated from France in 1940, and in due course young refugees were able to join the RAF. But many felt alienated from a Britain that had shown them its ugly side, whether robbed and mishandled aboard the Dunera, or condemned to work in the alien occupation of domestic drudgery, or subjected to prejudice and discrimination because of their German, or even worse, German-Jewish appearance and accent.

Was the status of ‘friendly enemy aliens’ the best the refugees could hope for? Opinions will vary according to individual experiences. But the spirit of 1940 did embrace many refugees: those who found their business premises with their windows shattered by bombs, but their goods untouched by looting hand; those whose spirits in hospital were kept up by the courage and humanity of their fellow victims of the blitz; those who had appointments with an Englishman, only to find that he had taken his boat over to Dunkirk. Tokens perhaps of a moment when the British – or some of them – rose to the call of history, as the Germans in 1933, the Austrians in 1938 and the French in 1940 had not.
Dr Anthony Grenville

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