Jan 2003 Journal

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Continental Britons: Cosmopolitan Jews: identity and assimilation

Dr Marion Berghahn, social anthropologist, publisher and originator of the name Continental Britons, the title of her book published 20 years ago, spoke on ‘Identity and Assimilation’ at the Jewish Museum, Camden Town. She based her findings on interviews conducted in the 1970s and 1980s with several hundred German-speaking Jewish refugees living in Britain.

Although Germany’s Jews had “intermingled” with those around them for centuries, the emancipation marked a clear turning point, said Dr Berghahn. German culture proved fertile ground for the Jews, whose “intellectual forces” were released and whose upward social mobility became a possibility. A unique integration of German and Jewish cultures developed with common values and perceptions, and subtle ties were “deeply imbedded”, according to Dr Berghahn.

Jews born in Germany possessed “a strong consciousness as to who they were,” namely Germans entitled also to belong to the Jewish nation and to remain true to their Jewish heritage and relationships with other Jewish communities. Dr Berghahn saw this as the Jews adding “cosmopolitanism” to German society.

The shock of being declared enemies of the state, expelled and murdered abruptly ended an apparently close and easy relationship with their non-Jewish neighbours.

Grateful for having reached the relative security and safety of Britain, complex questions of identity had to be faced and dealt with. If ‘home’ was where one went to school and whose mother tongue you spoke, these pillars were now lost. A German name and a German accent were only too revealing to the natives. “I feel English,” said one, “but a bloody foreigner at the same time.” Perhaps the most that could be hoped for was to be accepted as British and to make new friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Yet most refugees selected their friends from other Jews with whom they shared a common background and culture.

As far as the modern state of Germany was concerned, mistrust, dislike, hostility and even an understandable hatred were often allied to a wish never to set foot again on German soil or to speak German. Paradoxically, the quality and design of German products still brought with them a certain admiration, Dr Berghahn observed. Meeting Germans on holiday could reveal how embarrassing it was to be a victim. A return to Germany might well prove a shattering experience, but could re-awaken feelings of German identity.

It would appear that the German work ethic still had not dissipated, nor a respect for the high esteem in which reason and knowledge were held. A sense of duty, immaculate houses and gardens, high standards of cleanliness and Central European eating habits suggested that the German-Jewish heritage of Continental Britons had not been entirely lost to future generations.
Ronald Channing

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