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Jan 2008 Journal

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Where are those ‘museum pieces’ exactly?

Anthony Grenville’s article ‘Museum Pieces?’ (November 2007) claims the authors of a book about my grandfather, Fromms – wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F. unter die deutschen Räuber fiel (How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell among German Thieves) have fallen into the trap of depicting German-Jewish refugees as ‘museum pieces’.
In making this accusation, Dr Grenville lists spurious arguments. For example, he castigates the authors, Professor Götz Aly, a noted German historian specialising in the Nazi period, and Michael Sontheimer, a well-known Spiegel-Magazin journalist, of concentrating on the internment of my father, Edgar Fromm, and his cousin, Ruth Fromm, without ‘the balancing context of 60 years of post-war settlement’. What this ‘post-war settlement’ actually means is unclear, but in case Dr Grenville has missed the point of the book – and it regrettably seems that he has – it is about how my grandfather built a vast business empire in Germany from nothing and then had it confiscated, first by the Nazis, then by the GDR Communists.
The book describes the mechanics of Aryanisation in painstakingly researched detail and thereby affords an interesting, informative insight into one aspect of the workings of the Nazi machine. Its narrative also focuses on what happened to the Fromm family. Having researched what transpired when most of the family arrived here, it is perfectly understandable for the authors to home in on the British government’s sometimes reprehensible treatment of Jewish refugees fleeing here from Nazi-occupied countries. Dr Grenville may well shrug off what occurred then and patronisingly state, for instance, that Ruth Fromm ‘was, unfortunately, just one of a number of Jewish refugee women’ to be interned. For Ruth Fromm though, in Holloway Prison for two months, the situation was sufficiently traumatic for her to go on a hunger strike. My father too, at that time only 20 years old, was, for the rest of his life, somewhat affected by having been shipped to Australia and mistreated by a largely antisemitic Royal Navy crew and captain during his passage there on the infamous Dunera. Granted others may in retrospect have been less distressed by their internment experiences, but for my father these events elicited modest, yet lingering resentment towards the country that saved him but nevertheless initially put him behind barbed wire for 18 months.
Astonishingly, Dr Grenville seeks to accuse the authors of a ‘blatant attempt to elide British and Nazi practice’ because Ruth Fromm’s internment was a result of being lumped ‘as a kind of Sippenhaft’ - note the authors state ‘kind of’, by which they do not mean full-blown Nazi Sippenhaft - into her father Salomon’s Category B internment status. (For those not familiar with the Nazi word Sippenhaft, there is no direct translation in English but a definition may suffice here, i.e. a form of collective responsibility whereby family members are liable for the misdeeds of their relatives.) Unlike Dr Grenville, who has not bothered to ascertain the true facts of the matter, the authors were able to establish in interviews with Ruth Fromm that it was because of her immediate kinship with her father Salomon, who by Ruth’s own admission had conducted himself somewhat arrogantly at the internment tribunal hearing, that her own internment fate was sealed. Salomon had previously been a British citizen but had given up his British nationality on his return from England to pre-war Germany. This counted against Ruth Fromm. In pursuing his argument and possibly in an attempt to exonerate the British authorities, Dr Grenville then points out that Salomon was never interned, conveniently omitting to mention why, although the reason (medical) is mentioned later in the book. Furthermore, the authors fully concede that British internment policy should not be equated with Nazi policy towards Jews when they explain that internment policy was eventually changed through democratic protest: ‘One of the impressive characteristics of British democracy is that, even in wartime, criticism is permitted.’ Where there should therefore be any ‘attempt to elide British and Nazi practice’ is not clear.
Whatever Dr Grenville may say about how wonderful the British reception for Continental Jews was – in part, it was, of course, if one thinks of the Kindertransport – at the time there was also an undercurrent of antisemitism, particularly among the British establishment, even though this should not be compared with the virulent variety of Nazi Germany. In her excellent Whitehall and the Jews, Louise London highlights the ambiguity of British policy towards Jewish refugees; in particular, she mentions that ‘in Britain, prejudice against Jews was considered unacceptable, if it formed an explicit part of a social or political programme’, but that ‘moderate indulgence in social anti-Jewish prejudice was so widespread as to be unremarkable.’ It consequently does not strike me as wrong for Aly and Sontheimer to show the effects of this ‘anti-Jewish prejudice’, or is Dr Grenville affronted that it should be precisely German authors who point out this fact? If so, is Dr Grenville not suffering from the same lack of Vergangenheitsbewältigung he accuses the authors of displaying? It’s alright for British historians to point out such matters but not for German ones!
Dr Grenville’s arguments become ever more spurious when he highlights the fact that Sontheimer interviewed my father ‘over a good whisky’, something he would never have mentioned had the tipple been a German schnapps. Yet in writing this, Sontheimer merely conveys the conviviality of the occasion without attaching any importance - as Dr Grenville regrettably does - to the beverage’s provenance. How anyone can deduce that drinking British, in preference to German, spirits somehow casts someone as a stereotypical museum piece defies belief. Such arguments are not serious.
The sad thing about Dr Grenville’s article is that it allows him to exercise his hobby-horse about how German historians portray Continental Jewish refugees as museum pieces, although this hobby-horse ultimately displays rather lame legs. It is even sadder that neither he nor the AJR Journal considered the publication of a proper book review, particularly as my family’s story mirrors that of German history in the first half of the twentieth century and German Jews’ ultimately tragic place in it.
By contrast, the book has been extraordinarily well received in Germany with considerable attention from the mass media and the German quality press, both of which – unlike the AJR Journal – have seen fit to give it proper reviews. In Britain too, this interesting, instructive story was considered important enough to feature in the recent BBC1 documentary Baddiel’s Search for the Missing Nazi Billions. With the book currently being translated into English for publication in New York in early 2009, interest in the story has now also crossed the Atlantic. In Julius Fromm’s own backyard though, i.e. in the very journal serving those people from whom he came, it is being practically ignored other than to feature in an article meant to justify a rather tenuous, highly subjective theory about German historians. In the light of this, I venture to suggest that Dr Grenville and the AJR Journal have done their readership a disservice.
Ray Fromm

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