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Jan 2011 Journal

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The sixty-fifth anniversary of our journal

What would the founding editors of AJR Information, the predecessor of this journal, have said if they had been told in January 1946 that it would still be going strong in 2011, 65 years after it first saw the light of day? The first issue stated that the journal’s primary aim was ‘to keep its readers informed about the position of Jewries on the Continent and about the work for their relief and rehabilitation’, while also dealing extensively with ‘the problems of refugees in this country and the legal, economic and social questions and all the factors which add up to their status’, and reporting on the activities of the AJR. The editors were Werner Rosenstock, who continued in that capacity until 1982, Herbert Freeden (Friedenthal), who left for Israel in 1950, and Ernst Lowenthal, who left for Germany in 1946 to take up a senior appointment in the field of Jewish relief.

The yellowing pages of the early issues of AJR Information transport one back to a world that is barely recognisable today. The cheap paper and smudged print of those distant volumes act as a reminder that the journal was launched amidst the austerity of the post-war years, when male refugees, often highly qualified, were reduced to seeking employment as packers, bookkeepers or storekeepers, and female refugees offered their services as typists, cutters or machinists, ready, as one of the journal’s many advertisements put it, to do ‘linen repairs of any kind (except shirt collars)’. Ladies residing in Priory Road, in London’s West Hampstead, have not been taking in other people’s clothes for mending for a good 50 years. And the days when elderly refugees advertised desperately for accommodation in single rooms in boarding-houses are mercifully long past.

But conditions in Britain were vastly better than those obtaining in much of Europe, where people were often without adequate food, clothing or heating. The cataclysm of the war had left large groups of people adrift in foreign countries as ‘Displaced Persons’, homeless, stateless and lacking almost all amenities. The very first page of AJR Information carried a prominent notice appealing for 12,000 garments a month for the Jews of Europe, who were suffering great privation in the first post-war winter, in the towns and villages where they lived as survivors or in DP camps. Few people now remember that the AJR had its own clothing depot at 1, Broadhurst Gardens, behind Finchley Road Tube Station, where thousands of garments were collected to be sent on to Jews in need on the Continent.

In those days of slow communications still recovering from wartime disruption – the second issue of the journal announced that it had again become possible to send letters not more than 1 ounce in weight to Austria – the organisations of the Jewish refugees in London, the AJR and the Council of Jews from Germany prominent among them, formed the crucial bridgehead between the Jewish donor organisations overseas and the desperate recipients in Europe. The plight of the Jewish refugees extended beyond Europe to Shanghai, as an article in the journal entitled ‘How 15,000 refugees survived Japanese ghetto’ showed; Shanghai had been a refuge of last resort for Jews from Germany and Austria before its occupation by Japan in 1941, and the destitute survivors of Japanese brutality were yet another concern for their fellow Jews in Britain and the USA.

But the principal focus of the journal’s concern was Germany, where the ‘emaciated and half-starved’ remnants of German Jewry were eking out an existence amidst the physical ruins of their cities and the moral ruin of Germany after Hitler. These articles were to develop into the extensive coverage of German and Austrian matters that was such a feature of AJR Information from the 1950s. If anything, the Jews in the large DP camps like Deggendorf and Foehrenwald in Bavaria fared better than those in the cities. Reports from the camps by leading Jewish figures like Norman Bentwich and Miriam Warburg portray a better situation than that in Berlin, where, according to a visiting AJR official, some Jews were still wearing their concentration camp outfits and the chairman of the Jewish community possessed one suit and no underwear. Conditions in Vienna were as bad – ‘The Viennese live mostly on bread, potatoes and peas. Sugar, fats and meat are not available, even for those who hold ration-cards for these foodstuffs’ – and they were exacerbated by persistent anti-Semitism.

The shadow of the Holocaust fell heavily over the first issues of the journal. It still comes as a shock to read ‘Baby outfits for Belsen camp urgently required’ on the front page of the March 1946 issue, though Belsen was by then the largest camp for displaced Jews in the British zone of occupation in Germany. It was some years before the classified ads of AJR Information ceased to be dominated by the ‘Missing Persons’ columns, where lists of forlorn enquiries appeared from relatives and friends of Jews who had been deported, uprooted or had otherwise disappeared during the Nazi years.

Reports of the fate of entire Jewish communities also came in from Germany. They make sombre reading, like that from Gelsenkirchen: ‘Two transports left for Riga, the first one in January, 1942, a few survivors of which eventually reached Sweden in April, 1945. The second transport, departed on 30th March, never arrived. Nothing was ever heard of what happened to these deportees.’ Or from Worms, the oldest Jewish settlement in Germany: ‘All remaining Jews were sent to Piaski, near Lublin, in 1942. Until November, 1942, one of the deportees managed to write to her father who for some reason had been left behind. After that, there was complete silence …’

It was against this background that AJR members sought to build new lives for themselves and their families in post-war Britain, and the AJR set out to help them. Its journal provided plentiful information about such matters as naturalisation, a key concern for stateless refugees seeking to acquire British nationality, or the employment prospects for demobilised refugee members of the armed forces, who numbered several thousand, or the first steps in the complex process of restitution, which were detailed in an article of January 1946 by Walter Breslauer, a lawyer and leading figure in the AJR. The AJR was instrumental in establishing the United Restitution Organisation (which for a time shared the AJR’s offices at 8 Fairfax Mansions, London NW3), the most important institution engaged in the struggle to secure Wiedergutmachung for the Jews of Germany and Austria.

The AJR acted to assist the integration of its members into British society. The AJR Information had a regular column called ‘Law and Life’, which gave advice on problems like starting a limited company or eligibility for the new Family Allowance. It also had a column called ‘In Parliament’, and another that reported on events in Anglo-Jewry, later entitled ‘Anglo-Judaica’. Part of the journal’s remit was to publicise the AJR’s own services to its members: its Social Services Department, founded in 1941 with Dr Adelheid Levy as its lone social worker, its Employment Agency, which found jobs for members until it was itself overtaken by redundancy in the 1960s, and the many meetings, lectures and other events that ‘Head Office’ organised in London or that the network of local groups arranged across the country.

As early as February 1946, the journal reported that the AJR’s Executive was planning to establish a ‘Home for Aged People’, ‘a task which the AJR must try to accomplish with all their strength’; not many years later, with the help of restitution money channelled through the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief and Rehabilitation, the first of the Old Age Homes, Otto Schiff House, was opened in Netherhall Gardens. These were places where the unique social culture of the German-speaking Jews from Central Europe could be preserved. The pages of AJR Information are full of reminders of that rich cultural heritage and its rebirth in the changed conditions of post-war Britain. The high cultural level of the journal reflects the admiration for the arts and sciences, culture and education that the Jewish refugees brought with them from their native lands.

The first issue of the journal found space in its eight pages for a long article on the theatre director Fritz Wisten, entitled ‘Max Reinhardt’s successor’, which combined a review of Wisten’s recent production of G. E. Lessing’s celebrated philo-Semitic drama Nathan the Wise with memories of his production of the same play for the Jüdischer Kulturbund, the Jewish cultural organisation under the Nazis, in the very different conditions of summer 1933. Books of interest to the readership listed in the same issue included the actor Alexander Granach’s autobiography, a volume of poems by the (non-Jewish) refugee poet Max Hermann-Neisse and the refugee author Egon Jameson’s study 10, Downing Street. Soon AJR Information was to have its own cultural commentator, the inimitable PEM, whose column ‘Old Acquaintances’ first appeared in January 1948, and its resident reviewer, the wonderfully erudite Lutz Weltmann.

Anthony Grenville

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