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Jul 2006 Journal

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Part Experience, Part History (review)

THE CHILDHOOD AND TEENS OF A JEWISH GIRL IN INTER-WAR AUSTRIA AND SUBSEQUENT ADVENTURES
by Edith Argy
Charleston SC: BookSurge, 2005, pp.197

SIX FROM LEIPZIG
by Gertrude Dubrovsky
London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004, 240pp.

THE TIGER IN THE ATTIC: MEMORIES OF THE KINDERTRANSPORT AND GROWING UP ENGLISH
by Edith Milton
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 242pp.

Sixty years after the war, the story of the Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria has reached the stage where it is part lived experience, part history. As a result, it has in recent years formed the subject of an increasing number of personal memoirs and autobiographies and also of works of academic history. The mixture of the immediacy of the former and the more distanced objectivity of the latter is a particular attraction for researchers in the field, especially when we can benefit from books like three recent publications that now grace my shelves.

Edith Argy, née Tintner, came to Britain in 1939 on a domestic service visa and, after a very difficult start, lived more or less happily to tell the tale. At the heart of her memoir is a riveting account of her schooldays in Vienna, and in particular of her extraordinarily intense relationship with one of her teachers, which, though never improper, is still deeply unsettling in the emotional extremes to which it subjected her. Written with an arresting honesty and intensity, this book reminded me of the many works dealing with the tragedies wrought by the secondary school system in the German-speaking countries among its pupils: Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen or Friedrich Torberg's Der Schüler Gerber - a universe away from the stolidly upbeat Tom Brown's Schooldays or Stalkey & Co. To place a refugee memoir in such company may seem extravagant, but few if any refugee memoirs depict schooldays comparably.

Gertrude Dubrovsky's Six from Leipzig, the admirable product of much painstaking historical research, tells the stories of six cousins from Leipzig who came to Britain on Kindertransports and found homes in the Cambridge area. Detailed local studies of the reception of Jewish refugees in towns and cities around Britain are still rare, and this book is correspondingly to be valued. The thoroughness with which the author has worked on the mass of historical material available to her and her gift for unearthing telling details to bring it to life place her book among the most important of its kind yet written.

Dubrovsky deals with her subject very largely from a Jewish perspective, since her principal source is the papers of Greta Burkill, the moving spirit behind the Cambridge Refugee Children's Committee. She does not shirk the contentious question of the attitude of the Orthodox authorities, represented by Chief Rabbi Hertz and Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who seemed more concerned with securing a Jewish upbringing for the children than with their emotional, educational and physical well-being. Sadly, there is no mention of the AJR, the refugees' principal organisation, which was founded in 1941 and had a large and active branch in Cambridge; its leading figures included Dr Georg Schatzky and Hans Reichmann, a future AJR chairman, who came to Cambridge after his release from internment on the Isle of Man.

Edith Milton, née Cohn, came from Karlsruhe on a Kindertransport in 1939 aged seven, and spent seven surprisingly happy years in Britain before joining her mother in America. A writer by profession, Edith Milton invests her life story with the style and literary quality of an accomplished work of fiction. We experience vividly her adjustment to Britain, where she and her sister were taken in by a loving if eccentric upper-crust couple, her development of an 'English' identity as she progressed through the school system, and her strong identification with Yorkshire life - vowels, puddings and all. Skilful juxtaposition of events from the German, British and American phases of her life allows the author to reflect to good effect on identity and on memory as it reconfigures our past.
Anthony Grenville

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