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Jul 2011 Journal

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From tiny acorns … The 70th anniversary of the AJR

What would the AJR’s founders think if they could see it now? The fledgling organisation they set up in July 1941 to represent the struggling and embattled Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in Britain survived the war, retained its loyal membership through the lean years of post-war austerity and the fat years of prosperity that followed, and has now reached its seventieth anniversary in rude good health. While its sister organisations in other countries, in particular the American Federation of Jews from Central Europe and the Irgun Oley Merkas Europa in Israel, have discontinued most of their activities or ceased to exist entirely, the AJR continues to flourish and to perform valuable functions for its members.

The AJR was, one must remember, founded under extremely inauspicious circumstances. Only a year earlier, in May/June 1940, many thousands of Jewish refugees had been caught up in the British government’s ill-advised decision to detain all German nationals and to intern them in camps on the Isle of Man. The obsession with security that caused the British to detain, or even deport overseas, Jewish refugees as potential Nazi spies and fifth columnists – ‘Collar the lot!’ – reduced the refugee community to its lowest ebb. Those interned had been deprived of the most elementary human right of freedom and had been tainted by the unjust and wholly unfounded suspicion that they, of all people, might be covert Nazis.

The internees’ family members left at liberty had in many cases lost their breadwinner and were often reduced to surviving on handouts from the welfare organisations at Bloomsbury House. To these material hardships was added concern for the security of loved ones: those detained feared for their families, who were exposed to the bombing raids that had been unleashed on Britain’s cities, while their families in turn feared for the fate of husbands, fathers, sons and brothers arrested under emergency wartime regulations and taken away to an uncertain fate. It should not be forgotten that several hundred innocent detainees lost their lives when the Arandora Star, the Blue Star liner that was transporting them to Canada, was sunk by a German submarine off Ireland on 2 July 1941.

Even when, by mid-1941, almost all the refugee internees had been released, the community was in an unenviable position. The great majority of the refugees had arrived in Britain in 1938/39 and were still struggling to establish some form of settled life when the outbreak of war in September 1939 thrust them back into a situation of painful uncertainty. Those who had found employment, for example as domestic servants, frequently lost their jobs, while those who were self-employed or ran their own businesses often found it impossible to continue under wartime conditions. Most refugees were thoroughly impoverished, living on the income from whatever employment they could find or from welfare handouts; their accommodation consisted mostly of rented rooms, bedsits, cheap rented flats or rooms in boarding houses.

The outbreak of war also brought about a serious deterioration in the status of the refugees, who became, in the chillingly dehumanised official phrase, ‘enemy aliens’. A number of restrictions were imposed on them: they were subject to a curfew and to restrictions on their movements and they were forbidden to own items like radios, maps and cameras. In addition to facing the same dangers as the British civilian population during the Blitz, they were exposed to strong currents of hostility, firstly as Jews and secondly as Germans. Even after their release from internment, refugees were at first unable to join any branch of the armed forces except the humble Pioneer Corps, responsible for felling trees and digging ditches. Their situation in Britain as stateless ‘aliens’ was precarious and they were cut off from their loved ones left behind in Nazi-held territory.

From this account it will be clear that the AJR was founded to represent and protect a beleaguered and vulnerable group of Jews at a time of supreme national crisis. It is not surprising that hardly any records of its foundation have survived, as the founding members had any number of other urgent calls on their time and energy. The wonder is that the AJR was founded in a viable form at all. Before 1941, the organisations set up to assist the Jewish refugees had with one small exception all been established under the aegis of Anglo-Jewry or by friendly British interests; the most important were the Council for German Jewry and the Jewish Refugees Committee (German Jewish Aid Committee), one of the many organisations located in Bloomsbury House (the former Palace Hotel in Bloomsbury Street).

In February 1938, a group of German Jews had founded a small body called Self-Aid for Refugees (Deutsche Selbsthilfe), which raised funds for refugees in need, often academics, in the UK and in other European countries. Self-Aid, which is today remembered principally for its annual fundraising concerts, was absorbed into the AJR after the war. More significant at the time were the politically-orientated organisations set up to assist all refugees irrespective of race, the Free German League of Culture (FGLC) and the Austrian Centre; heavily influenced by Communist activists, these organisations were not suited to represent the largely unpolitical Jewish refugees, whose race, far from being a secondary matter, had been the reason for their forced emigration. The FGLC and the Austrian Centre, important organisations during the war, ceased to exist when their principal adherents returned to their native lands after 1945.

It was against this background that a group of refugees began in the internment camps to plan for an organisation specifically designed to represent the Jewish refugees from the German-speaking lands in Britain. By late June 1941, preparations for the launch of the Association of Jewish Refugees had progressed to the stage where a founding meeting could be held. On 27 June 1941, a circular signed by eight prominent refugees and Wilfrid Israel, an Anglo-German Jew, was sent to a few dozen potential members of ‘the newly formed Association of Jewish Refugees’, inviting them to attend its first meeting on 6 July 1941 at 26 Belsize Park. On 20 July 1941, a meeting attended by 20 invited people elected an Executive of nine people, consisting of three Liberal, three Orthodox and three Zionist Jews.

The composition of the Executive itself thus reflected the AJR’s basic aim of representing the whole of the Jewish refugee community, stated at the very outset: ‘The Association aims at representing all those Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria for whom Judaism is a determining factor in their outlook on life.’

The AJR’s circular to its members of summer 1941 listed the names of its Committee of Management, by then numbering eight: Adolf Schoyer (Chairman), Adolf Michaelis (Vice-Chairman), Kurt Alexander (Treasurer), Salomon Adler-Rudel, Rudolf Bienenfeld, Walter Breslauer, Ernst Lowenthal and Eugen Mittwoch. Of these, only Breslauer and Bienenfeld (the sole Austrian) were to settle permanently in Britain. Schoyer, who was later made Life President, returned to Germany after the war, as did Lowenthal, who went to work for a Jewish relief unit; Michaelis and Adler-Rudel emigrated to Israel; Alexander went to the USA; and Professor Mittwoch died during the war.

The essential administrative framework was provided by the AJR’s first paid official, Werner Rosenstock, who, apart from one break during the 1940s, was to act as its General Secretary for over 40 years, from 1941 until 1982, and, as Editor of its journal, AJR Information, from 1946 until 1982. Also listed in the circular of summer 1941 was Dr Adelheid Levy, who founded the Social Services Department that has provided invaluable assistance and support to AJR members over many decades. The AJR’s first premises, cramped and spartan, were at 279A Finchley Road, before it moved the short distance to its long-term home at 8 Fairfax Mansions, off Fairfax Road and just behind Finchley Road.

Already at this early stage, the AJR proved remarkably successful in providing the services its members required, from social welfare to advice on employment, legal matters and a whole array of issues arising from the members’ status as recently arrived immigrants. It also regularly issued detailed repudiations of anti-Semitic or xenophobic attacks on the Jewish refugees. At a time of war, it was concerned to demonstrate the loyalty of its members to their country of refuge and their eagerness to support Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany; until 1943, refugees were barred from most branches of the forces, while in civilian life too refugees were subject to restrictions over and above those which affected the civilian population in general.

The AJR campaigned for the lifting of these restrictions and for the integration of the Jewish refugees into the war effort. This far-sighted strategy recognised that the great majority of the refugees would never wish to return to their native lands, and thus prepared the way for their permanent settlement in Britain and their post-war naturalisation as British citizens.

Anthony Grenville

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