JBD

 

Jun 2001 Journal

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Anglo-Jewry and the Refugees from the Continent

The German and Austrian refugees who arrived in Britain between 1933 and 1940 came overwhelmingly from the urban centres of German-speaking Jewry. Their social culture - metropolitan and refined - was very different from that of Anglo-Jewry, the largest section of whom were descended from the Eastern European Jews who had emigrated from the shtetls of Russia at the turn of the century. The Continental Jews were predominantly assimilated and secularised, having determinedly put behind them the customs, way of life and appearance of the ghettos; they were largely drawn from the highly-educated and cultured middle classes, upwardly mobile both professionally and socially
Assimilation on the Continent

The middle-class Jews of the German-speaking cities had embraced assimilation with enthusiasm. Inevitably, this meant that they moved away from traditional forms of religious observance and from the associated values and customs. Once religion had ceased to be at the heart of their daily life, these Jews espoused the secular values of German-speaking culture, the veneration for ‘Bildung’, for the liberal, humanistic values of Kant and Lessing, Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven. Of course, this did not apply to all German-speaking Jews, but to enough of them to set them sharply apart from the Ostjuden, the largely rural Jews of Eastern Europe (or those of them who did not come from the larger towns and cities), who remained true to the familiar values of the shtetl, based on religious observance, a traditional way of life, and a culture far removed from the modern high culture of the Western cities. When they came to the cities, they were seen by the assimilated Jews as strange, exotic throwbacks to a world that they, the Western Jews, had long put behind them and of which they were not keen to be reminded. In return, the Ostjuden regarded the assimilated Jews as having abandoned the ancestral faith and as no longer Jewish in the full sense of the word. The assimilated Jews reacted with outright distaste and dismay to the arrival of the Ostjuden, who, they feared, would provoke antisemitism among the gentile population and would hamper the process of assimilation. The potential for mistrust and even hostility between the two groups was increased even more by the patronising way in which the wealthier urbanised Jews dispensed charity to their indigent Eastern cousins. When it came to emigrating to Britain, the middle-class Jews from the cities had all the advantages, whereas the poor, Orthodox, unassimilated Jews who inhabited areas like Vienna’s Leopoldstadt or Berlin’s Scheunenviertel were not so fortunate. Had these unassimilated Jews escaped in significant numbers to Britain, they would very likely have developed closer relations with their cousins from Eastern Europe, already settled in areas like the East End, than did the assimilated Jews from prosperous, German-speaking backgrounds. A pointer here is language: Yiddish was commonly spoken in districts like the Leopoldstadt, as it was in the East End or Stoke Newington, whereas those middle-class Jews who had acculturated to German-language educated society mostly shunned Yiddish.

Commonality with British Jews

The largest section of Anglo-Jewry in the 1930s consisted precisely of those who had come over from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914 to escape the Tsarist pogroms, and of their descendants. They had not undergone the process of acculturation in the German-speaking cities. They had arrived from the East, poor, observant and still largely unaccustomed to the world of the modern West, and had settled in working-class areas like the East End. Though by 1933 they had assimilated to a degree into British society, the process differed considerably from that of their German-speaking cousins, not least in the preservation of a sense of communal identity founded on religious observance and the Jewish practices and customs associated with it. Their advance into the professional classes also took place in a different way, with evident commercial success, but with less prominence in the realm of high culture and education. By and large the British Jews had retained more from their Eastern European origins than had the Jews who fled to Britain in the 1930s from Central Europe; this provided the conditions for the antipathy between the ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Jews to be recreated in Britain. One clear sign of the different self-image and social aspirations of the two groups was provided at a very early stage by the initial areas of settlement, which formed the subject of a perceptive article in AJR Information as early as July 1948: “In Germany, the Jew was assimilated and belonged to the middle class. In the London East End the Jew belonged to a Jiddish speaking proletarian stratum, though at a later stage either he or his children managed to improve their position. Many misunderstandings between the refugees from Germany and other sections of the Anglo-Jewish community may be explained by this different background. The dispossessed refugee did not start at the lowest rung of the ladder in Whitechapel but, penniless as he was, took his furnished room in Hampstead or other North-Western parts of town.”

This was the background against which a clash of cultures between the two groups was to be played out.  (To be continued)

This is an edited extract of a lecture given at The Wiener Library.
Dr Anthony Grenville

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