Leo Baeck 2


Jun 2009 Journal


Fred Uhlman: Lawyer, artist, writer

Fred Uhlman was a noted personality among the Jewish refugees from Hitler in Britain, and the publication of a book containing two accounts of his internment on the Isle of Man in 1940 (see review in last month’s issue of the Journal) is consequentially very welcome. There is, of course, no such thing as a an ‘ordinary’ refugee from Hitler, but Uhlman’s story stands out as unusual because of the success he achieved in his very different careers and because of his marriage to the daughter of a right-wing pillar of the British establishment.

Fred (Manfred) Uhlman was born in Stuttgart in 1901, the son of a well-to-do merchant. He studied law and practised as a lawyer. But, as an active member of the Social Democrat Party, he had to flee from Germany in March 1933. He first went to France, where he embarked on a fresh career as an artist, although he had no training in that field. Uhlman was to become a successful artist, developing a distinctive naïve style that remained unaffected by modern experimental trends but was capable of expressing emotion powerfully, sometimes in a romantic vein, sometimes (as in his internment works) in a darker, more pessimistic tone.

In Paris, Uhlman struggled to earn a living, though he attracted interest in artistic circles. In 1936 he left for what was then the small fishing village of Tossa de Mar in Spain, where he could continue to paint while living cheaply. There he met a young Englishwoman, Diana Croft, the daughter of Sir Henry Page Croft (from 1940 Lord Croft), a fiercely nationalistic right-wing politician who was to occupy a junior ministerial post in Churchill’s wartime government. Uhlman and Diana Croft fell in love and, when the Spanish Civil War caused him to leave Spain shortly afterwards, he came to England, where they married. Sir Henry, a passionate supporter of the British Empire who had conceived a hatred of all things German during the First World War, was less than pleased at acquiring a penniless German Jew as a son-in-law.

Uhlman was now in a very privileged position when compared to most of his fellow refugees. He and Diana set up house in one of Hampstead’s most picturesque streets, Downshire Hill, where they resided at number 47, a white Regency house previously owned by the artist Richard Carline. The area attracted artists and bohémiens: among the Uhlman’s neighbours were the artist Richard Penrose and his wife, the photographer Lee Miller. The Uhlmans’ home became a haven for refugee artists, particularly those of left-wing views, among them John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld), the pioneer of photomontage, who lived there for five years.

It was at this stage that Uhlman played an important role in the creation of the Free German League of Culture (Freie Deutsche Kulturbund, FDKB). The meeting at which the FDKB was founded in fact took place at his house in late 1938. When the FDKB was formally constituted in March 1939, Uhlman became its chairman and also sat on the eight-man executive committee that ran it on a day-to-day basis. However, he did not remain chairman for long, presumably because of the dominating influence exercised on the FDKB from behind the scenes by a group of Communists. This did not prevent the Uhlmans from being active supporters of left-wing and progressive initiatives designed to assist the refugees from Hitler; for example the Artists’ Refugee Committee, founded to rescue refugee artists in Czechoslovakia now threatened by Hitler’s advance into that country, held its initial meetings at 47 Downshire Hill.

The FDKB was the most important organisation of the exiles from Germany in Britain between 1939 and 1946, the year of its dissolution, at least until the AJR established itself towards the end of that period. Unlike the AJR, which catered specifically for the Jewish refugees, the FDKB was a strongly political organisation, with a markedly left-wing bias that manifested itself particularly in its pro-Soviet line; it extolled the friendship between the British and Soviet peoples and supported the Allied war effort – at least after June 1941, when Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa terminated the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The FDKB was a typical Communist front organisation, attempting to appeal to a broader constituency of liberals, left-wingers and progressives on the basis of an anti-Fascist consensus built around culture, freedom and democracy. Its achievements in the cultural field were indeed considerable. It had five separate sections, devoted to such subject areas as music, the visual arts and literature, and it organised an impressive programme of lectures, exhibitions, concerts, cabaret revues and even theatrical productions; it had its own small stage, the Kleine Bühne, in the premises it occupied at 36 Upper Park Road in Belsize Park.

The FDKB also played a valuable role in providing assistance to refugees in distress, especially during the internment period of 1940/41, and as a social centre where refugees could meet. It published its own newsletter, Freie Deutsche Kultur, and had a youth branch, Freie Deutsche Jugend, and a higher education organisation, the Freie Deutsche Hochschule. But the leading spirits of the FDKB were mostly political refugees; one the war ended, they returned to Germany, mostly to the Soviet Zone of Occupation, and the organisation was wound up.

Uhlman himself achieved considerable success as an artist. His first exhibition took place in 1935, at the Galerie Le Niveau in Paris, and he had another at the Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1938. His work was seen regularly in one-man shows and mixed exhibitions and he had a full-scale retrospective at Leighton House Museum in London in 1968. But interest in his work waned and he dropped out of public view. Though he felt this acutely, Uhlman found some compensation in his success in yet another field, that of literature.

In 1960 Uhlman published his autobiography, The Making of an Englishman, whose engagingly ironical title points to his struggle, as a Jewish intellectual from Germany, to adapt himself to the elusive nuances of a British identity and lifestyle. The book contains a vivid account of his internment experiences, though the full depths of the depression and frustration he suffered, fuelled by a sense of outrage at the sheer injustice of his treatment, are toned down by comparison with the internment diary he wrote at the time. Professor Richard Dove’s expert study Journey of No Return: Five German-Speaking Literary Exiles in Britain, 1933-1945 shows how anger and distress similarly come across far more strongly in Robert Neumann’s internment diary than they do in his later book of memoirs, Ein leichtes Leben (1963).

Uhlman is now principally remembered for the novella Reunion, published in 1977. He wrote this in English, in a beautifully simple and clear style that is perfectly crafted to convey the deeply felt but never fully expressed emotions suffusing the book. (At around 100 pages, and with its concentration on the short-lived encounter between two teenage schoolboys, it cannot properly be called a novel.) The novella revolves around loss: the loss of a friendship, the loss of one’s native country, the loss of one’s family, and the loss of the innocence associated with a secure and happy childhood.

Hans Schwarz, the 16-year-old son of a prominent Jewish doctor in Stuttgart, forms a deep schoolboy friendship with Konradin von Hohenlohe, a fellow pupil at the town’s most prestigious Gymnasium and a scion of the high Swabian aristocracy. But the year is 1932 and the advent of National Socialism leads inevitably to the destruction of the friendship and to Hans’s departure for America. Rather than leave Germany, his parents later commit suicide. The shadow of future horrors hangs over the Schwarz family, as it hangs over the pleasant, civilised city of Stuttgart and the serenely beautiful Swabian countryside, a joyous world that is about to be desecrated by Nazi barbarism. Not unlike Hans’s favourite poem, Hölderlin’s Häfte des Lebens, the novella falls into two parts, the first describing a scene of beauty, harmony and fertile abundance, the second one of jarring alienation, bereft of warmth and companionship and echoing only to its own empty and senseless din.

The novella is narrated some 30 years later by Hans, outwardly a successful New York lawyer with a family of his own, but inwardly a deeply disillusioned and traumatised man who has never recovered from his brutal amputation from his Swabian roots at the hands of the Nazis. In the early 1960s he receives a brochure from his old school asking him to contribute to the erecting of a memorial to those former pupils who had been killed in the war. Scanning the list of the names of the dead, he discovers that his friend von Hohenlohe had been implicated in the bomb plot against Hitler and executed. With this hammer blow, the novella ends. It is, as Arthur Koestler says in his foreword, a minor masterpiece, conveying unforgettably the pain and loss suffered by German Jews who were forced to sever their ties with all that they held dear in Germany.

Anthony Grenville