Mar 2004 Journal

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Jewish refugees in Manchester

progress of the first regional research project

The Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester, generously supported by the AJR, is undertaking the first refugee research programme in Britain to focus on the arrival, reception and settlement of Jewish refugees in a specific region of the country. This includes Manchester, the principal destination of refugees arriving in the north of England, smaller towns in Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire, and even isolated villages.

As many as 6,000 refugees from Central Europe may have spent some time in the Manchester region, even if en route to other destinations in Britain, the USA or the Commonwealth, but at least 4,000 stayed from four years to a lifetime. The research takes in academics who found temporary places at the University of Manchester, industrialists who set up factories in the region, artists and writers, doctors and dentists, and includes those who came as domestic servants, skilled artisans or trainees in everything from hotel management to motor engineering.

A German refugee rabbi like Dr David Feldman, who arrived in the city in 1936, made a usbstantial contribution to what has since become the major Orthodox kehillah in and around Broughton Park. At another extreme lie the Jewish 'politicals' - former members of the communist parties of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia - whose experiences are even more elusive, since many returned to their homelands after 1945, leaving little evidence behind them.

The research takes in both the ways in which refugees were received and supported by British society and by Anglo-Jewry, and the kinds of institutions they set up for themselves. In Manchester, the chief support for refugees outside the Jewish community came from the Quakers, whose records have been made available to the project and to whom many Jewish refugees owe their survival. Within the Jewish community, the Manchester Jewish Refugee Committee was only one of several organisations which, between them, set up at least ten refugee hostels in Manchester alone.

Among the institutions founded on the initiative of the refugees themselves were the Free Austria and Free Germany societies and the Manchester International Society, which was given a new lease of life with their arrival. Such organisations provided some refugees with the space to develop identities, relationships and styles of integration beyond the kinds of conformity expected of them.

The local press is being used also to explore the responses of 'the British people' to the refugees who arrived in their midst and to such organisations as TocH, the Rotary Club and the Masons. What, if any, was the interplay between official policies, the national press and 'popular' attitudes?

Of particular interest are the refugees brought over to Britain by such chalutzic movements as Youth Aliya and Bachad. Two kibbutzim have been identified: one established by Bachad between Manchester and Rochdale, the other in Stalybridge in Lancashire, where Hashomer Hatzair established in 1944 what must surely be the only mining kibbutz (known as Kibbutz Hakorim) in Jewish history. In Stalybridge, Jewish 'Bevin Boys' worked in a local pit to prepare themselves for their futures in Eretz Israel.

The research relies heavily on oral testimony, often the only form of evidence now available, and on such autobiographies, personal documents and photographs as have survived in private hands. Copies of all recordings are being sent to the National Sound Archive in London and, whenever possible, documents are being placed in the safe hands of public archives. There have been some spectacular finds, the most recent being a series of nearly 200 letters sent to his father and sister by a young Austrian who travelled in Britain and the world as a soldier in one of the 'refugee battalions' of the Pioneer Corps.

All of this will hopefully make possible a complete study on two levels. On the one hand, there will be an account 'from above' of the themes which linked the experiences of refugees and of the institutions created for them or by them. On the other, personal testimonies and documents will open the way to a 'history from below' - a history, that is, of the way in which the events of the 1930s were experienced by the refugees themselves.

Bill Williams, the project director, is writing a book on the basis of the research with Dr Daniel Langton. Those who wish to add their own experiences, or who possess documents to which they wish to give access to the researchers, are invited to contact them at the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Manchester on 0161 275 3614 or
Bill Williams

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