lady painting


Mar 2008 Journal

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Austria’s loss, Britain’s gain (review)

edited by Charmian Brinson, Richard Dove, Jennifer Taylor
Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi BV, 2007, 228 pp. paperback
(Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Vol. 8, 2006)

The ironic title of this book refers to a revue produced by Austrian refugees in wartime London, representing their memories of a country of historical grandeur, mountain scenery and musical refinement - whereas the reality at the time was very different. The book itself is a compendium of academic papers presented at a conference on ‘Austria in Exile’ held by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies in London in 2005.

The introductory paper, by Anthony Grenville, provides a very useful survey of Austrian immigration into Britain and points out the differences between the German and Austrian experiences. While the former saw a gradual deterioration in Jewish life from 1933 onwards, and were able to plan their emigration with some choice of destination, the latter had just over a year to attempt to leave Austria after many countries had already closed their borders to refugees. Dr Grenville also notes that the refugees in London were not a typical cross-section of Viennese Jewry, as the more orthodox and generally poorer Viennese Jews, mainly living in the Second District, found it more difficult to escape and were therefore underrepresented compared to the more assimilated and middle-class Jews.

A major result of the pre-war persecution of the Jews in Germany and Austria was a great loss of talent in many fields in the Nazi-dominated countries, and a corresponding gain in the countries hosting the new refugees. ‘Immortal Austria’? brings this out very clearly, with particular reference to the Austrian refugees in Great Britain. Many of the papers discuss the contributions made by prominent individuals in fields such as literature, music, art, medicine and psychology. Separate papers deal, for example, with the lives of Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig, Elias Canetti and Richard Tauber as well as topics such as the film industry, women writers and the problems of the medical profession. The work of refugees in anti-Nazi propaganda broadcasts is also discussed.

Although it is estimated that 85-90 per cent of the 33,000 Austrian refugees were Jewish, there was also an important anti-Nazi and generally left-wing element among them. A paper by Charmian Brinson covering the work of the journalist Eva Priester describes the importance of the Austrian Centre and Free Austrian Movement, whose policies were more concerned with the future of a post-war Austria than with the problems of resettlement and integration in Britain which concerned most Jews.

A final section of the book deals with the post-war problems of either integrating into British life or attempting to return to Austria and continuing life there. For most Jews there was little incentive to return to a country where their families had been destroyed and which immediately after the war had shown little inclination to acknowledge its guilt. For the political refugees, and for some of the academics, the new Austria was not what they had hoped for and their return did not receive the warm welcome they may have expected.

Although this is a seriously academic book (partly in German!), it is very readable and demonstrates the important influence of the Austrian Jews on British culture, as well as the effect of the British way of life on the immigrants.

George Vulkan

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