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Mar 2012 Journal

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Stamp collecting for grown-ups

Postage stamps, it seems, have had a magical appeal to generations of schoolboys. While my father as a boy in Vienna had specialised in collecting the stamps of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, I concentrated on the stamps of what was then still called the British Empire, as befitted a boy in London in the 1950s. Disdaining the inflated flow of new issues flooding onto the market, I took no interest in any stamps issued after the death of King George VI in 1952. What magic was evoked by the simple, almost austere images on the stamps of bygone decades! The earliest, issued after the introduction of the modern postage stamp by the British Royal Mail in 1840, mostly featured only the portrait of the monarch of the issuing state, on the model of the profile of Queen Victoria that adorned the original Penny Black (and the much prized Two Penny Blue), or the coat of arms of that state.

Something of the same attraction emanates from Fleeing from the Führer: A Postal History of Refugees from the Nazis, written by Charmian Brinson and William Kaczynski and published by the History Press, Stroud, in 2011 (ISBN 978 0 7524 6195 3). The book is built around Kaczynski’s remarkable collection of stamps, postcards, envelopes, visas, certificates and other such apparently ephemeral documents relating to the experience of the vast numbers of refugees and deportees whose lives were dislocated as they were forced to flee the Nazis or were otherwise uprooted.

The book captivates the reader at the first sight of its images of stamps from a multitude of countries, of envelopes that once contained communications from refugees to relatives in far-away lands and of the postmarks and censorship marks of various national authorities, including the ominous eagle and swastika of the Nazis. In conjunction with the linking narrative supplied by Charmian Brinson, the images selected combine to give a very particular historical insight into the experience of the refugees from the Nazis.

Postage stamps have always had the capacity to educate the attentive collector. For the young, this can be a simple matter of information. I remember my puzzlement at seeing an Irish stamp celebrating the anniversary of the year 1916, which for a young British boy was subsumed into the war years of 1914-18, a national narrative in which the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin played little part. I remember my bafflement at seeing the unknown word ‘bilingual’ applied in the catalogues of the stamp dealers Stanley Gibbons to issues of South African stamps – until I realised that the wording on the stamps was in two languages, English and Afrikaans, and gained an inkling of the deep historical divide between Briton and Boer in that country. And I remember wondering why a Czech stamp of 1947 bearing the image of a veiled woman in mourning should carry the name ‘Lidice’, until I found out about the atrocity perpetrated by the Germans in that village in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

Germany’s stamps, too, constitute a visual record of its history. At first, the various independent German states that made up the German Confederation until 1867 issued their own stamps; only after Prussia’s victory over Austria in the war of 1866 were the stamps of the states of North Germany replaced by those of the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. That signalled the disappearance of the Kingdom of Saxony with its rare classical issue of stamps of 1850, and of the Kingdom of Hanover with its issue featuring the image of the blind king George V, among others. In 1871, following Prussia’s victorious war against France, the remaining South German states were also incorporated into the new German Empire, which issued its own stamps, including the series bearing the image of Germania.

Of the three South German states, only Bavaria was granted the right to continue to control its own postage after 1871. This reflected the skilful tactics of the German Chancellor, Bismarck, in making apparent concessions to Bavarian autonomous sentiment, while ensuring that in matters of real power control rested in Berlin, not in Munich. (Bavaria had control of its own armed forces, for example, but only in peacetime, which is rather like giving a young man access to a contraceptive vending machine, but only while he remains celibate.)

The collapse of 1918 was reflected in Bavaria on the face of its postage stamps. The revolution of November 1918 in Munich brought to power a radical left-wing regime under Kurt Eisner, which promptly overprinted the image of King Ludwig III with the words ‘Volksstaat Bayern’, overtly designating Bavaria a socialist ‘people’s state’. But when the left-wing government was bloodily overthrown in May 1919 by the right-wing paramilitary forces that ‘cleansed’ Munich of ‘Reds’, the overprinting on Bavarian stamps changed to ‘Freistaat Bayern’, the conservative slogan of the new government of the right that was to preside over the launch of Adolf Hitler’s political career.

The history of Austria is also told through its postage stamps. The stamps of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy initially bore the imperial coat of arms, the double-headed eagle of the Habsburgs, or the image of the Emperor Francis Joseph. As befitted a proud empire, in 1908 Austria-Hungary celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Francis Joseph’s accession to the throne with a series of stamps designed by the noted artist Koloman Moser and featuring images of the imperial palaces, the Hofburg and Schönbrunn. Austrian pretensions to power and influence in the eastern Mediterranean were underlined by the stamps issued for the Austrian post offices maintained in the Ottoman Empire (including one in Jerusalem) and exotically denominated in piasters, the local currency.

But with the collapse of 1918, as Austria was reduced to its German-speaking rump, the new republic issued stamps on which the image of Emperor Charles, last of the ruling Habsburgs, was overprinted with the word ‘Deutschösterreich’. Under the post-war peace settlement, the union of ‘German’ Austria with neighbouring Germany was forbidden by the victorious Allies. Austria became a republic, whose fragility was at first belied by the optimism of the images on its stamps: the parliament building, symbol of the new democracy, or a kneeling man, symbolising the arising of the new republic, all crafted in the Art Nouveau style of the Vienna Secession, the avant-garde movement that stood in opposition to official Habsburg aesthetic pomposity.

Fleeing from the Führer, too, provides a visual accompaniment to the history of the refugees from Nazism. The book is arranged chronologically, charting the relentless intensification of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and the growing list of countries affected either by German occupation or by an influx of refugees. The first chapter depicts the impact of National Socialism on the Jews of Germany in the 1930s, illustrated by such items as a 1938 postcard from an inmate in Block 33 in Buchenwald, or the children’s identity card (‘Kinderausweis’) issued to the three-year-old William Kaczynski and bearing the name ‘Israel’, imposed by the Nazi authorities on all male Jews.

Subsequent chapters cover the emigration of increasingly desperate Jews to countries across the globe and, following the outbreak of war, the internment of Jews in camps in the occupied countries of Western Europe. Particularly well recorded are the British internment camps: Huyton Camp near Liverpool, Warth Mill in Bury, and the various camps on the Isle of Man, where refugees were detained from summer 1940. William Kaczynski was himself interned with his mother and younger brother in the family camp in Rushen, Isle of Man, and it was a letter from his cousin Wolfgang Happ, who had been deported to Canada, that first interested him in refugee postal history.

For, as Charmian Brinson states, postal communication became a lifeline at a time when families were brutally torn apart and when letters, posted in the fragile hope of reaching their intended recipients, were the only remaining link between them. The amazing odysseys of some of the letters in the book took them literally round the world, following their recipients as they were repeatedly displaced by the tides of war. Apart from the internment camps in Canada and Australia, Fleeing from the Führer recovers the memory of half-forgotten camps like Beau Bassin in Mauritius (for ‘illegal’ Jewish entrants to Palestine) and Somes Camp in New Zealand.

The book includes chapters on refugee life in China (Shanghai) and Japan (Kobe), on organisations that helped the refugees, especially the Red Cross with its system of postal messages, and on individuals who helped the defenceless Jews. One can admire the illustrations of transit visas issued by Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, or the famous ‘Schutzpässe’ (protective passes) issued to Jews in Budapest by the Swede Raoul Wallenberg. Especially fascinating is the chapter on undercover mail in wartime, which allowed communications from the ghettos in Poland to reach London via undercover addresses in neutral Lisbon. A chapter on the displaced persons of the post-war years rounds off a rewarding read.

Anthony Grenville

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