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May 2007 Journal

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How the Jewish refugees thanked Britain

One of the most striking initiatives ever mounted by the AJR was the ‘Thank-You Britain’ Fund, which evolved out of a proposal in 1963 that the Jewish refugees from Central Europe should make a public gesture of thanks to their adopted homeland. The idea was the brainchild of Victor Ross, a former refugee who had worked in publishing and journalism and had written a humorous account of the refugee experience, Basic British; as readers know, he still wields an elegant pen today. The AJR, and in particular its chairman, Hans Reichmann (who died in 1964), had been thinking along similar lines. After the AJR took on the administration of the fund-raising, Ross became co-chairman of the Fund’s organising committee, alongside Werner M. Behr, Vice-chairman of the AJR.

AJR members were first informed about the planned expression of thanks to Britain in a report on the Association’s general meeting that appeared in AJR Information in March 1963. In the autumn, the journal made a fuller announcement, linking the proposal explicitly to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the arrival in Britain of the bulk of the refugees from the German-speaking lands in 1938-39, following the Anschluss and the ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom:

In November, 25 years will have elapsed since the mass exodus of the Jews from Central Europe started. During the few months between the pogroms and the outbreak of war, this small island … rescued more Jewish persecutees than any other single country. The Executive is considering ways of visibly expressing the gratitude of the former refugees to the British people, and it is hoped that details of an appropriate scheme will be announced shortly.

The decision to establish the ‘Thank-You Britain’ Fund was communicated to AJR members in late 1964. They were invited to contribute to the Fund, the proceeds of which were to be used for the awarding of research fellowships and the holding of annual (later biennial) lectures, both under the auspices of the British Academy, a highly respected institution that to this day plays a significant role in supporting and promoting research and scholarship in the humanities. Intended to serve as ‘a perpetual memorial of our gratitude’, the research work sponsored by the Fund was to be devoted to the welfare of the inhabitants of the UK, on the model of the Beveridge Report that had laid the foundations for the post-war welfare state.

The Fund’s patrons could scarcely have been more eminent. They were the distinguished economist Lord Robbins, President of the British Academy and author of the Robbins Report that revolutionised higher education; Sir Isaiah Berlin, a member of the Academy’s Council and one of the great intellectual figures of his day; Professor (later Sir) Ernest B. Chain and Sir Hans Krebs, the two refugees from the Continent who had won Nobel Prizes by 1964; and a third refugee, Professor (later Sir) Ludwig Guttmann, Director of the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Centre, where the Paralympic Games were founded.

The 19 members of the Fund’s committee included leading figures in the AJR and other refugee organisations like the Leo Baeck B’nai B’rith Lodge, Self-Aid of Refugees, Club 1943 and the New Liberal Jewish Congregation (Belsize Square Synagogue), as well as representatives of the Czech and Hungarian refugees. Among them were AJR Chairman Alfred S. Dresel, Arnold Horwell, Egon Larsen, Hans Blumenau, Hans Jaeger and the indispensable Werner Rosenstock. Happily, two are still with us: Victor Ross and Carl Flesch, while Eric Gould’s widow Katia has for years been one of this journal’s much valued proof-readers.

The Fund proved an outstanding success. The organisers’ target of £40-60,000 was easily exceeded; by the time the Fund was handed over to the British Academy at a ceremony in the Saddlers’ Hall on 8 November 1965, it had reached £96,000, several hundred thousand pounds in today’s money and an astonishing sum for a relatively small community not long settled in Britain. There were over 3,000 contributors, ranging from Isaiah Berlin (who sent his contribution via N. M. Rothschild & Sons) to a lady who gave £102 18s. in memory of her late husband, from the restitution money she received from Germany.

The British Academy took over the administration of the Fund, which, adding gravitas, it renamed the ‘Thank-offering to Britain Fund’. The first of the lectures held under its auspices was given in 1966 by Lord Robbins; other lecturers included Roy Jenkins, Arnold Goodman, Robert Blake, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ralf Dahrendorf and Lord Woolf, as well as three former refugees, Arthur Koestler, Otto Kahn-Freund and, in 2004, Claus Moser. The first research fellowship was awarded in 1967 to John Patmore, lecturer in geography at Liverpool, for research on countryside planning and recreational facilities, the second in 1968 to Robert Skidelsky, for his study of Oswald Mosley, and the third to Rita McWilliams of Cambridge, for her work on university education for women. Among those short-listed for the first award was Michael Meacher, but he withdrew to follow an alternative career.

The Fund has richly fulfilled the aims of its founders, who would surely be proud of its function within the British Academy. Sadly, though, the link with the AJR has become obscured over the decades, and the conditions governing the fellowships could do with updating. At the outset, some refugees objected that the expression of gratitude to Britain was overstated, especially as the community had amply repaid its debt to Britain by service in both war and peacetime; Britain, others felt, had hardly gone out of its way to welcome those fleeing Nazi persecution. But the overall attitude was more accurately reflected by a former Kindertransportee who had become head of department at a college in Jamaica:

I will never be able to repay all the kindness and understanding that was shown to me from simple Lancashire cotton workers to Quaker refugee workers and Jewish manufacturers. I am now a British subject and could not wish for anything better. I am trying to repay part of my debt by teaching as a British subject in Jamaica. What I can send is totally inadequate, but I try to say ‘Thank you’ every day by my work.
Anthony Grenville

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