Nov 2005 Journal

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Making a New Life: Education

One particularly vivid memory shared by many of our German interviewees is the receipt of the letter informing their parents that they were no longer to attend mainstream schooling. In some instances, this bitter memory is tempered by recollections of the private regret expressed by individual teachers over the loss of their Jewish pupils. Other interviewees were forced to give up places at university and the hopes of following a longed-for career. This loss of opportunities and the aspirations that rested upon them were, of course, a common feature of the refugee experience. As part of our project we have been examining how refugees in the Yorkshire region adapted to these changes in circumstances as part of the process of 'Making a New Life' (See Griselda Pollock, 'Making a New Life Project: Holocaust survivors in Yorkshire', AJR Journal, October 2005).

As with many facets of refugee life, age upon entry into the UK seems to have played an important part in determining experiences. The youngest refugees were able to take advantage of the English school system and this may have provided many of them with the education necessary to achieve their full potential. Some interviewees have expressed resentment at not being entered for examinations to the grammar schools, perhaps because their English was deemed not to have reached the requisite standard. In some families, an age gap of just a few years meant that a younger sibling attended grammar school whereas an equally able elder sibling was deprived of this opportunity.

Young people who came over on the Kindertransport or who obtained places as trainees or domestic workers often found their dreams and ambitions abruptly curtailed. Some individuals endured years of frustration and bitterness, trapped in occupations that they considered unrewarding and mind-numbing. However, with diligence and the passage of time some were able to improve their position, obtaining managerial grades and making the longed-for jump from blue-collar to white-collar status.

In some instances, individuals who had already obtained professional qualifications or taken the preliminary steps to establish themselves in a career were able to re-qualify. Those who came over to England comparatively early may have found this easier than later incomers. Dr Ernest Bergen, who had commenced his legal career in Germany, was able to take an English law degree at University College in London before obtaining articles in Leeds. Ruth Sterne obtained her nursery teacher's certificate from the Wangenheim College in Berlin in April 1939. Initially the education authorities in Leeds would only allow her to work as a teaching assistant. During the war the authorities were more amenable and Ruth was able to embark on a teaching career that would lead her to a deputy headship.

In the years since their retirement some of our interviewees have been able to follow their various academic interests and this has resulted in a number of publications. Others have taken up the role of Holocaust educators, speaking to a wide range of audiences about their experiences. Still others have followed the academic successes of children and grandchildren with pride. The project team would be particularly interested to hear from individuals who gained their educational qualifications later in life.

Making a New Life Project
Old Mining Building 2.08
University of Leeds LS2 9JT
Email: b.l.harrison@leeds.ac.uk
Amanda Bergen

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