Nov 2007 Journal

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Museum pieces?

No one, to my knowledge, has yet commented at any length on the peculiar reluctance of German scholars and academics to conduct research into the community of Jews of German origin that settled in Britain after 1945. Usually, German Wissenschaftler are to be found crawling with ant-like industry over any academic subject area available, with the entire field of the Holocaust, the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and the fate of Germany’s Jews attracting a quite extraordinary amount of scholarly interest.

But very few German historians actually bother to cross the Channel and investigate the situation, history and experience of the German-speaking Jews once they ceased to be refugees and took British citizenship. In the post-war years, these numbered some 50,000, developing into a vibrant, flourishing community that settled by and large smoothly into life in Britain, mostly integrating reasonably well into British society. One would have thought that they were well worth German scholars’ time, but the reality is that a handful of postgraduate students come over, do the research for their theses and are then seen no more.

I do not count studies by German academics on individual refugees or families resident here, nor those on specialised subjects like music in exile, which simply could not be written without research in this country. What I have in mind is studies that deal in depth with the overall post-war history and experience of the Jews from Germany and Austria who made new lives for themselves in Britain. Marion Berghahn’s German-Jewish Refugees in Britain, reprinted as Continental Britons, is a notable exception, but that was published in Britain, in English. Otherwise, one has to fall back on isolated studies like Steffen Pross’s ‘In London treffen wir uns wieder’: Vier Spaziergänge durch ein vergessenes Kapitel deutscher Kulturgeschichte nach 1933 or the section on Britain in the Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933-1945. German historians mostly study the former refugees from afar, so that they come across not as a living subject, but as distant objects from the historical past.

My theory is that German scholars can cope easily enough with Jewish refugees settling in Israel and America, where they are part of a recognised Jewish community. But they struggle to accept that a Western European country like Britain admitted considerable numbers of Jews before the war and subsequently let them evolve into a settled and thriving community mostly at ease with its surroundings. Germans, it seems to me, prefer to see European countries as having behaved badly towards the Jews during the war, seizing the opportunity of Nazi occupation to allow their antisemitic hatreds free rein; the exceptions, small countries like Denmark or Bulgaria, can be dismissed as marginal. German scholars appear reluctant to take on board the living reality of the Jewish refugee community in Britain; none of them has shown more than a passing interest in researching the AJR and its journal, for instance.

Consequently, when German scholars deal with former refugees in Britain, they all too often depict them as rarities, museum pieces from a vanished German past that have survived as isolated specimens in an alien and unfriendly British environment. I was forcibly reminded of this when I happened on an otherwise excellent study by the distinguished historian Götz Aly and the well-known journalist Michael Sontheimer, with the eye-catching title Fromms. (For readers of a retiring disposition, Fromms is the German brand equivalent of Durex, as indicated by the book’s subtitle, Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F. unter die deutschen Räuber fiel (How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell among the German Robbers); the book was published by S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, in 2007. I considered reviewing the book, under the caption ‘Something for the Weekend, Sir?’, but thought better of it.)

Fromms is to be highly recommended as a historical narrative. Every aspect of Julius Fromm’s life and career has been carefully researched, from his family origins in Konin, then in Russian Poland, to the process of manufacturing the condoms that made his fortune and the procedures by which he was robbed of that fortune by the Nazis. Every aspect, that is, until Fromm’s flight in 1938 to London, where he died in 1945. The authors make no attempt to research the communal life of the Jewish refugees in Britain, as those like the Fromms would have experienced it. Although no fewer than five of the eight Fromm siblings escaped to Britain and Julius’s son Edgar lived here for decades, the impression left by this book is not that Britain was a major country of refuge for Jews from the Reich, but that the Fromms were fragments of flotsam who happened to land up on British shores and languished thereafter as lonely curiosities in a kind of social vacuum. Any picture of the sizable community to which Edgar Fromm and thousands of others belonged is simply blanked out.

Typically, the presentation of Britain as a country of refuge suffers from the authors’ preconceived notion of its intrinsic hostility to the Jewish refugees. On a very thin selection of evidence, the authors claim to have discovered ‘deeply rooted antisemitic resentment’ permeating all strata of British society, a claim that most refugees would reject on the basis of their own experience. The authors cite the warnings given to newly arrived refugees about their behaviour in public as further evidence of official hostility, when in fact these warnings – the best-known being the booklet Helpful Information and Guidance for Every Refugee – were distributed by Anglo-Jewish organisations; they therefore tell us little about British attitudes, but plenty about Anglo-Jewry’s ambivalent feelings towards the refugees from Nazism.

Again typically, the one event in the history of the refugees that is discussed at length is internment and the deportation of several thousand refugees, including Edgar Fromm, overseas, but in the absence of the balancing context of 60 years of post-war settlement. The impression that Britain was not that far from Germany in its treatment of the Jews emerges clearly from the section on the experiences of Fromm’s niece Ruth in Britain; she had come here on a domestic-service permit, as far as one can tell from a very cursory reference. At the time of internment, Ruth Fromm was detained at what the book calls the ‘notorious’ Holloway Prison. Now, Holloway was no holiday camp, but it was not significantly worse than the general run of prisons in democratic states; the loaded term ‘berüchtigt’ is used to make it sound like the prisons in Nazi Germany, sites of terror where Jews were at the mercy of Gestapo interrogators and SA thugs.

An even more blatant attempt to elide British and Nazi practice occurs when the book discusses the categories to which the Fromms were allocated in 1939 by the tribunals set up to decide whether they should be interned. Most of the Fromms were allocated to Category C and exempted from internment, but Salomon Fromm, Ruth’s father, was allocated to Category B, and Ruth herself, so the book claims, was allocated to the same category ‘as a kind of Sippenhaft’. ‘Sippenhaft’ was the Nazi practice of imprisoning the entire families of enemies of the regime, most famously those of the conspirators implicated in the bomb plot against Hitler on 20 July 1944. To imply a comparison between the measures taken against these conspirators, who were hanged from meat-hooks with wire nooses and their relatives sent to concentration camps, and the allocation of a young woman to Category B for purposes of internment is patently ridiculous. The book itself later demonstrates the falseness of the comparison when it informs us that Salomon Fromm was never in fact detained; and his daughter was, unfortunately, just one of a number of young Jewish refugee women who were allocated to Category B and interned, quite irrespective of their fathers’ status.

The two descendants of Julius Fromm interviewed by the authors receive the rather curious style of presentation that Germans reserve for Jewish refugees. Both are treated very sympathetically, but both are introduced by distinguishing characteristics that somehow set them up as curiosities. Sontheimer carefully informs us that he first interviewed Edgar Fromm in London ‘over a good whisky’ (‘bei gutem Whisky’), while Ruth Fromm, who now lives in New York, is described as speaking delightfully old-fashioned German and as breaking out into a ‘merry cock-a-doodle-do’ (‘heiteres Kikeriki’) of laughter. So we are treated to the stereotypes of the assimilated Brit savouring the preferred tipple of his adopted land – would Sontheimer ever speak of interviewing a German ‘bei gutem Schnaps’? – and the garrulous New Yorker with her trilling laugh. Museum pieces, once again.

If even a book as good as this, by authors as widely respected, falls into errors like those detailed here, it is perhaps because the subject of the German-Jewish refugees in Britain remains one of the last areas where Germans have still not fully come to terms with their past, a small part of that process of ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ as yet unfinished.

Anthony Grenville

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