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Nov 2009 Journal

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The first AJR local groups (Part II)*

The smaller AJR groups that grew up in towns and cities in the post-war period reflected the distribution of the Jewish refugees from Hitler across the length and breadth of Britain. It was only at this stage, after the war, that most refugees were able to settle more securely and to put down roots in locations of their own choosing.

Before the war, a large number of refugees had made for London, where many of them lived a provisional and impermanent life in rented rooms, flats and bedsits and often with frequent changes of address. The difficulty they had in finding secure employment contributed to the instability of their circumstances. Others, such as Kindertransport children placed in hostels or domestic servants employed by British families, found themselves scattered across the country in places to which they had been allocated and where they had little wish to stay permanently.

The war had then further disrupted the process of settlement. Many refugees were interned in 1940; others left cities like London to avoid the bombing, or volunteered for the armed forces and were sent to train and serve far from home, or took advantage of the wartime demand for labour to leave their first, unsatisfactory positions for better opportunities elsewhere in Britain. Overall, the pre-war and wartime years were a period of flux and instability for the refugees.

After the war, the refugees spread widely across the country. In late summer 1959, to take just two examples, AJR Information published a letter from Stella Kurrein, the widow of a rabbi from Linz in Austria now resident in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, and a birthday tribute to Dr Walter Gordon, a geriatric specialist practising at St Mary’s Hospital, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Refugees were also to be found in remoter locations: the cultural commentator PEM reported that the actress Irene Triesch, aged 80, was living in obscurity in Scotland; Toni Goldstein ran ‘Arvonia’, a rest and convalescence home, in Abersoch, North Wales; and the refugee firm O.P. Chocolate Specialities Ltd produced ‘Mozart Bon-Bons’, ‘Pischinger Torten to the original recipe’ and other Viennese specialities in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan.

By the early 1950s, the AJR local groups probably numbered about 20. Werner Rosenstock, AJR General Secretary, fresh from a tour of local groups, observed in August 1951 that the movement of refugees to London had caused some of the groups to cease functioning, but that the surviving majority had consolidated themselves and were flourishing. Rosenstock’s opening remarks, however, betrayed the widespread perception of the refugee community as predominantly concentrated in London, with the groups in the regions as dependent appendages: ‘Visits to the local branches in the Provinces’, he wrote with every assurance of metropolitan superiority, ‘are always a stimulating experience for a representative of AJR Headquarters … There is always the danger of seeing things in the wrong perspective if one only relies on written correspondence.’

Nevertheless, Rosenstock saw clearly enough the very real benefits that the groups brought both to their members and to the AJR: ‘It has been one of the achievements of the AJR that it has built up a nation-wide organisation with self-contained groups in those towns in which there was a sufficient number of local members.’ Those members supported the general work of the AJR and maintained an active local group life, thanks to the devoted services of the committee members who generously undertook ‘the tiresome and not always gratifying work on the spot’.

From the start, reports on problems specific to refugees and on the work of the AJR featured prominently on the agendas of meetings held by local groups. Other activities mentioned in AJR Information in January 1946 (its first issue) were lectures and talks, social gatherings and concerts, all of which allowed ‘a regular club life’ to develop. The feeling of companionship and supportive sympathy that could be enjoyed when people with a shared background and culture met regularly was without doubt one of the groups’ principal attractions for their members, as yet only very partially integrated into British society.

Rosenstock emphasised the value of ‘the cordial personal relationship between members in the medium-sized towns, where the individual does not sink into anonymity, as he is bound to do in London’. The local groups also maintained the tradition of social responsibility that had characterised German Jewry in pre-Hitler days: ‘It is particularly gratifying to sense the strong feeling of solidarity amongst those who have been able to build up their lives anew, but who consider it one of their foremost duties to provide a homely atmosphere for their less fortunate, mainly elderly fellow refugees.’ As noted last month in connection with the Morris Feinmann Homes in Manchester and the Mutual Refugee Aid Society in Glasgow, this was a defining feature of refugee life in those cities.

Over the years, however, the groups faced a struggle to survive. This was true even of those in the larger British cities, as a report in AJR Information on a meeting of the AJR Leeds Group showed. ‘The meeting of the AJR Leeds Group on April 26 [1953] was an historic occasion whose importance goes beyond the ordinary meaning of local AJR Group Functions,’ the report began. ‘It was convened to review the development of the closely knit community of formerly Continental Jews who, due to the devotion and generosity of Anglo-Jewish Committees and communal workers on the spot, could now build up their lives anew in that hospitable city.’

One of the speakers, Dr L. Ross, stressed that the refugees were ‘bearers of a precious spiritual heritage’ from their native lands, but also paid tribute to ‘the unforgettable services’ rendered to them by Anglo-Jewish helpers. This seemed to anticipate that in the longer term the refugees in Leeds would become increasingly reliant on the local Jewish community, as they were not numerous enough to maintain an active, organised communal life of their own.

A number of refugees settled in neighbouring Bradford, which had a tradition of Jewish settlement from Germany; it played host to the Jewish Refugee Hostel in Parkfield Road, Manningham, which housed Kindertransport boys. Bradford boasted an active AJR group, but already in 1946 it was disrupted by the departure of its Chairman, P. L. Goldschmidt, and its Hon. Secretary, P. E. Schwarzschild, for London. A new committee was formed, with H. O. Heymann as Chairman, F. Heilbrunn as Vice-Chairman and F. Oppenheimer as Hon. Secretary. But Fritz Oppenheimer died in 1953, the same year as Herbert Eger, the former warden of the boys’ hostel. The loss of leading figures appears to have caused the activities organised communally by the refugees to wane.

A familiar pattern emerged: the refugees developed their own private social and professional networks, no longer centred on other refugees. What remained were organisational ties between observant refugees and Jewish life in Bradford in general, principally through synagogues. When Rabbi Erich Bienheim, a rabbi from Darmstadt who had served at West London Synagogue and from 1949-1961 at a synagogue in Bradford, died in 1962, AJR Information recorded a tribute from Hans Librowicz, a former Berliner, writing in his capacity as chairman of the Bradford synagogues, but not as a fellow refugee.

In smaller cities like Oxford, with less Jewish settlement and little organised Jewish communal life, the refugees were absorbed into local British society. Oxford, like Cambridge, had contained a significant refugee population in relation to its size. Refugee academics congregated in the two university towns before and during the war, as did refugees offered support and accommodation by the liberal-minded academic community. The local committees set up to help the refugees were very active: Cambridge was distinguished by the exceptional contributions to the refugees’ well-being of Greta Burkill, a don’s wife, and Hilda Sturge, a Quaker who became known as ‘the mother of the refugees’.

Under these favourable conditions, a network of refugee social life and activities developed, but it proved short-lived. After the war, the refugees who remained developed social and professional circles of their own, especially the academics, who were absorbed into university life. By the later 1950s, the refugees hardly featured as a distinct group in Oxford; one eminent refugee academic told me that he only recognised his fellow refugees by the frequency with which they attended concerts. The AJR group in Cambridge, led by an energetic chairman, Dr Georg Schatzky, remained active, but only into the 1950s – probably because after that there was little need for it.

Nowhere outside London did refugees settle in sufficient numbers to support the thriving communal life that marked parts of North-West London for half a century after the war. According to Ernest Krausz’s history of Leeds Jewry, which appeared in 1964, the AJR group there numbered about 200, and from Zoe Joseph’s study of the Jewish refugees in Birmingham it appears that they were no more numerous there. But there can be no doubt that the local groups were of the greatest importance and benefit to their members as they struggled to establish themselves in post-war Britain.
 

*The first part of this article appeared in last month’s issue of the Journal.

Anthony Grenville

next article:The Kindertransport Seventy Years On