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Oct 2001 Journal

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Sixty years on – the diamond jubilee of the AJR

In October 1942, about a year after the founding of the AJR, a letter to the Foreign Office from the Aliens Department of the Home Office gives what is probably the earliest account in any Whitehall document of the fledgling organisation. “Object: To be responsible for the Jewish Refugee Community in London and the country. The Association does not serve any particular Jewish group or party. The Committee includes Orthodox and Liberal Jews, Zionists and non-Zionists. The Association has no desire to duplicate the work of existing refugee committees. It wishes to co-operate with them in trying to find constructive solutions to questions concerning refugee life.”

The aims attributed here to the AJR, as well as its attitude to its work for its members, make clear in a nutshell why the Association has outlived by so many decades other refugee organisations like the Free German League of Culture or the Austrian Centre, all of which have long ceased to exist. The author of the Home Office report stresses even at this early stage the AJR’s ethos of service to its members, of sensible and constructive work on behalf of all the Jewish refugees from Central Europe in Britain, irrespective of political and denominational allegiances.

Because the AJR had no aims other than the interests and well-being of its members, it has continued to represent over six decades the community originally created when up to 70,000 German-speaking Jews arrived in Britain in the years after 1933. Many of them migrated on to other countries, many more are no longer with us, but the AJR goes on, sustained both by its selfless service to its members and by their affection for ‘their’ organisation and its eagerly read journal.

The AJR was founded when the refugees were emerging, scattered and disorientated, from internment, and it was essential for the organisation to have a channel of communication with the membership. The small and hard-pressed committee that then ran the AJR under very difficult conditions consequently ensured that, from the summer of 1941, circulars were sent out to all members to promote a sense of communal solidarity and to report on developments of concern to the refugees.

These circulars, eleven of which were sent out between summer 1941 and late 1945, were the forerunners of the Association’s much-loved journal, the AJR Information, now AJR Journal. They contained information about matters of vital interest to the refugees, such as the gradual lifting of the restrictions placed on ‘enemy aliens’, the fight to secure entry to Britain for Jews from Europe, and the prospects for the naturalisation of those resident here. They attempted to convey what was known about the situation of the Jews from Germany and Austria under Nazi rule; and they described the integration of the refugees into the war effort and their relations with British society generally.

The AJR had three basic aims during the war: to obtain permission for refugees with transit permits to stay in Britain; to assist those still in Europe by participating in schemes to send parcels to the camps via the Red Cross; and to prepare post-war claims for restitution. After the war, these aims did not alter radically, once one takes into account the changed conditions of peace. They were now to secure the right to naturalisation for all refugees who wished to stay here; to embark on programmes of relief for the surviving Jews in Germany and Austria and, especially, of social welfare services for the needy among the refugees in Britain; and to lead the fight for compensation, first from the Federal Republic of Germany, then from Austria.

The format of the wartime circulars was carried over to the AJR Information, which first appeared in January 1946 and has continued to appear monthly ever since; it changed its title to AJR Journal in January 2001. The editors in 1946 were Werner Rosenstock, who acted as editor and also as General Secretary of the Association from 1941 to 1982, and Herbert Freeden, who left for Israel in 1950. Rosenstock was replaced as editor of the journal by Murray Mindlin (1982-86) and C.C. Aronsfeld (1986-88), before the present editor, Richard Grunberger, took over as the ‘voice’ of the AJR in June 1988.

The Association started out in cramped accommodation at 279A Finchley Road, but moved in 1943 to 8 Fairfax Mansions (off Fairfax Road), where it stayed until it moved across the Finchley Road to Adamson Road, then on to its present offices in Hampstead Gate, Frognal, all in North-west London. At the end of the war, there were some 50,000 German-speaking Jewish refugees resident in Britain, a number that has, sadly but inevitably, decreased considerably over the years. Despite a certain inflow of new members from the second generation, the AJR’s membership has also declined. Interestingly, however, the journal, which at the outset had a circulation of about 5,000, still has a circulation of some 3,800; in particular, the recent integration of the Reunion of Kindertransport into the AJR has brought about a welcome increase in the readership and the membership.

Werner Rosenstock was the invaluable mainstay of the Association for over forty years. Its founding chairman was Adolf Schoyer, who was given the title of President when he returned to Germany after the war. He was succeeded by Hans Reichmann, whose wife, Eva G. Reichmann, also played a leading role. A place of honour was reserved for Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, who settled in London after surviving Theresienstadt and became the spiritual leader of the refugees. Walter Breslauer played an important part in the ultimately successful efforts to secure restitution from the Federal Republic, as did Rudolf Bienenfeld and Charles Kapralik in the negotiations with the Austrian Government.

In the early years, the AJR performed an important international linking function between the organisations of the Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in Europe and those in the overseas countries of refuge, principally America and Israel. With its sister organisations abroad it formed the Council of Jews from Germany, of which Leo Baeck was president and Werner Rosenstock later became secretary, and which promoted the interests of the refugees, especially where restitution was concerned. The United Restitution Office, set up for that purpose, was initially based in the AJR’s offices in London – a situation which has been recreated by the establishment of the Central Office for Holocaust Claims in the present offices.

Once the process of naturalisation had been largely completed by 1950, restitution became the dominant issue over the next decade. From the mid-1950s, the proceeds from Wiedergutmachung allowed the AJR to undertake a programme of welfare activities. It had already set up an employment agency and a social services department (under Adelheid Levy), to which were then added the Old Age Homes, built with money from restitution claims. As the membership aged, social welfare activities broadened, with the introduction of a meals-on-wheels service and the provision of a day centre in West Hampstead.

As a token of their gratitude to their adopted country, AJR members also contributed to the Thank-You Britain Fund, which resulted in a cheque for £92,000 being handed over to the British Academy in 1966, for the purpose of funding academic research. The very significant charitable activities undertaken by the AJR now fall under the generous aegis of the AJR Charitable Trust. There can be no finer monument to the AJR than the proud record of service rendered to its members by those involved in its residential, social service and care work, not forgetting the local groups that have been set up more recently, following an initiative taken in South London.

The AJR Information has continued to promote the interests of the refugees and to reflect their preoccupations, their predilections and their distinctive Jewish identity down the decades. It championed the refugees’ right to British citizenship, and now, under its new name, it continues to confront antisemitism and any other hostile manifestation arising in British society. It fought for restitution, and it still takes a lively interest in relevant affairs in Germany and Austria, especially where neo-Nazism appears and casts slurs on the German-Jewish past. It preserves the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and it celebrates the rich cultural heritage of German Jewry. Similarly, the Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain itself, so rich in history and so closely bound up with the community it represents, still retains the name that links it to the proud traditions that the Jewish refugees brought with them from their Continental lands of origin to their adopted British home.
Dr Anthony Grenville

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