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Oct 2002 Journal

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A two-way process (review)

Walter Laqueur
Brandeis University Press, 2001

Marian Malet and Anthony Grenville (eds)
Libris, 2002

The loss by Germany of a complete section of its population, its Jews, has been the subject of a number of monographs over the past 30 years. There is an enormous literature now on the ways in which refugees came out of Germany into Britain and, to a greater or lesser degree, succeeded in making new homes for themselves. There are personal memoirs and autobiographies produced by individuals who went through this process of resettlement and re-adjustment, studies of the ways in which British governments treated these arrivals, and academic studies of particular impacts which the arrival of these new inhabitants had upon their new homes. Some ten years ago there was even a substantial conference, organised by the Leo Baeck Institute, which attempted to put together a complete picture of the impact of the arrival of German Jews in Great Britain.

But none of that work has managed to portray in terms of those who actually left what that departure meant to them. And though there have been a number of studies of one of the best-known group of arrivals - the children who were brought to Britain and were known collectively as the children of the Kindertransports - even those studies have tended to be anecdotal rather than analytical.

Now there have appeared two major studies of the children who were brought out of Central Europe between 1933 and 1939. They are very different studies, in part covering some of the same ground and thus complementing each other, but seeking very different aims. They thus deserve to be put into juxtaposition, but at the same time treated separately.

Professor Laqueur, himself one of that group of exiles, paints a broad picture, trying, as he himself says, 'to sketch the portrait of a generation'. His canvas is indeed very wide, extending as it does from Germany to Shanghai on the one hand, and from Germany to South America on the other. He gives us fleeting glimpses of a German Jew who, in going to Bolivia, pioneered the study of Bolivian literature and was eventually honoured for his services on a stamp of that country. Again, there were the two German Jewish refugees of whom one eventually became a Benedictine monk and the head of his monastery and the other a respected Hindu guru. Professor Laqueur's work covers a great deal of ground, and he mentions a large number of that generation who managed to create noteworthy careers in the countries that eventually gave them a home. He also produces in a Bibliographical Essay a most important survey of the printed materials available. There are the occasional slips - the British passport control officer in Berlin was Frank (not Victor) Foley, and I doubt whether the late Sir Isaiah Berlin would have appreciated his apparent identification as a member of this group. But the work is magisterial, as befits a senior scholar, and repays further study.

If Professor Laqueur's work can best be described as 'macro-history', the other work is very much 'micro-history' at its best. Its basis is a series of interviews with 34 men and women out of the around 70,000 who came to this country. The eight scholars who analysed these accounts and whose work is presented here have taken their own lines with the material and have presented it in their individual ways. They have taken different strands and presented their conclusions clearly and lucidly. But the work has a unity about it, partly because each of the eight was working with the same basic group of interviewees and partly because of what has very clearly been expert editorial work by Marian Malet and Anthony Grenville. The result is a book that is at once a pleasure to read and a very important contribution to the study of these exiles in their new home. No attempt is made to gloss over the unpleasant episodes that occurred; there is, for example, a full account of the voyage on SS Dunera. The process by which many of the refugees were stupidly interned on the Isle of Man is given due weight. But the final thought that emerges from the book is that whatever else might have been said, there is a sense of gratitude for having been given what another work has termed 'a second chance'.

Both these books point to the ways in which both sides of the equation - the refugees and the members of the various host societies - benefited from the experience. Both deserve a place on the shelves of those interested in 'migration studies'. Professor Laqueur concentrates on his major subject, a generation that was so different from those who came before and after. Malet and Grenville raise at the end of their work a very different and even uncomfortable issue. Pointing to the value Britain gained by having accepted these refugees, they ask whether it has learned from its past good fortune - and whether in future it will be able to realise that similar waves of immigrants might well be offering the same opportunities to the host society.
Aubrey Newman

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