Oct 2007 Journal

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A legacy for posterity

One of the most remarkable features of the AJR is its sheer longevity. Founded in 1941, it is still energetically preserving and promoting the history and heritage of the community it represents. Unlike its sister organisations, the American Federation of Jews from Central Europe and the Irgun Oley Merkas Europa in Israel, the AJR is very much alive and kicking: our members have the great good fortune to be able to read this journal, but Aufbau, its American equivalent, ceased publication in the USA some years ago. The exhibition ‘Continental Britons’, which ran for six months at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town in 2002, generously funded by the AJR, demonstrated the Association’s commitment to memorialising the past of its membership.

Inevitably, however, the lifespan of the AJR as we know it is limited. Now that even those refugees who came to Britain on Kindertransports just before the war are in their seventies, the number of members who experienced life in Central Europe before emigration is declining inexorably. And, unlike immigrant groups from Jamaica, Bangladesh, Cyprus or Pakistan, the Jews who fled to Britain to escape Hitler have no living community in their countries of origin with which to maintain contact, no reservoir of ‘Continental’ Jewish culture on which to draw and from which to replenish their ranks.

But the AJR’s Charitable Trustees, with an eye to the future, have initiated a project designed to preserve the history and culture of the refugee community for posterity. Since 2003, the AJR has been funding a programme of filmed interviews with former refugees and Holocaust survivors now resident in Britain. ‘Refugee Voices’, as the AJR’s testimony archive is called, is being directed by Dr Bea Lewkowicz and myself, who were also responsible for the ‘Continental Britons’ exhibition. The AJR instructed us to conduct interviews across the entire country, avoiding the usual concentration on North-West London, and to film ‘ordinary’ people, avoiding well-known refugees whose lives were already largely documented. By early 2007, our team of interviewers had filmed interviews with 150 refugees and survivors, from Edinburgh to Southend and from Glasgow to Hampshire and Bristol. The London area has a large but fair share.

We have a particular concentration in the Northern cities, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, thanks to the assistance we received in finding interviewees from the AJR’s Northern Co-ordinator, Susanne Green. In Manchester, we were fortunate enough to secure the invaluable co-operation of Rosalyn Livshin, who effectively took on the organisation of the bulk of the interviews in the North. Through her contacts with the Orthodox community, she arranged a number of interviews with Orthodox refugees and survivors, thus adding an important dimension to the story of the Jews from Central Europe in Britain, one that counterbalances any overemphasis on the more assimilated refugees.

As one might expect, the largest single contingent of interviewees comes from Berlin, followed by Vienna, then a number of German cities such as Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt and Breslau (now Wroclaw). But we have interviewees with places of birth scattered throughout Eastern Europe - from Elbing in East Prussia to Lvov in Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine) and Uzhgorod in Carpatho-Ruthenia (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, USSR, now Ukraine), and even two from Italy, one of them with parents from Istanbul. Thanks to our efforts to interview as representative a sample as possible, our interviewees’ experiences reflect most aspects of the history of the Jews who experienced Nazi persecution in Europe and came to Britain.

By far the largest group consists of pre-war refugees from Germany, Austria and the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, mostly middle-class, assimilated Jews; there is a group of camp survivors, often from Eastern Europe and more traditionally observant, as well as some who survived in hiding. But there are also interviewees who came to Britain via Palestine, or who escaped to Shanghai and endured Japanese captivity, or who were deported from eastern Poland to Kazakhstan by the Soviets in 1939 and made their way to join the British in the Middle East, or who left occupied France for North Africa, to be liberated by the Allies after El Alamein. We have an interviewee who was among the Jews from Denmark famously rescued by sea to Sweden, and one who was on the notorious ship St Louis, which crisscrossed the Atlantic seeking a country willing to accept its cargo of desperate Jews.

The interviews also cover a very wide range of wartime experiences in Britain. Many interviewees had arrived before the war as penniless refugees, often as domestic servants, or had taken other forms of menial employment. Some were interned on the Isle of Man; there are vivid accounts by internees and also by internees deported to Australia on the notorious vessel Dunera. Others joined the British forces; one ended up as a fighter pilot flying Typhoons with the RAF over North-West Europe, and another was the sole survivor when his tank was blown up during the ill-fated advance towards Arnhem in 1944. The memories of refugees who returned to a defeated Germany as members of the victorious British forces are particularly clear.

Other refugees recall in detail civilian life in Britain during the war, with the daily grind of shortages, rationing, air raids and long hours in factories and offices, though a number were involved in civil defence, and one worked in the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office. Of course, some of the most powerful narratives are those of the camp survivors, which form a sombre and compelling contrast to those of the refugees who escaped to Britain. The interviews also contain accounts of a very wide variety of post-war experiences, with career patterns ranging from an Oxford professor to a milkman, and a large amount of information about many facets of refugee life in Britain over the post-war decades.

The 150 interviews in the ‘Refugee Voices’ archive, amounting to well over 400 hours of film, will prove to be a goldmine of information for historians and other researchers. The archive is designed to be user-friendly, so that the information it contains can be accessed as quickly and easily as possible. All the interviews have been transcribed, i.e. all the words spoken have been typed out by audio-typists and put onto computer. This is a very expensive and labour-intensive process, especially as the transcripts produced by our audio-typists have to be checked by people more expert in the field, to eliminate errors. (Some audio-typists don’t know Charlottenburg from Czernowitz, or Pesach from payes.)

But it is essential to provide scholars using the archive with a written transcript that they can read at their own pace, as working from a film alone is well-nigh impossible. The Shoah Foundation’s collection of filmed interviews, though far larger than ‘Refugee Voices’, does not have transcriptions of the filmed interviews; learning from our experience as volunteer interviewers with the Shoah Foundation, we have included the transcripts as part of ‘Refugee Voices’, one of several features in which we hope to have improved on earlier collections.

The archive consists of three parts: the filmed interviews themselves, the transcripts (over 4,000 pages), and a large database with 44 categories of information about the interviewees, ranging from their parents and places of birth to their experiences of war and emigration, and their professions, families and places of residence after 1945. In the first instance, we expect the users to be academics, researchers and educationalists, followed by students. There may also be commercial users, such as film companies making television programmes on the subject, who might be willing to pay for the use of footage from the films. Access to the archive will be controlled, so that it will be available only to bona fide users.

We are in the process of negotiating, on behalf of the Charitable Trustees, with institutions where the archive could be deposited. We are currently negotiating with a leading German university as the depository in Europe. Given the very favourable reception that ‘Refugee Voices’ has received whenever we have demonstrated it in Britain and in Germany, we are confident that the archive will be fittingly housed. We will keep readers informed of developments.

In its ‘Refugee Voices’ archive, the AJR is creating an important memorial to the refugee community, one that will be available to scholars and researchers far into the future. That community particularly needs such a memorial, against the day when the generation of the refugees themselves is no longer with us. For with the best will in the world, the British-born children of the refugees - the second generation - can never reproduce the German- or Austrian-Jewish culture of their parents. Take my own case: though I have immersed myself in the language and culture of German-speaking Central Europe for many years, I can never be a Viennese like my parents - only a passable imitation of a middle-class Englishman. Studying modern languages at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, is no substitute for, say, the Schottengymnasium and the University of Vienna.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Point of View series: Too few Jews