Oct 2012 Journal
Letters to the Editor
AN EXTRAORDINARY MAN: WILFRID ISRAEL AND THE KINDERTRANSPORTS
Sir - Whilst it is clearly Ruth Barnett’s prerogative to disagree with me over the role Wilfrid Israel played in the formation of the Kindertransports (September, Letters), she has wilfully misinterpreted my review (in your August issue) of Yonatan Nir’s DVD about this extraordinary man.
I was full of admiration for Wilfrid Israel’s stance and his frantic activities on behalf of Berlin Jews before the war, but I made the point that he was by no means the only one who initiated the Kindertransport movement. In this respect, Nir’s short DVD is indeed misleading. Nir himself has acknowledged this and is therefore making a new and longer film about the man in which his activities will be shown in context.
Since writing my review, I have read Naomi Shepherd’s outstanding biography Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984), on which Nir’s DVD was based. I have also had the pleasure of meeting Naomi Shepherd. She is in complete agreement with my assessment and in her book, which reads like a detective story and which I very strongly recommend to the Journal’s readers, she considers Israel’s astonishing contribution to the rescue of German Jews in a much wider context.
LUDWIG GUTTMANN: CALL FOR MEMORIAL PLAQUE
Sir – With regard to your September article on Sir Ludwig Guttmann, if there is not yet a suitable memorial plaque on the Wycombe house in which the gentleman lived, the deficiency should be remedied.
Recent publicity suggests that his contribution to British society is widely appreciated.
I pay my council tax to Wycombe District Council but a prompt from the AJR is likely to be more effective.
LEGACY OF GRETA BURKILL
Sir – Susanne Medas’s article about Greta Burkill in your August issue brought back many happy memories.
In December 1944 I spent a few weeks on sick leave with my parents in Cambridge. The local doctor had decided that I should get out of the BBC Monitoring Service, which involved shift work. My parents had moved to Cambridge in 1941 when my brother had obtained a Trinity College scholarship in mathematics. They were able to rent a Peterhouse property in Belvoir Terrace as a result of support from Dr Charles Burkill. Greta told me two jobs would shortly be available in Cambridge. One was as secretary to herself for the Cambridge Refugee Committee because her secretary, Ella Margolies, had married an American and was shortly leaving for the USA.
The other was as assistant to Dr Josef Skemp, the administrator for the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL). It was known that he wished to return to academic work as soon as the war was over: his position was classified as war work and had been his reason for taking it as he was a conscientious objector. I opted for the SPSL job as it sounded more interesting and, after a number of interviews with members of the committee, I was accepted.
The SPSL was founded by Sir William Beveridge in 1933. He happened to be lecturing in Vienna when the first German-Jewish professors arrived there following their dismissal from German universities. The idea was to act as a kind of employment exchange for them to find jobs abroad. My job brought me in to frequent contact with Greta Burkill. They moved to Peterhouse when Charles Burkill became Master but, to the best of my knowledge, kept the Chaucer Road property. I kept in touch with Charles Burkill after Greta’s death until he died.
My brother, Fritz Ursell, never needed Greta’s help but was one of those she was very proud of as he became Professor of Mathematics at Manchester in 1961.
Sir - The article about Greta Burkill in your August issue prompts me to pay tribute to a colleague of hers on the Cambridge Refugee Committee: Mrs Sybil Hutton. She and her husband, Professor Robert Hutton, Fellow of Peterhouse College, opened their house (also in Chaucer Road) to several refugees and treated them as part of their family. My sister was employed as housekeeper, another young woman from Berlin as cook, and three or four younger refugees (me included) were housed and fed without any financial contribution – one or two were still of school age and were sent to school, a 16-year-old boy and I were ‘building trainees’.
We had our meals with the couple and shared their living room with them in the evenings. They sacrificed their privacy completely and gave us a real home.
Mrs Hutton was the daughter of Sir George Schuster, a physicist who had emigrated from Germany to Britain after the failure of the 1848 revolution, and her husband had been Sir George’s assistant. So sympathy with refugees had started early in both their lives.
An afterthought concerning Mrs Burkill: a sister of hers was an officer in the ATS during the war (Junior Commander Brown) and served in the same intelligence unit (CSDIC) as my wife and myself. We referred to her as ‘Bräunchen’!
Sir - I refer to the letter from Susan Medas. Among other people, she mentions ‘a Miss Ney’, with whom she worked in the Children’s Section at Bloomsbury House.
I first got to know Elisabeth Ney when she took over my job in the Nottinghamshire Children’s Department when I was living there in about 1950-52 and we became friends from that time on.
As far as I am aware, she had worked at Bloomsbury House for about two years and was then able to go to the London School of Economics to take a new course to train as Children’ Officer. I believe she stayed in Nottinghamshire for some years, making friends with her mainly English colleagues, with whom she kept in contact for many years after she had left. Following her job in Nottinghamshire she had some local authority jobs in the South East as she wanted to come back to London, where she had friends and family. She had worked for some other local authorities, finishing in East Ham until she retired.
Elisabeth was always a very determined lady and struggled on in her own home, although for several years towards the end of her life she was physically handicapped and partially sighted. Her main interests were in classical music, but also in the arts as well as well as her little garden, where she lived until the end. She was a much loved person and was missed by many friends. She never married but always took a great interest in her friends’ children. She died in 2005 at the age of 94.
Sir - The contents of Susanne Medas’s letter surprised me greatly.
My late husband came to this country on a Kindertransport in late August 1939 at the age of 13 and was placed in a boys’ hostel in Rugby. There was no contact from a Jewish Refugee Committee. He and his sister were rescued from Liverpool Street Station by a group of Christadelphians. At no time was he contacted by any Jewish organisation and, when he was in need of an overcoat for the winter, he had to appeal to a distant connection of his father’s family, while writing to congratulate that gentleman on the arrival on a grandson. He started work at the age of 15; he was never in receipt of any ‘pocket money’ or given the option of further education. He put himself through evening classes and it was a cause of real regret to him that he was unable to pursue the profession of his father, uncles and grandfather, who were all practising GPs in their home cities of Bayreuth and Plzen.
My mother came on a domestic visa in January 1939, with me in tow; she spent each day off travelling from deepest Surrey to Bloomsbury House in her efforts to get a visa for my father. I vividly recall her despair after each visit when she had been palmed off with promises that never materialised. In the end, my father was rescued, arriving in May 1939 - not by any Jewish agency but by the strenuous efforts of a Society of Friends lady, who lived near where my mother was employed. We were, all three, interned on the Isle of Man, my father in Ramsey, my mother and I in Port Erin. My father enlisted in the army and, on that basis, my mother and I were released. No Jewish agency came to our aid then or at any time thereafter.
At no time did any Jewish organisation endeavour to contact - let alone help - us. It was only on my father’s death that the Liberal Synagogue helped by arranging his funeral. And, years later, my husband and I decided to marry in a United Synagogue. At some point, my mother joined the AJR and, when she died, we continued with the membership. When a Reform community was set up in our area, around 1960, we decided to integrate into a full Jewish life, which we maintained. No Jewish agency helped us to integrate - we did that all on our own.
I feel enormous gratitude to this country for saving my life, for allowing me a good education, for instilling in me the idea of fair play and for making me feel very English.
A PORTRAIT OF HAUPTMANN
Sir - I found Anthony Grenville’s essay about Gerhart Hauptmann (July) fascinating since he figures in my life in odd ways.
When I was around Bar Mitzvah age, I was rummaging in my family storage room (in Buffalo, NY) and found a huge, framed etching of a stern-looking man. I took it downstairs to ask my father who it was. It was a portrait of Hauptmann by Hermann Struck (1876-1944) - my father had put it away because, he said, there was something about the man being a Nazi. I asked whether I could have it, I then hung it in my room, and it has followed me through university days and various places where I’ve lived, and it’s now in my study in New York. (As I’m an art historian, I can say that it’s a stunning etching and a graphic tour de force because of its size and wonderful chiaroscuro effects.) It’s dated 1904 and, as with many Struck etchings, has a small Magen David at the bottom (left) corner - which seems ironic in this instance. It’s among a large number of Struck portraits of notables done in 1903-14.
My father grew up in the same Berlin building where the Strucks lived (33 Brückenallee) and was sort of their adopted son - they had no children. Struck was really the one who made my father into a verbrennte Zionist (certainly that wasn’t my grandparents’ worldview) and our family stayed in touch with his widow, Molly, even after her husband died (in Haifa in 1944), when we had already emigrated to the USA (1937-38). I still have many of those letters.
Struck seems to have kept his Berlin flat after he moved to Palestine in 1922. He returned to Berlin with some regularity (first in 1923) and he happened to be in Berlin when my grandfather died in 1926 - he created a wonderful pencil image of my grandfather on his deathbed. I still treasure that!
When I was at university (Harvard) in the mid-1950s I took a course on revolutions with Professor Crane Brinton, who was among the reigning experts on such things at the time. My course paper was about Hauptmann’s Die Weber - my professor was impressed I’d even heard of Hauptmann - comparing it with Heine’s poem that opens ‘Im düstern Auge keine Träne’. It was considered a very esoteric subject but, since my mother was from Beuthen O.S, she had told me about the Silesian weavers’ revolt and Heine’s poem about it. (I think I received a good grade.)
All this came back to me when I read your wonderful essay, for which, thanks!
Sir - May I correct a misunderstanding which appeared in your September issue?
Rudi Leavor would have been perfectly safe to enjoy the cranberry juice at his lunch with the Queen. The ‘no-no drink’ with some statins (not all) is grapefruit juice. Nevertheless, he was right to point out that the risk of serving cranberry juice on an occasion such as this is strongly contraindicated for people taking warfarin. I trust this will avoid any confusion among those who read this article and I hope he enjoyed his lunch.
LIFE OF AN ISRAELI IMMIGRANT FROM BRITAIN
Sir – My younger brother is a Holocaust survivor from France, our parents having fled Vienna just before the Second World War. He emigrated to Israel over 40 years ago following his graduation from Manchester University to escape the undercurrent of anti-Semitism he experienced in the UK in the 1960s.
We correspond regularly and I anticipate his letters and emails with enthusiasm as they are always interesting and often quite hilarious.
This is why I often make a bee-line to the back page of your excellent journal to enjoy the articles of Dorothea Shefer-Vanson. Her articles can be serious but usually are humorous and light-hearted, a reflection of the life of an Israeli immigrant from Britain. They make a pleasant contrast to the rest of the Journal, which can be sad and even depressing at times.
Perhaps my brother is not aware of the self-immolations, alcohol abuse, paedophilia etc in Israel - or perhaps he doesn’t want to burden me with such depressing topics, which can be readily accessed in The Guardian, the internet, the BBC and much of the British media.
What I do know, however, is that if I ever were to receive a letter from Kiryat Shemona signed Ray Lewis (your September issue), I know exactly what I would do with it. Bin it.
Sir - Like Hans Eirew (Letters, August), I was in Vienna in March 1938. The sounds of the Wehrmacht marching and the Luftwaffe overhead were drowned by cheering people. I didn’t understand until much later why the adults gathered to celebrate my 9th birthday were silent and gloomy and didn’t join the jubilant mood of the crowds in the streets below our flat. The enthusiasm and speed with which the Austrians then went about first excluding, then persecuting, Jews surpassed that of their German compatriots. The smug chutzpah of the Austrians, who claimed in 1945 (and since) that they were victims of a ‘German occupation’ is laughable. Tom Tait (Letters, July) is quite right.
But this does not make me bitter or prevent me from enjoying 21st-century Austria and 21st-century Austrians!
NOT MY HEIMAT
Sir - What an odd letter from Eric Bourne. Why on earth should I regard the country of my birth as my ‘Heimat’? The Austrians chucked my family out and, in any case, I was only three years old when we left Vienna.
I think Eric Bourne is looking for excuses for his many visits to Berlin. You don't need excuses, Eric! If you enjoy Berlin, why not live there too? My infrequent visits to Vienna are enjoyable but Vienna (and Austria) are certainly not my ‘Heimat’. Vienna happens to be my ‘place of birth’ on my passport - and that’s all.
Eric Bourne writes about ‘life enrichment’. Mine has been enriched by the very fact that I live in England. What a pity he doesn’t feel the same and, consequently, has to keep visiting Berlin - his ‘Heimat’ - to attain that fulfilment.
MUNCH ‘SICK CHILD’
Sir - There is a small error in Gloria Tessler’s review (September) of the Munch exhibition at the Tate Modern. Writing about The Sick Child, she describes the grieving woman as the mother of the child. The child was Munch’s beloved sister Sophie, who had died, aged 15, in 1877. Their mother had died in 1868 and the children were looked after by their aunt Karen, who is the grieving woman by the bedside.
PLUS THREE DAYS
Sir – Concerning the article by Clemens Nathan (‘AJR Representatives at Buckingham Palace for Diamond Jubilee Celebrations’) in a recent issue of the Journal, reference to wishing someone to live to 120 is now obsolete. The wish now is to live to 120 plus 3 days. Who wants to die on their birthday?
Sir - The following may amuse some of your readers. On a recent cruise around the Baltic area, I was surprised, to say the least, when a number of fellow passengers told me they wished to hold a Friday night Shabbat service. The ‘leaders’ of this rapidly growing group - a couple from Leeds - thereupon approached the ship’s captain with a request for a bottle of wine. He replied that none was available as there was no precedent for such a service. When, however, the Leeds couple insisted – there were 30 of us by now! – he relented and handed over a dozen bottles of kosher Manischewitz wine!
Lo and behold, on completion of the service, there wasn’t a bottle to be seen anywhere ….