in the garden


Sep 2001 Journal

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Anglo-Jewry and the Refugees from the Continent

Final part

The tendency of the refugees to remain at arm’s length from Anglo-Jewry, while embracing many aspects of British life and society, emerges clearly in the AJR Information. Originally, the founders of the Association had expected the refugees to integrate fully into Anglo-Jewry; this was indeed explicitly stated as one of the aims of the Association on its foundation in 1941, but it was to remain unfulfilled.

The amount of material on Anglo-Jewry in the journal is so huge that I can only cover a tiny sample of it here, taken from the years 1957/58. In March 1958 appeared an article (in German) by Nelly Wolffheim, an eminent teacher and educationalist. The articles have the title ‘Jüdische Beziehungen zu Nichtjuden’ (‘Jewish relations with non-Jews’) but the catalyst for them was Nelly Wolffheim’s encounter with British Jews, a group stranger to her than most non-Jews: “The idea of analysing my relationships with non-Jews arose from conversations with several English Jews in whom I encountered an attitude which was alien to me. I had not, in Germany, come across this fear of assimilation and rejection of closer ties with non-Jews. The conscious tendency to keep to their own kind was totally alien to me.” The bafflement of the assimilated German Jew at the enclosed sub-culture of Anglo-Jewry, defined by customs and practices designed to maintain a separate Jewish identity, finds clear expression here.

Favourable Impressions of the British

Her evident unease with British Jews led Nelly Wolffheim to review her relations with non-Jews in Britain, which she depicts as highly positive. She lists the conditions under which she lived after her arrival in Britain shortly before the war, in the home of her guarantor, a devout High Church Anglican: “An invitation to stay with her for 6 weeks (it became months), room with en suite bathroom, meals together, breakfast in bed, afternoon tea with guests in my room, when I felt like it, absolutely no obligation to work.” She went to Oxford as a wartime evacuee, and was profoundly impressed by the tolerance and consideration she encountered in Christian circles there, in particular the British gift for putting strangers at their ease by politeness: “One didn’t have the feeling one was an exotic foreigner, but rather that one could be oneself…Ideological disagreements were overcome by polite behaviour and the kindness of landladies.”

What interests me here is not so much the accuracy of Nelly Wolffheim’s observations of the British, but rather the question of perceptions. Perceptions are all-important in this area, and the perceptions here, as so often in the AJR Information, are twofold. Anglo-Jewry is seen as alien, difficult to approach and as guided in its communal life by habits and values not shared by assimilated German Jews. The British, by contrast, are generally depicted in a thoroughly favourable light; their qualities of tolerance, decency, fairness, courtesy, a gentlemanly consideration for those less fortunate and an understated generosity of spirit are repeatedly emphasised. One might speak of a dual mechanism of rejection and attraction at work here, of the rejection of Anglo-Jewry as one of the factors fuelling an eagerness to embrace what is plainly a Wunschbild of middle-class British society. The process of assimilation into the professional middle class, brutally interrupted in Germany and Austria, was to be resumed and accelerated in Britain.

Anglo-Jewry in the AJR Information

For many years, the AJR Information ran a column entitled ‘Anglo-Judaica’, which aimed to keep its readers informed about developments in Anglo-Jewry. The image of Anglo-Jewry in the AJR Information in 1957/58 tends to dwell on its failings, especially the problems of internal conflicts, financial deficits and declining membership. In March 1957, fairly typically, the journal reports in its column ‘Anglo-Judaica’ the failure of the Centenary Appeal for Jews’ College to meet its target after 4½ years. Another theme is the dearth of culture in Anglo-Jewry, as in the comments of the writer Alexander Baron, who is reported as saying at a symposium held during Jewish Book Week that there was no market for Jewish literature in Britain, where Jews “grew up in an atmosphere hostile to art”. In April 1957, one of the perennial internal divisions within Anglo-Jewry emerges in the report of a statement by the President of the Anglo-Jewish Association that there was “absolutely no chance of reconciliation” between his organisation and the Board of Deputies.

The theme of a breach between the friends of the refugees and other sections of Anglo-Jewry appears in the reports of a bitter conflict at the West London Synagogue, where the Senior Minister, Rabbi Reinhart, and his deputy were driven to resign. Rabbi Reinhart, who had run the inter-denominational 33 Club which welcomed the newly arrived refugees and had helped care for refugee children at Lingfield House, Isleworth, was known to have taken a special interest in the refugees, and the journal pointedly published a tribute to him the following month, detailing his charitable efforts on their behalf.

Throughout, a clear divide between the attitude of Anglo-Jewry and that of the Continental Jews from the German-speaking lands can be discerned. The cultural and historical factors separating them led, in my view, to the refusal in large measure of the Continental Jews to merge into Anglo-Jewry and their consequent willingness to recreate their own Continental culture within the framework of a close association with and assimilation to Britain, to British society and a British style of life.
Dr Anthony Grenville

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