Extracts from the Apr 2013 Journal

Hermann Sinsheimer, a German Jew

The beautiful little town of Freinsheim in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate) nestles like a gem among the abundant vineyards and orchards of this sunlit, fertile area of south-western Germany. It lies just off the Deutsche Weinstrasse (German Wine Route), which may help to explain the humorous, humane, tolerant temperament of its citizens, including its most famous son, the Jewish writer, journalist and theatre critic Hermann Sinsheimer, who was born there in 1883 and died in London in 1950. Sinsheimer was one of the many literary and cultural figures who adorned the community of the Jewish refugees from Nazism in Britain in general and AJR Information in particular.
Sinsheimer studied law, but his great love was the theatre, and he soon abandoned the legal profession to become a theatre critic in Mannheim. In 1916 he moved to Munich, spending two years in charge of a major theatre, the Münchner Kammerspiele. He then wrote literary and theatrical reviews for Munich’s leading newspaper, the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, demonstrating a rare talent for his vocation. However, in 1923 the Bavarian government expelled Jews from Eastern Europe, even those long settled in Munich, if they had not been naturalised; among them were two families of Sinsheimer’s acquaintance whose sons had died fighting for Germany in the First World War. When the newspaper refused to protest against this blatant injustice, Sinsheimer, a man of principle, resigned and became editor-in-chief of the celebrated satirical weekly magazine Simplicissimus.
In 1929 he moved with Anny Balder, his first wife, to Berlin, to the liberal Berliner Tageblatt, one of the capital’s great dailies. Sinsheimer’s articles graced the Feuilleton (arts section) of the paper, though, as the renowned theatre critic Alfred Kerr (father of the writer Judith Kerr) was already on the paper’s staff, Sinsheimer concentrated instead on film reviews and articles on literary and other matters, including an attack on Dr Goebbels in April 1931. His articles and his numerous longer publications brim with wit and erudition, with clarity and originality of thought and elegance of style. In March 1933, when Alfred Kerr fled Germany, Sinsheimer took over the position of leading theatre critic at the Berliner Tageblatt, but in September 1933 himself fell victim to a Berufsverbot (ban on exercising his profession) as a result of his defiant gesture in publishing a sixtieth birthday tribute to the great theatre director Max Reinhardt, a Jew.
Proud of both sides of his German-Jewish heritage and deeply rooted in German culture, Sinsheimer stayed on in Germany until 1938, when it became clear that he had to leave. He went first to Palestine, which did not suit him; in a lecture delivered at the Hebrew University, he declared that he had not come to Jerusalem to stand at the Wailing Wall but to sit in the lecture theatres of the university. He moved on to London, which was to become his home for the remaining 12 years of his life. Already 55 years of age in 1938, he felt something of an outsider in England, a country whose customs he found hard to fathom and where he became an ‘enemy alien’ on the outbreak of war.
Though profoundly aware of his Jewish heritage, Sinsheimer retained throughout his life his love for his native Freinsheim and for his native region, the Palatinate. He began his short autobiographical piece An den Wassern von Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon, 1920) with the evocative words ‘The town of Freinsheim in the Palatinate, where I was born, overflows with history, wine and fruit.’ And he ended it with a defiant declaration that he was ‘a German and a Jew’. This defined his relationship to Germany even after the Nazi period. Writing to a German acquaintance in 1946, he declared that whereas the German people had betrayed and defiled the best values of Germany after 1933, those values had been preserved by the German-Jewish émigrés, who had become the true representatives of what had been best in German culture. The title of his posthumously published autobiographical volume, Gelebt im Paradies (Dwelt in Paradise, 1953), aptly conveys his image of the town in which he had grown up.
On balance, Sinsheimer adapted well to life in Britain, taking on a formidable workload in the post-war years. For German publications, he reviewed German books ranging from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus to the memoirs of Rudolf Pechel and Hans Bernd Gisevius, members of the resistance to Hitler, and the diaries of Ulrich von Hassell, who had been executed by the Nazis in the wake of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944. Sinsheimer was also a reviewer for very distinguished British publications: the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the Political Quarterly, founded in 1930 by Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband. One of Sinsheimer’s most important books, a study of Shakespeare’s Shylock, was first published in English by Victor Gollancz in 1947, as Shylock: The History of a Character or the Myth of the Jew. An appreciative review of the book by Lutz Weltmann appeared in AJR Information of July 1947. It had a foreword by John Middleton Murry, who had been married to the writer Katherine Mansfield and was himself a leading figure in London literary life, an indication of how well connected Sinsheimer was in British cultural and intellectual circles.
Sinsheimer’s second wife helped him enormously in settling more or less contentedly in Britain. Christobel May Fowler was born in Lancashire in 1897 and attended Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied Modern Languages. She spoke excellent German. She became a Quaker, worked as a teacher, then became active in charitable work; after visiting Germany in 1936, she concentrated on relief work for the refugees from Nazism. Sinsheimer had met Christobel in 1938, and in 1940, when she came to work in London, she nursed him through a bout of shingles. They married in 1947 and moved into a flat at 135A, High Street Kensington - an address to which Sinsheimer became reconciled once he had discovered the joys of walking through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park on his way to the University of London Library in Bloomsbury. Though he had many contacts with fellow refugees from Germany, Sinsheimer never lived in those districts of north-west London where the Jews from Germany and Austria congregated, and he did not join the literary and cultural organisations that they founded.
Christobel Fowler belonged to that cultured, liberal stratum of British middle-class society which made refugees like Sinsheimer welcome. Her young nieces, unable to pronounce the German name, simply called her new husband ‘Dr Sunshine’. Through people like the Fowlers, Sinsheimer came to admire British pragmatism and tolerance, though he could never come to terms with the culture of a nation that did not grow wine and he declared that, as an orderly German, he despaired of a country where heat waves in February were followed by rain and fog in June. Nevertheless, he came to act as an important intermediary between Britain and Germany through the many lectures that he gave between 1946 and 1948, at the invitation of the Control Office for Germany and Austria, to German prisoners of war. In August 1948, he travelled long distances to speak at six PoW camps in ten days, receiving an enthusiastic reception for his talks on German culture and history. On another occasion, when visiting Island Farm Camp in Bridgend, Glamorgan, where high-ranking officers were held, he delivered a stinging rebuke to Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, who had attempted a clumsy defence of Germany’s history. He did his able best to convert his audiences to the values of democracy, international reconciliation and a political culture founded on individual morality and responsibility.
Sinsheimer published a major front-page article in AJR Information of August 1947, a thought-provoking piece entitled ‘Twice a Jew’, on the identity and responsibilities of the German Jews who had survived the Nazis. The journal reported Sinsheimer’s death in 1950, and in October 1955 it published a review by Otto Zarek of Gelebt im Paradies, which included an affectionate appreciation of Sinsheimer’s life and work. Nor has Sinsheimer been neglected by his home town, which in 1983, the centenary of his birth, instituted a prize in his name, the Hermann-Sinsheimer-Preis für Literatur und Publizistik, supplemented since 2000 by a medal, the Hermann-Sinsheimer-Plakette.
In 2012, in an admirable example of dedicated local research, an edition of Hermann and Christobel Sinsheimer’s letters from London to Sinsheimer’s former classmate Frida Schaffner-Reibold in Freinsheim was published by the Stiftung zur Förderung der pfälzischen Geschichtsforschung, the institution that conducts research into the history of the Palatinate. Edited to the highest scholarly standards by Hans-Helmut Görtz and Gabriele and Erik Giersberg, the volume, Briefe aus England in die Pfalz (Neustadt an der Weinstraße, ISBN 978-3-942189-12-5), contains in its 768 pages a mine of information about every aspect of Sinsheimer’s life. At €49, it offers the reader an invaluable insight into the mind of a major cultural figure from Germany as he adapted to life in post-war Britain.

Claims Conference Late Applicants’ Fund

The Claims Conference has established a Late Applicants’ Fund of €50 million to accept applications from certain heirs of former owners of Jewish property/assets located in the former East Germany for which the Claims Conference received proceeds. Applications must be submitted before 31 December 2014. [more...]

Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia - the facts

Reading the interesting article ‘Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish refugees from Nazism' (December 2012), I was amazed that there was not the slightest mention of the refugees from Czechoslovakia - there were quite a number of us. I have been a member of the AJR for some 20 years and, reading the AJR Journal regularly all those years, I cannot recall one article about the Jews of Czechoslovakia. [more...]

Art Notes

A portraitist during the era of Realism, an artist who pre-figured Impressionism, Edouard Manet was born on the cusp of photography and in the Royal Academy’s first major UK portrait exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life (until 14 April), you can sense his tentative steps in both directions.
His Realism taught him the formalism of dark colours, when painting subjects like Antonin Proust or the two faces of Berthe Morisot, first in the charm of youth and later in the widowhood which ravaged her. Yet it feels as though the advent of photography almost cramped his style. The serious men in top hats, or seated bookishly like Emile Zola, are a nod to the Old Masters of a century earlier. Was the artist afraid to experiment? Manet’s much loved Bar at the Folies-Bergère in the neighbouring Courtauld Institute would have been a welcome addition to the show ....
But Manet is master of mystery. In The Railway, painted in 1873, a woman in a hat with a book and a tiny puppy sits facing us against the figure of a child in a white dress and a big blue sash, with her back to us, staring out at the steam from an invisible passing train. The painting prompted Jacques de Biez to comment in 1884 ‘Where the devil is the railway in this picture of a railway?’
In fact, the Gare Saint-Lazare, which captivated Paris with the coming of industrialisation, was only two blocks away from the artist’s studio, but of course its message is the story of a world about to change, far from the experience of the elegant woman and child. Manet tells us that he too must embrace change and perhaps the Impressionists would power his artistic transformation - even though he refused to exhibit with them.
There are hints of Impressionism in Music in the Tuileries Gardens, where a large crowd gathers to discuss Wagner. The composition is oddly bisected by a tree, perhaps an allusion to Wotan in his Ring cycle, who breaks off the world ash tree’s holiest branch to make his divine spear.
Manet painted his two brothers, Eugène and Gustave, but even in Boy Blowing Bubbles there is no sense of playfulness at all. Often in his narrative works featuring two or more people, there is no relationship between them. In The Luncheon only the bearded artist Auguste Rousselin, barely glimpsed in the background, sits at the table, while the main character, Léon, in a cream boater and black jacket, stands staring dreamily into space, the maid behind him with a jug. In this oddly disturbing piece he uses the symbol of the black cat in homage to the dead poet Baudelaire yet, if this suggests the past, many of the works verge on Modernism, even though Manet himself had few artistic pretensions. He seems to have flooded only one painting with colour - a lavish study of Emilie Ambre as Carmen, with a red rose and white mantilla.
But in The Street Singer, a woman holds a bunch of grapes to her lips in guilty shock. Has she stolen them? Has someone accosted her? The mystery of Manet again.

Devastating depiction of post-war German society

Some 400,000 so-called non-Aryans emigrated from Germany and Austria during the Nazi period. A mere 5 per cent returned after the war. This is the story of one of this ‘minority within a minority’.
The book, published in German, is described as a Roman - a novel. But is it? It alternates between studiously researched, detailed documentary evidence and imaginative fiction. The author herself has revealed that her story is ‘not invented but found’. Indeed, one AJR member, Ruth Barnett, has identified the central character as based on her own father, Robert Michaelis. In this book, however, the central character is called Dr Richard Kornitzer.
Richard Kornitzer is described as an up-and-coming Berlin jurist, alienated from traditional Judaism, married to a non-Jewish advertising executive. They have two children. Immediately after the Nazis come to power he is dismissed from his post as a judge. The fact that he has converted to Protestantism, apparently to be closer to his wife, gives him no advantages. To the Nazis he is a Volljude. For a while he ekes out a living in Berlin but in 1939 he emigrates to one of the few places still open to him - Cuba. However, he fails in his efforts to bring his wife out before the outbreak of war. The children had earlier been sent to England on a Kindertransport. For 12 years the family is dispersed but in 1947, after great efforts, Kornitzer returns to Germany to rejoin his wife, to reclaim his post as a judge, and to reassemble the family. [more...]

Poles, Jews and Germans in WWII: A horror story

This book was published under the auspices of the Polish Foreign Office and sceptics might therefore think that it is to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, it contains reports, memoranda, bulletins and edicts, either whole or in part and written at the time, with precise dates and locations, the authenticity of which cannot be doubted. There are also a number of lengthy articles written by Polish historians that attempt to analyse various facets of what was, during the war, a chaotic, deeply traumatic and confusing situation and for which there may never be a definitive resolution. The book shows clearly enough that the German occupiers were beastly to Poles and Jews alike, that the Polish population on the whole behaved badly towards their Jewish compatriots but not infrequently also behaved with great courage in hiding or assisting Jews, and that the suffering of the Jews was indescribable - they were between the hammer and the anvil.
The editors make it clear from the start that their book differs from others written about that period: (a) it reveals many authentic Polish and German documents; (b) the writings of Polish historians (one of them one of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem) are made available to Anglophone readers for the first time; and (c) it illustrates the awful realities prevailing in Poland during the war. Thus, noble and ignoble attitudes co-existed, sometimes curiously intertwined. Evidently the Holocaust has become a major field for study in Poland since 1989 and the Poles are still trying to come to terms with what transpired in the war years. Readers who believe that Polish anti-Semitism has a lot to answer for will find their views confirmed, but those who feel that nothing was black-and-white in those terrible years and that many Poles showed compassion, often risking their lives, likewise can derive support for their point of view. As the title implies, Poland was indeed an inferno and the choices citizens often had to make were dire in the extreme.
The documents vary from an announcement in 1939 by the Executive Authority of the Jewish Religious Community on the time limit for the enforced move into the Warsaw ghetto, a circular from a senior SS Commander in November 1939 on the resettlement of Jews and Poles, to the minutes of a meeting, on 16 December 1941, of the cabinet of the General Government on Jewish policy ‘towards their total elimination’, and a bulletin, published underground, sternly banning Poles from joining an auxiliary force to guard barracks in labour camps. Underground publications frequently warned Poles not to collaborate with the Germans: ‘Whoever is silent in the face of murder becomes an accomplice in it. Whoever does not condemn - condones ... Let us, Polish Catholics, speak up’ (August 1942). Other underground publications speak of the Jews as ‘the enemy’ whilst at the same time calling for compassion.
The historical articles are detailed and varied. One deals with the life of Jews ‘on the Aryan side’, i.e. living in hiding outside the ghetto and therefore largely dependent on assistance from Poles. This assistance was sometimes given altruistically but, in the majority of cases, by payment. Another article gives details of denunciatory letters written by Poles, their motives very often being greed or the settling of scores rather than anti-Semitism per se (70 per cent of such letters concerned non-Jewish citizens). Others still discussed the problem of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Germans, the problems of Jews hiding in the countryside, the help given to Jews in one particular area (Rzeszow), and the question of payments and extortions (and sometimes denunciations) on the part of ‘helpers’. In July 1943 the Foreign Affairs Section of the Government Delegation of Poland acknowledged that there continued to be strong resentment towards the Jewish population and called for the resettlement of its survivors in a ‘national centre’ (location unspecified)!
The final section deals with ‘szaber frenzy’ (the word ‘szaber’ stems from the Hebrew ‘szdbar’ (to break) that erupted in the Polish population near the end and in the first two years after the war - a frenzy of indiscriminate looting and pillaging on a grand scale by people who were by then totally demoralised by the dreadful and chaotic conditions in which they had had to eke out their lives for six long years.
This is a book I commend to anyone who wants to know what happened in that tragic country during the war years, in which as many as three million Poles are estimated to have died in dire circumstances. It may not give us a definitive picture but it is an important step towards that objective.

Letter from Israel

What was formerly known as the Israel National and University Library has been situated on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus (now known as the Edmund Safra Campus) since its construction in the early 1960s. I remember the imposing yet welcoming building in which I spent many happy hours, studying and occasionally also catching up on journals and magazines from England during the 1960s when I was a graduate student in the nearby Kaplan building for the Social Sciences. In those days, the air-conditioning in the library was so powerful that one had to take a woolly jumper even in the heat of summer. The Ardon windows with their message of the universality of learning dominated the upper lobby with vibrant colours. It was difficult to resist the temptation just to sit and gaze at them, drinking in their beauty.
The origins of the library lie in the mists of time, in 1892, when the B’nai B’rith library was founded in Jerusalem, constituting the first public library for the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. In 1925 the collection formed the core of the library on Mount Scopus, the original site of the newly inaugurated Hebrew University.
In 1948, when access to the university campus on Mount Scopus was blocked, most of the books were moved to the university's temporary quarters in the Terra Sancta building in Rehavia. By that time, the university collection included over one million books. For lack of space, some of the books were placed in storerooms around the city. In 1960 they were moved to the new JNUL (Jewish National and University Library) building in Givat Ram. I recall being informed in confidence in 1965 by a friend who was off to do military service on Mount Scopus that he had been instructed to surreptitiously bring as many books as possible back from the Mount Scopus campus.
In the late 1970s, when the new university complex on Mount Scopus was inaugurated and the faculties of law, the humanities and social science returned there, departmental libraries opened on that campus and the number of visitors to the Givat Ram library dropped. Nevertheless, the library continued to exhibit parts of its remarkable collection of texts.
The library holds some of the world’s most important documents, among them ancient Hebrew texts, Albert Einstein’s correspondence, Isaac Newton’s Bible-based musings and calculations regarding the ‘End of Days’, unique exemplars of ancient maps, both those of the world and those referring specifically to Palestine, recordings and musical notation of Jewish and ethnic music, Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, the writings of Maimonides, Stefan Zweig, Martin Buber and many others.
But despite its impressive architecture, the building is beginning to show signs of old age and a new site has been designated for it, a stone’s throw from the university campus, on the outer edge of the area containing the government ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Bank of Israel, and facing the area where the Knesset, the Israel Museum, the Bible Lands Museum and the Science Museum are to be found. According to the sign that has gone up at the site, the new building will be financed jointly by the government of Israel and Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation), which funded the construction of the Knesset and the Supreme Court building. A competition has been held and architects have been chosen, so that the new building is expected to be completed by July 2017.
Although I haven’t needed to use the library for many years, it still holds a warm place in my heart.

Letters to the Editor

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