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Nov 2013 Journal

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A wealth of memoirs

The number of memoirs and autobiographies by former refugees from Hitler published over the past two decades is rapidly approaching a flood. Partly the result of a natural tendency for people who have reached a certain age to commit their memories to print, this also reflects the huge interest in the Holocaust that has developed in recent years. In this field, women outnumber men – in part for simple reasons of longevity. Women refugees lost the status, security and settled lifestyle that they had enjoyed in their native lands. However, the experience of forced emigration and the demands of building new lives in Britain sometimes brought about a reversal of roles between husbands and wives, as the latter had perforce to take on tasks and responsibilities that had in Germany or Austria fallen to the lot of their menfolk.
Two recently published autobiographies are by female refugees notable for their highly distinguished careers. Though these books could easily fall into the familiar category of the ‘refugee success story’, they do not shy away from the trauma of forced emigration or from the difficulties that beset young refugee women starting out on careers in post-war Britain. The first of these remarkable women is Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley, born Vera Stephanie Buchthal in Dortmund in 1933, who came to Britain on a Kindertransport in 1939. She became a highly successful and pioneering entrepreneur, setting up her own company in the early days of information technology, but then proceeding to divest herself of much of her wealth, as one of Britain’s leading philanthropists; it is a rare business magnate whose pride in being listed in the Sunday Times Rich List is exceeded by her pleasure at dropping out of it as a result of charitable donations.
Dame Stephanie’s changes of name reflect two of the principal challenges that confronted her. The first was that of the refugee from Nazism who has to adapt to a new country; this she met in 1951, on taking British citizenship, when she changed her surname from Buchthal to Brook and started using her middle name as her first name. She thereby committed herself ‘to making a success of my life as Stephanie Brook, Englishwoman’ (Shirley is her surname by marriage.) But her transition to Britishness was by no means unproblematical. In the absence of their parents, whose relationship had broken down, she and her elder sister Renate were brought up in the rural West Midlands by a British family, the Smiths. Her mother took a job in distant Shropshire and her father returned to Germany alone after the war. Whereas Renate never felt settled in Britain, Stephanie flourished: she developed a love of mathematics at school and moved easily into the world of IT in the dawning computer era.
The second challenge was the brute sexism that dogged her career. This led her to sign her letters ‘Steve Shirley’, in the belief that it would enable her to promote her company free from the stereotype of female inferiority that infected the business world. The litany of sexist slurs and inequities she encountered is long and, for men, shaming. When in the 1960s Dame Stephanie had the idea of creating a business by utilising the skills of women who were homebound by family responsibilities but could work part-time as computer programmers, the Inland Revenue concluded, with truly magnificent idiocy, that one of them must be earning her income by running a brothel from her home.
The book relates how Dame Stephanie’s entrepreneurial drive led her to found her company, Freelance Programmers, whose launch on the Stock Exchange as FI Group in 1996 made her a multi-millionaire. What makes this impressive achievement even more remarkable is that she was throughout struggling to care for a severely autistic son, a harrowing experience that at one stage drove her to a nervous breakdown; her son died in 1998, aged 35. Projects connected with autism rank high among the beneficiaries of her charity. Her autobiography, Let IT Go, published by Andrews UK in 2012, is the record of a life full of ambition, vision and generosity, qualities that one may perhaps attribute, at least in part, to the German-Jewish values she inherited.
Lisl Klein’s autobiography, Nobody Said It Would Be Easy, was published by the Book Guild in 2012. It follows the author’s life from her early childhood in Karlsbad in the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, where she was born in 1928, to her arrival in Britain in November 1938, her years as a penniless and alienated refugee child often separated from her parents, and on to her distinguished career pioneering the practical application of social science in the workplace. Klein, at ten, was older than Stephanie Shirley when she left the country of her birth and she found it correspondingly more difficult to adapt to the abrupt change in her circumstances. She too was unable to live with her parents and, unlike Dame Stephanie, experienced a bewildering and mostly unhappy series of temporary ‘billets’. She also felt keenly the separation from her relatives left behind: the figure of her cousin and childhood companion Peter, who died at Auschwitz aged 15, haunts her memory.
Although Klein passed successfully from grammar school to university, she had difficulty as a young adult in finding her place in British post-war society. Her father had died during the war, while her mother struggled with poverty and mental instability. Klein had inherited her values from her admired aunt Fanni, a prominent Social Democrat. Those values influenced the spirit of the work that she later undertook, attempting to measure the impact of new technologies on the employees who had to work with them and to optimise that impact, reasoning that any enterprise that took its workforce into account when it introduced technological changes could only benefit thereby. Her ‘life-long love affair with industry’ began during her first, humble jobs in small firms in the early 1950s. She developed a fascination with diagnosing the organisational structures and deficiencies of enterprises, which led to a distinguished career devoted to improving the productivity of firms like Esso (ExxonMobil). She worked for 19 years at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, then founded her own Bayswater Institute in 1990.
In Britain, the social culture of the Social Democratic refugees from the Sudetenland was restricted to a very small circle. As Jews and as Social Democrats, Klein’s family had been a minority among the German-speaking population of the Sudetenland, most of which went over to the Nazis with enthusiasm. But these ethnic Germans themselves formed only a minority among a Czech majority; when they were expelled en masse after the war, the entire German-speaking culture of the Sudetenland was erased. But by then the Holocaust had also created an unbridgeable gulf between Germans and Jews. These tensions and conflicts of identity echo through Klein’s memoirs. Only when she unexpectedly acquired the Richmond Park Hotel in Karlsbad in the 1990s, as part of the belated process of restitution by the Czech government, was she able to re-establish a fruitful connection with her native town.
In complete contrast to these two autobiographies stands the diary of Sophie Roth, written during the war and published in 2012 by the Theodor Kramer Gesellschaft in Vienna as Für mein Schurlikind: Tagebuch 1940-1944. Edited with exemplary devotion by the historian Evelyn Adunka, the diary was written under the crushing impact of the death of Sophie Roth’s younger son Richard Georg, known as Schurli, who had arrived in Britain with his parents in late August 1939 already terminally ill with cancer; he died on 18 October 1939, a few days short of his eleventh birthday. Sophie Roth, née Landau, had been born in Vienna in 1901 and married Norbert Roth in 1921. The couple also had an elder son, Erwin (later Edwin), born in 1924.
Sophie Roth began her diary on 26 August 1940, the first anniversary of the family’s last full day in Vienna, and the subsequent daily entries recall milestones in the last weeks of her younger son’s short life: their departure from Vienna, the journey across Germany and Holland, their admission to Britain, and their arrival in Manchester. The grief of a bereaved mother structures the diary as she recalls each day what she and Schurli had been doing a year ago, until she reaches the anniversary of his death, followed by what would have been his twelfth birthday. The diary thus becomes a means of expressing, and perhaps to some extent softening, the pain of her loss; even so, that pain comes across with almost unbearable intensity. The entries are punctuated by repeated air raids, while Roth’s sense of loneliness is greatly accentuated by the absence of her husband and elder son, interned as ‘enemy aliens’, which left her to fend alone in her time of greatest need. This is a deeply moving document, which sets the individual tragedy of a family against the broader background of the sufferings and hardships of war and emigration.

Anthony Grenville

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