Review: British Jews with a separate identity

By Ruth Rothenberg, August 4, 2010

Jewish Refugees from Germany and Austria in Britain 1933-1970
By Anthony Grenville
Vallentine Mitchell, £45 (pb £19.95)
reviewed by Ruth Rothenberg

Between 1933 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, over 60,000 Jews fled to Britain from Nazi Germany and, later, nazified Austria and Czechoslovakia. Some went on to the USA and other countries but nearly 50,000 stayed.

Stayed in Britain, that is — these refugees were acutely aware that, in the great wave of naturalisations starting in 1946 and petering out by 1950, they had become British but not English. Their literature, art, music and, above all, their accents remained indelibly foreign in a homogeneous, hidebound society that regarded culture, intellect and anything foreign with suspicion.

No matter. Despite the inedible native cuisine and draughty housing in a land untouched by central heating, this refugee population positively glowed in the warmth of its appreciation for — almost — all things British.

Although the term “Continental Briton” came into vogue in the 1980s, it was not a label seized upon by the original refugees. As one elderly man wrote in a summing-up of his life some seven years ago, he considered himself, “British by immigration and now admiration”. Hard to imagine a similar compliment in the future from today’s multicultural streams but who knows?

Neither side could appreciate the other’s true gifts

The pre-war German-Jewish influx had three religious bases: the deeply Orthodox, who established Golders Green Beth Hamedrash (Munk’s shul); the more numerous German Liberal Jews (in fact to the right of British Reform) who established the New Liberal Jewish Congregation, now Belsize Square Synagogue; and the vast majority of assimilated Jews for whom German culture had replaced Judaism.

Their new spiritual home became the 1941-founded Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) encompassing all strands.

Concentrating on this majority, which still forms the broad base of the AJR, Anthony Grenville’s book charts its course as it struggled and largely succeeded in adapting to its new homeland. As he explains, it is a social history drawn from the pages of its monthly journal which he edits.

It provides a wealth of fascinating information, not least the stand-off between the German-Jewish community and Anglo-Jewry. Young German Jews married each other — or non-Jews. Anglo-Jewish organisations sweated blood to get the refugees over. When they came, there was an unbridgeable gap. Neither side could appreciate the other’s true gifts.

Other nuggets include the contortions of name change which accompanied naturalisation. Short and sharp was the aim — Siegfried Hamburger to Sam Ham — but a certain Herr Tischler had to be persuaded to adopt Thompson rather than Thistlethwaite. The serious side of earning a living in manufacturing, engineering, sales and services is broached — and might repay deeper examination one day.

One small distinction may be worth mentioning in a work predicated on group differentiation. The cultural emphasis of the AJR Journal shifted in 1988 with the appointment of Richard Grunberger, its first Austrian, as opposed to German, editor.

Do not think that German-born readers did not notice the increased mention of Viennese cultural events and personalities. They did — and grumbled, if quietly.

Dr Grenville, who took over on Richard Grunberger’s death in 2005, continued the Austrian tradition but from a more academic viewpoint. Understandably — his father, Arthur Gruenfeld, came from Vienna.

Ruth Rothenberg is the JC’ obituary editor

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011