Refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants seeking new lives in Europe will continue to dominate the news in 2018. Is it fair to compare their struggles with Jews fleeing the Holocaust and its aftermath? That’s the task Tony Kushner, a professor in Southampton University’s history department, sets himself in Journeys from the Abyss.
The book is hard going for the general reader, as can be gathered by the language Kushner employs to outline his book’s purpose: “It explores how the idea of ‘the refugee’ has been constructed and reconstructed in relation to power in the form of gender, class/occupation, age, place/space, and the territorialization of ‘home’.” Trying to work that out, I felt a bit like Bertie Wooster grappling with the latest improving work foisted on him by Honoria Glossop.
Kushner focuses on three groups of Jewish refugees: those pressed into domestic service in the 1930s, however overqualified they were for such drudgery; the 732 young Holocaust survivors airlifted to the Lake District in 1945 and immortalised by the late Sir Martin Gilbert as “The Boys” in his book of that name (although, as Kushner points out, 10 per cent of them were girls); and the 4,500 Jews on board the Exodus who, in 1947, were forcibly prevented from landing in Palestine by the British authorities and eventually returned to Hamburg.
Kushner is consistently critical of British actions in all three of his selected areas of study, sometimes justifiably (as in the shameful story of the Exodus), sometimes partially so, in the case of domestic servitude, and quite absurdly in the case of the Lake District refugees. He has a problem throughout with what he calls “Britain’s self-image of being free, fair and generous”, even though he quotes many of the domestic servants and the Lake District youths as being deeply grateful to the country that took them in and gave them a new life.
In similar vein, he dislikes what he sees as our romanticising of the Kindertransport on the grounds that the saving of the lives of several thousand young Jews pales by comparison with the hundreds of thousands who survived the Holocaust but who are not so vividly remembered and commemorated.
Kushner thinks the Kindertransport has “become part of a morality tale featuring Britain as ‘fairy godmother’ helping the children to be ‘re-born’ with all traces of ambiguity removed”, which ignores the hardship and psychological suffering many of them suffered. It’s a view unlikely to make him many friends outside the rarefied world of migration studies.
As to the lessons to be learnt today from yesterday’s Jewish refugees, Professor Kushner thinks we should embrace “planetary humanism” and welcome anybody who wishes to come here. Anything else is “exclusivity and short-sighted selfishness”. Presumably the study of the social consequences of such a policy is for another volume.
Tony Kushner will be discussing the subject of Jewish refugees at Jewish Book Week on March 11. Robert Low is consultant editor of Standpoint magazine.