Book Review: Encounters With Albion: Britain and the British in Texts by Jewish Refugees From Nazism

David Herman is absorbed by a special history


Anthony Grenville has had two distinguished careers. For 25 years, he taught modern German literature and then, in 1996, he became the historical consultant to the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR)and started publishing a series of books and articles about German-speaking Jewish refugees, including, in 2010, the superb Jewish Refugees from Germany and Austria in Britain, 1933-1970.

His new book, Encounters with Albion, brings together both parts of his career. As a historian, he looks at the experience of Jewish refugees, from arrival and internment to military service and adapting after the war. And, as a literary critic, he looks at this experience through the writings of refugees — novels, memoirs, diaries and letters — reading them carefully for telling images and seeing what they reveal about their encounters with Britain and the British.

Grenville mixes the well-known and the more obscure. He writes about major literary figures like Stefan Zweig, Judith Kerr and her father Alfred — Weimar Germany’s leading theatre critic — and Fred Uhlman, author of Reunion and The Making of an Englishman.

Grenville’s reading of Zweig is particularly interesting. He points out how often Zweig compares himself to a fly trapped in a spider’s web, to a condemned man in his cell, or sees his existence as dependent on “the fickle roll of a roulette wheel.” He contrasts the more positive image of exile in Alfred Kerr’s diaries with the bleaker account in Judith Kerr’s famous trilogy.

Both writers were impressed by the decency, order and maturity of British life. This is a recurring theme in many of the accounts by exiles. Zweig, in particular, admired British tolerance, its long tradition of democracy and respect for the law. It is no coincidence that some of the great works on British government and Parliament were written by émigrés and refugees from central Europe.

Of course, there was a darker side, too. Internment was a bitter blow. For many refugees, exile was a time of struggle and insecurity. For the elderly, in particular, it marked a cruel loss of status. Many couldn’t adjust to the new language, the terrible food and the lack of proper central heating.

Some of the most moving stories, though, are written by less well-known figures: tales of loneliness; the humiliating treatment of domestic servants; stories of loss by children who arrived with the Kindertransport.

Grenville has trawled the archives of the AJR and numerous books and diaries for stories which help us understand the experience of refugees. It is hard to think of anyone who has done more to open up their world and bring it to life.


David Herman is a senior JC reviewer


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