Life & Culture

How Jewish refugees changed British childhood

This is an extraordinary collection of essays about some extraordinary emigré artists and writers


Innocence and Experience: Childhood and the
Refugees from Nazism in Britain, edited by Charmian Brinson and Anna Nyburg

Peter Lang, £45

​This fascinating book of essays on childhood and Jewish refugees from Nazism started out as an online symposium in 2021. The contributors include key figures from the Insiders/Outsiders festival in 2020 which celebrated the contribution to British culture of refugees from Nazi Europe, and the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies at the University of London. In recent years they have transformed our understanding of the experience and cultural impact of Jewish refugees in Britain.

They have now turned their attention to the experience of child refugees and how refugees transformed the way we think about childhood. It is a rich subject. First, there was the huge impact of refugee women psychoanalysts like Anna Freud and Melanie Klein who revolutionized our understanding of early childhood, and are represented here by Michal Shapira’s essay on the psychoanalyst Kate Friedlander, who died tragically young in 1949.

Second, there is the extraordinary generation of women writers who discussed their own experience of displacement as children, both in books for children and adults, including writers like Judith Kerr, Eva Figes and Lore Segal, whose novels are thoughtfully explored by Anthony Grenville. This is complemented by Anna Nyburg’s powerful essay on women who wrote about being refugee mothers in wartime Britain.

Then there is an interesting group of children’s book illustrators like Susan Einzig, best known for her cover for Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), Jan Pienkowski, the extraordinarily prolific artist who illustrated over 140 children’s books, including Haunted House (1979) and the beloved Meg and Mog books, so popular in the late 20th century, and Bettina Ehrlich, who illustrated the Coccolo books in the 1940s. In her essay, Ines Schlenker, who recently wrote a superb book on the refugee artist Milein Cosman (who illustrated the cover for Noel Streatfield’s White Boots in 1951), introduces us to some less well-known illustrators like Walter Trier (who in Germany had illustrated the children’s classic, Emil and the Detectives), Jan LeWitt and George Him. Many of these books are stories of exile, most famously, Judith Kerr’s trilogy, but also Blue Peter (1943), illustrated by Le Witt and Him, about a puppy kicked out his home for being the wrong colour. As Schlenker writes, “émigré artists had a lasting influence on children’s publishing in Britain,” largely because of the skills they had acquired in central Europe and the way they used their experience of exile to reach out to generations of British children.

In her essay on images of childhood in the works of emigré artists, the art historian, Monica Bohm-Duchen, looks at images of mothers and babies by such different artists as the Polish-born Holocaust survivor, Roman Halter, whose post-war paintings and stained glass images, often featured mothers and children, the haunting pen-and-ink drawings of Fred Uhlman and paintings of West Indian immigrant families by the Berlin-born artist, Eva Frankfurther.

Finally, there is the section Children in Education and Play, with a group of very different essays on the letters of Lucian and Lucie Freud, Frank Cicek, a pioneer of children’s art pedagogy, and Hilde Jarecki, who changed the way we think about changing society through early years learning. Timing was crucial. These refugees arrived at a moment when the post-war state was supporting nurseries and new ways of thinking about early learning and helping disadvantaged children.

What is extraordinary about these essays is both the range of subjects they cover, from Anna Freud’s Hampstead Nurseries to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and how the essays enrich our understanding of a revolution in thinking about childhood that affected every part of British life, from child development and social work to post-war literature.

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