Life & Culture

The refugee crisis: the pain never ends

A heartbreaking exhibition about the flight from the Nazis 80 years ago was inspired by today's refugee crisis.


Deep in the heart of central London's Bloomsbury, echoes of the refugee voices of 80 years ago still seem embedded in the pavements. The remarkable exhibition opening next week at the Wiener Library, A Bitter Road, the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 40s, and how Britain dealt with it then, is displayed amid the desperate present-day headlines about today's refugees, entering the country, where they can, one step at a time.

The library was founded by the German Jew Alfred Wiener, who dedicated his life to documenting Nazi racism and antisemitism. The collection that he built up opened its doors to the public on September 1 1939, two days before the outbreak of war. Even today, it's possible to imagine the ghosts of those who worked for and helped the would-be immigrants to Britain in the surrounding streets - Bloomsbury House, a former hotel in Bloomsbury Street, was the headquarters for many of the aid organisations that did what they could to ease the passage of the refugees into Britain.

As the Wiener Library's Dr Barbara Warnock explains, the genesis of the new exhibition lay in today's refugee crisis. It's not hard to see parallels with contemporary global problems when learning that, by 1946, genocide and forced movement of population had created more than 50 million refugees and displaced people in Europe.

But 50 million - or, indeed, the huge numbers of present-day refugees - are unintelligible numbers. A Bitter Road guides you through the 1930s and '40s with a series of piquant, individual stories, the tales of people to whom you can relate - Jews who evaded the Nazis to arrive in Britain, often arriving confused, missing half their families and dependent on the kindness of strangers.

For many of those who came to Britain before the war, the way in was through domestic visas. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Britain had given refuge to 80,000 people, and many of them were upper- or middle-class Jews, themselves used to having servants, whose only hope was to become maids or butlers.

Ben Barkow, director of the Wiener Library director, recalls that one such was Anna Spiro, mother of the Wiener chair, Anthony.

"She was still seething about it all those years later. Those who came in on domestic visas had to learn to do things such as brushing curtains, lighting early morning fires - it certainly wasn't what they were used to".

Dr Christine Schmidt, the Wiener's deputy director, wryly observes: "Visas were given out where there was a labour shortage in Britain." The overwhelming impression is of a Downton Abbey in which all the regular staff had been called up, and where the domestic chores were carried out - not always terribly competently - by guttural-accented one-time German or Austrian professors.

Among the early refugees was Eva Kolmer, who arrived in Britain in 1938. Visas had to be pegged to a guarantor, each required to sponsor the refugee to the tune of £50. That is the equivalent of £3,080 today, an astonishing amount of money for the guarantors to find. One man who had been taken in by a non-Jewish couple in the East End was curious as to how his adoptive parents had afforded it: "Oh," they replied, "everyone in the whole street gave money."

Eva Kolmer's sponsor in 1938 was the editor of the Spectator, Henry Wilson Harris, who could scarcely have had less in common with "his" refugee, as she was a member of the Austrian Communist Party before her hasty departure. She came to Britain, she recorded, "with a suitcase and a pound in my pocket".

Eva didn't stay long, making her home in East Germany after the war, but establishing the Austrian Centre in London for fellow refugees during her time here.

Other refugees had darker tales. Bernard Simon, who was born Bernd Simon in Berlin in 1921, and died in September last year, arrived in Britain in the 1930s. But he ended up being deported to Australia, together with 2,000 other "foreign nationals", mainly Jews, on the notorious ship, the Dunera, in July 1940. On display in the exhibition is Mr Simon's tiny diary from the Dunera. His entry for August 21 1940 is bleak: "Suicide of Kitchener Camp man on aft deck. Siren hoots 'man overboard', ship stops, circles around for half an hour's search, no result".

The Kitchener Camp had been set up in Richborough, Kent, by the Jewish community, with the intention of hosting Jewish men admitted to Britain as "transmigrants" - that is to say, with a different final destination.

Lilli Goldwerth's parents, Abraham and Franziska, thought that as she was 17, it was reasonable to leave her in Vienna while they came to Britain on domestic visas in 1938. Somewhat improbably they ended up working for a Captain Geoffrey Austin in St Andrews, Scotland, and the captain agreed that he would be happy to employ their daughter when her visa came through.

But to the Goldwerths' horror, Lilli's visa was cancelled when war broke out in 1939. It took until 1942 for the couple to learn that she had died, in unexplained circumstances, in Vienna in March 1941. The bereft couple became naturalised British citizens in 1949, moving, it is believed, eventually to London.

There were happier stories, too, of refugees who succeeded in integrating into British society. Ruth Ucko's diary is on display, recording, for the first time, her thoughts in English, rather than German. She was, she wrote, very happy; she had been working in Ipswich and in 1947 was about to be married to Edward Stallard in London. She died in Brighton in 2002.

There are sharp reminders in the exhibition of the anxiety of the Jewish community about the refugees. A now notorious booklet, jointly produced by the German Jewish Aid Committee and the Board of Deputies, tells the newcomers - in German and English - what to expect. The strictures are many and not always kind: "Refrain from speaking German in the streets and in public conveyances and in public places such as restaurants. Talk halting English rather than fluent German - and do not talk in a loud voice…"

The Englishman, the refugees are advised, "greatly dislikes ostentation, loudness of dress or manner… he values good manners far more than he values the evidence of wealth… Do not spread the poison of 'It's bound to come in your country.' The British Jew greatly objects to the planting of this craven thought."

Above all, the refugees are warned not to have any false expectations. Young people would be offered training opportunities, says the booklet, but "Please do not expect these young people to be trained as doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. There are already far too many professional men amongst refugees for the needs of today."

Ben Barkow says that, in preparing the exhibition, the Wiener staff were all too aware of the parallels between today and the 1930s. And, to underline the point, there is a panel of "social media" headlines and tabloid front pages. Only when you get close do you realise that the "tweets" refer to 1939, and that in some cases it is hard to tell the difference between then and the present-day furore over the child refugees from Calais.

"The responses," says Barkow, "haven't changed that much. It was pretty tough then and it is pretty tough now.

"The biggest difference is that now there is someone else footing the bill [for bringing in the refugees].

"The central message is how difficult it is to be a refugee, and that governments need to take responsibility. We haven't learned much - and the situation is becoming ever more pressing."

"Concerns that refugees would take 'our' jobs and undercut British workers were expressed as vociferously in 1939 as they are today, and deputy director Schmidt points to a "misuse of language" in the reporting of the refugee crisis both then and now.

Lord Dubs, who came to Britain on the Kindertransport with other child refugees from central Europe, was due to attend the Wiener exhibition's opening, which takes place, by a sad irony, in the week when the first child refugees arrived in Britain under his Dubs Amendment, designed to allow 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees into the UK.

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