Extracts from the Jul 2016 Journal
The Wiener Library launched its exhibition ‘Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust’ on 18 April 2016. The exhibition, co-curated with the Holocaust Educational Trust, used material from the Library’s rich archives to reassess the responses of the British government and the British public to the Holocaust and - of particular interest to many of our readers - to the arrival of thousands of Jewish refugees on these shores. It is both fascinating and chilling to read the correspondence between Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the Air Ministry in which the latter set out its reasons for not bombing the installations at Auschwitz. The contribution made by the Holocaust Educational Trust’s (HET) regional ambassadors, young people who work with survivors of Nazi persecution, was a special feature of the launch. After speeches of welcome from Anthony Spiro, Chair of the Library’s Board of Trustees, and Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the HET, there was a heartfelt account by one of the young ambassadors of what the experience had meant to him, and a graceful speech in response by one of the survivors.
This thought-provoking and expertly produced exhibition raised the familiar and much disputed issue of the nature of the reception accorded to the Jewish refugees who fled to Britain after 1933 to escape the Nazis. Down the decades, there have been, very broadly speaking, two rival schools of thought: those who have seen the British government’s response to the plight of the Jews under Nazi rule as inadequate and ungenerous, its immigration policy after 1933 as restrictive, and its treatment of the refugees once admitted as unnecessarily harsh, most obviously in the mass internment of ‘enemy aliens’ in summer 1940; and, on the other side, those refugees who felt gratitude to Britain for taking them in, for resisting Hitler when the nation ‘stood alone’ in 1940-41, and for making it possible for them to build new and fulfilled lives as British citizens after the war.
The potential for disagreement in this area emerged clearly in the responses to my front-page article (April 2016 issue) on the UK Holocaust Memorial, which contained what was intended to be a studiously neutral account of the arrival of the Jews from Europe between 1933 and 1948. In a letter to the editor published in May 2016, one reader took issue with the ‘one-sided information’ that I had provided on the British government’s role in these matters, pointing out some of its failings, with the implication that I had adopted an attitude too favourable to the government by glossing them over. But another reader remarked, quite to the contrary, on my ‘timely, if gentle, reminder that Britain has not always been a safe haven for those fleeing persecution’. It is surprising how quickly one-sidedness can turn into two-sidedness when one is dealing with an area as problematic as this.
It is instructive to consider the three points raised by the first of these letters. Firstly, few would dispute the writer’s contention that ‘many survivors and refugees had an extremely difficult time after arriving in the UK’, though one cannot hold the British government solely responsible for the misery caused by their forced emigration and their separation from home and family, let alone for their treatment in Nazi camps. Secondly, few would dispute that certain groups of refugees, like domestic servants, met with a particularly poor reception. Many of the young women who came to Britain on domestic service visas encountered appalling conditions, as accounts like Edith Argy’s The Childhood and Teens of a Jewish Girl in Inter-war Austria and Subsequent Adventures make graphically clear; but British and Irish girls were treated no better in British households, nor were German and Austrian girls in households, including Jewish ones, in Berlin or Vienna. Most of these refugees remained in domestic service only for a short time, as almost all of them found other jobs once war broke out and they were needed in offices and factories, contributing to the war effort and restoring their pride and self-esteem; not infrequently, they went on to lead happier lives.
In the case of refugee medical practitioners, the restrictions that prevented them from practising were demanded not by the government but by professional bodies like the British Medical Association, seldom restrained by human sympathies from defending its members’ interests. The dispute involving junior doctors and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt demonstrates the risks governments run in taking on the representative bodies of the medical profession. Thirdly, few people would claim that the British government was generous in its policy of admitting Jews from Europe after the end of the war (see my article ‘The Miliband Controversy in Historical Perspective’ in our December 2013 issue). But how long did those admitted suffer under the conditions of entrance imposed on them? I note that the writer, complaining that the British government had admitted her ‘only on a temporary basis’, is writing from Swiss Cottage some 70 years later. How temporary, one might ask, is ‘temporary’? Pre-war refugees granted temporary residence, like the men from Nazi concentration camps admitted on transit visas and accommodated at Kitchener Camp in Kent, were allowed to stay permanently, while none of the Jewish children admitted to Britain after the war were ever deported abroad.
This is, in truth, a grey area not suited to black-and-white judgments. It can be argued with justice that Britain was lukewarm (and sometimes not even that) in its policy towards the admission of Jews fleeing Nazism and in the reception that it extended to them. Britain took in some 60,000 Jews before the war, but six million perished. Plainly, it would have been possible for the country to have taken more and to have treated those that it did take more hospitably – always bearing in mind that the government could not ignore public opinion, sections of which, then as now, were sharply hostile to the admission of immigrants, especially Jews from Germany. But it is also true that in proportion to its population and absorptive capacity, Britain took in more Jewish refugees in the years before the Second World War than any other country except Palestine. Britain alone took in some 10 per cent of the Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who escaped from Nazi rule before September 1939; of the 120,000 Austrian Jews who survived the Holocaust, about a quarter, just over 30,000, did so because their first country of refuge was Britain.
This is not to claim that it was ever easy for Jews to gain entrance to Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1933 and 1938, Jews fleeing Nazism knew that if they sought entrance to Britain, they could be refused admission by the immigration officer at their port of arrival. The principal criterion for their admission was their ability to support themselves; those few who were wealthy, famous or likely to create jobs for British workers were welcome; those who could prove that they had skills that qualified them for particular forms of employment were admitted, but most of the rest could at best hope for admission as tourists. In 1938, following the exodus of Jews provoked by Hitler’s annexation of Austria, the British government introduced a visa system. This allowed the government to regulate the entry of refugees more systematically. Certain groups of refugees, like those willing to work as domestic servants, were granted visas, as were those who could find someone resident in Britain willing to sponsor them, at a cost of £50. Ten thousand children were admitted on Kindertransports without visas – and without their parents.
The picture that accompanied the exhibition at the Wiener Library was captioned ‘Members of a group of refugees from German-occupied Czechoslovakia being marched away by police at Croydon airport on 31 March 1939’. But does this picture, striking as it is, accurately reflect the historical reality of British immigration policy in the last 18 months before the war? These refugees had indeed fled from Czechoslovakia, which had been occupied by Nazi Germany earlier in March 1939, and had arrived in Britain on a plane from Poland. They were detained by the police because they had arrived without visas. The humanitarian argument would, of course, have been to admit them.
But to admit refugees who arrived without visas would have undermined the very visa system that permitted some 50,000 Jewish refugees to enter Britain in 1938-39 – a very substantial increase on the 10,000 or so who had been admitted during the previous five years, from January 1933. Jews arriving in Britain without visas were routinely refused entry: the actress Hannah Norbert, who later married the famous comic actor Martin Miller, was sent back to France when she first tried to enter Britain but was admitted without any difficulty once her family had secured a visa for her. It is worth noting that, unlike countries like Switzerland, the British authorities did not send refugees back to Germany. In any case, the great majority of refugees arriving in Britain were in possession of entry visas; their lives were saved.
The exhibition at Tate Modern, You Can’t Please All (until 6 November 2016), by Gujarati raconteur, playwright and painter Bhupen Khakhar, is a tapestry of Bhakti spiritual traditions, Sanskrit, satire and blatant homosexuality. The works have been culled from international collections to provide this first international retrospective of the Indian painter.
Born in Bombay in 1934, Khakhar visited Britain in 1979, teaching at the Bath Academy of Arts as a guest of the painter Howard Hodgkin. His colourful, slightly naive early paintings depict men at work whose mindlessness is conveyed through brooding and vacant eyes and accentuated by the tiny tableaux without which no composition is complete. Man in the Pub derives from his English experience and here the smartly dressed pale man holding a glass and a pair of gloves is defined against dainty blue wallpaper and little life tableaux. These works are vivid, literal and narrative; a rare glimpse of abstraction comes later.
Khakhar believed an artist must be vulnerable and reflect this weakness in his work. The eponymous painting You Can’t Please All is based on an Aesop Fable in which a donkey dies because his owners take too much advice. The main image of a naked man is visible only to us because he is hidden by a towel over a rail from which he stares down at a blue waterscape containing a boat, houses, gardens and the dead donkey.
Khakhar brings the veracity of Gandhi and European artists like Henri Rousseau and Pieter Breugel the Elder to his works, which become bleaker, looser, yet more sensory as he ages. Cataracts cause him to paint in a dull blur, making his sexual images less defined, but one of the very few works depicting a woman shows a man staring at himself in a mirror.
On recovering his eyesight, Khakhar also regained precision in his luminous watercolours. He produced a series of woodcuts to illustrate two stories by Salman Rushdie. But when cancer took hold he projected the condition onto the canvas with savage, physical realism. There is violence in his portrayal of his treatment. Demons are tearing him apart in one of his last works, Idiot, a semi-abstraction which shows him surrounded by blurred images and a seated, malicious laughing figure. Now the vibrant colours have disappeared into a small mono-beige canvas, rendering the pain all the more powerful.
The searing compassion aroused by this painting, created in his dying year, 2003, signals violence between Hindu and Muslim communities in 2001 and referenced in Bollywood cinema imagery in which the actor plays both the good guy and the bad guy… blood and gore everywhere.
Many will flinch from explicit images - like colonic irrigation - and Khakhar treated his homosexuality just as palpably, almost redolent of Francis Bacon’s tormented portrayal of the death of his lover, George Dyer, although Khakhar lacks Bacon’s anguished, physical intensity.
One beautiful painting is based on a Sanskrit myth in which a dying man begs his son to give him his youth. The surrendering youth is seen as a golden angel making love to him.
Son of Saul, a film about the atrocities committed at Auschwitz, has been released in the UK, having received immense critical acclaim. The film won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and the award for Best Foreign Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Directed by László Nemes, it has even made Claude Lanzmann, the great French film-maker who believed that to present the Holocaust in fiction was a transgression, admit that it is possible to make a good feature film about the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Whether or not to see it posed a problem for me (Gerta Vrbova): having lost so many friends and family in Auschwitz and having barely survived the Holocaust myself, I wasn’t sure I would be able to watch a film depicting in visual images the details of how the Auschwitz killing factory worked.
My late husband Rudi Vrba was one of the few who succeeded in escaping from Auschwitz in April 1944 so as to warn the Hungarian Jews about what to expect. He described to me in the summer of 1944 how the death factory in Auschwitz functioned and his description haunts me to this day. I was therefore not sure whether I would be able to watch the visual images of the annihilation of my people. I discussed it with two of my grandsons aged 17 and 19 and they volunteered to come with me and give me moral support. I am grateful to them for the film is a masterpiece, the filming innovative, and the impact of the images unforgettable. One of my grandsons, Danny Hilton, helped me with writing the review.
The plot takes place in Auschwitz in October 1944 at the height of the most frenzied killing of Hungarian Jews. It describes a day and a half in the life of Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando, prisoners forced to help in the gas chambers and crematoria in the killing and burning of their fellow prisoners. Ausländer is first seen emerging from leafy woodlands chaperoning new arrivals into the gas chambers, where they will be poisoned and their bodies burned in the ovens of the crematoria. His expression reflects the horrors he is seeing. It is at this stage that the audience hears sounds of screams, barks, orders, cries and whispers in a mixture of languages which evokes the vision of unbound evil and reminded me of the title of the book by Alfred Wetzler - another escapee from Auschwitz - What Dante Did Not See.
This beginning of the film is simultaneously harrowing and perplexing, with an out-of-focus image of the leafy woodlands turning into the clear expression of a mortified and humiliated man. The transformation from shallow-focus to in-focus very much reflects the purpose of the director, with the contrast from confusion with the out-of-focus to the clarity of the countenance of Saul’s face exposing the shock for an ordinary audience member being introduced to cinematically untouched subject matter. The camera follows Saul’s movements intimately as he administers the torture of his own people. His blank but restrained facial expression reflects his humiliation at the barbarity of his actions, with the camera closely following his focused action of removing the coats from the pegs and emptying out the possessions of the gassed Jews. His clinical approach to doing this gives the impression that he can no longer become emotionally traumatised by his actions.
On one occasion, a young boy is found somehow still breathing in the gas chamber after all others have been killed. Having seen a Nazi physician suffocate the boy to ensure his death, Saul believes this child to be his own son, whom he feels compelled to bury with dignity. He sets out to find a rabbi to recite the mourner’s Kaddish over the body of the child. His plight is desperate and his actions threaten to compromise the planned uprising of members of the Sonderkommando, but it appears to be his last attempt to salvage his dignity.
In Son of Saul, Nemes provides us with suffocating insight into the realities of a concentration camp in an extraordinarily vivid way. His decision to use a 4:3 aspect ratio entraps us, with the claustrophobic nature of the frame constructing the notion that the unfolding events are inescapable. The 4:3 frame acts almost as a portal for a contemporary viewer, allowing the audience two hours to gaze into the darkest hours of human existence. Nemes displays the atrocities of this death camp in the least melodramatic fashion, simply depicting the portrait of a guilt-ridden man. No soundtrack is employed here - rather the ominous howls, cries, gunshots of the suffering, evoking an apocalyptic landscape of death. On several occasions throughout the film, we are invited to see only Saul’s face, with the peripheral suffering around him remaining almost perpetually in shallow focus. In many ways, this highlights the extent of Saul’s suffering, with the torture occurring around him: he is compelled not only to be complicit in, but also a contributor to, something to which he becomes desensitised, much in the same way as a man or woman would be today.
Saul manages to conceal the boy’s body while searching for a rabbi. During his search we experience the atmosphere of the camp, with attempts to degrade everything that is human in us beyond recognition by showing the bartering for the smallest favours through the exchange of stolen goods and other demeaning activities.
Among the new arrivals from Hungary who are being exterminated and burned in ditches since the furnaces can’t cope with the large number of corpses, Saul finds someone who pretends to be a rabbi. At great risk to himself he rescues this man only to discover that he is an imposter.
Saul’s desperate search for a rabbi to give the child a dignified funeral represents a deeply human act, showing that even amid the stench of death and all the attempts by the Nazis to degrade their prisoners, there is a deep voice within us that helps us remain human.
Nemes has said that he wanted to ‘immerse’ the audience in his film. He has succeeded for the audience ends up feeling the evil and horror of the place and is forced to confront the question as to how to deal with evil on such an enormous scale.
Son of Saul is an important contribution to understanding the Holocaust. It is a particularly timely film that may help to compensate for the information provided by the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors who can transmit their personal experiences of the evil of concentration camps.
For those who may be worried about the traumatic effect that viewing such a harrowing film may have I would like to quote a comment Vasily Grossman made in his report ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ published in 1944: ‘It is infinitely painful to read this. The reader [viewer] must believe me when I say it is equally hard to write it. “Why write about it then?” someone may well ask. “Why recall such things?” It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth and it is the reader’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes is to insult the memory of those who have perished.’ [link]
In the last few years there has been a sudden abundance of memoirs by Jewish refugees and survivors of three-quarters of a century ago. Why so late? Some are only now, with enough passage of time, able to talk about what happened. They know that time is of the essence: it is now that they must tell their families. And they must bear witness. Their descendants too are stepping up to tell their stories, perhaps emboldened by the runaway success of The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal’s memoir of his wealthy Viennese family (to whom the present author is distantly related).
This memoir too is about an immensely wealthy Viennese family, the Springers (and Foulds), most of whom survived through a mixture of good connections and the requisite good luck, though not without losing a good deal of their property. But it is just as much the story of the Pryce-Joneses, a family as well connected in England as the Springers were in Europe.
Thérèse (‘Poppy’) Fould married Alan Pryce-Jones, an Eton and Oxford-educated author, bon vivant and homosexual, thereby uniting not only two people but two families that could hardly have been less alike. Poppy and Alan’s only child David has written a fascinating portrait of the extended family, eccentricities and all, as well as an account of his own very interesting life and career. Fortunately a family tree is provided, essential for such an extensive cast of characters. Revealing vignettes of famous friends and acquaintances abound, among them characters as disparate as Isaiah Berlin, Greta Garbo and several of the Mitford sisters.
The author’s research is impeccable, resulting in a wealth of detail – perhaps an overabundance of it (mentioning a house his parents visited briefly in 1940, he informs us that ‘This house belonged to Mary Loder, a relation of Alan’s because her mother, Lady Wakehurst, otherwise Cousin Cuckoo, was born Grey’). He quotes extensively from letters and diaries (those by his father Alan are mostly literary gems), but sometimes there is too much from them too: he cites patriotic statements of the ‘England the great shall win the war’ type from at least nine letters by his nanny Jessie. That the book doesn’t groan under the weight of such detail is due to the author’s stylish and beautiful writing, a subtle yet pungent sense of humour, and a perfectly judged sense of discretion and tone.
This is a finely written and fascinating portrait not only of two very interesting families but of the times in which they found themselves. Not to be missed. [link]
To mark 80 years of broadcasting in Israel (and in Palestine under the British Mandate), the Voice of Israel (Kol Yisrael) held an exhibition in the Sarona area of Tel Aviv. The locale was originally settled by German Templers, who established agricultural settlements in various parts of the Holy Land, building private homes interspersed with individual gardens and public parks. The remnants of settlements such as these may be found in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Galilee, though the original German occupants are long gone.
The first radio broadcasts were initiated by the British High Commissioner for Palestine, and programmes consisting of lectures and music, in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic, were transmitted over the airwaves. The exhibition consisted primarily of photographs but also had a few examples of the actual old-style radios and broadcasting equipment in all their original chunkiness on display.
The many dramatic events that have attended Israel’s birth and subsequent history were reported by intrepid newsmen who, accompanied by technicians schlepping heavy recording equipment, made their way to the front lines of battles, or the venues where events of national importance were taking place, sending eye-witness accounts from there.
All the inhabitants of pre-State Israel were glued to their radios in 1947 to hear the result of the vote on the Partition Plan at the United Nations and, when the result turned out to be in favour of the establishment of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one, everyone swarmed out into the streets and spontaneous dancing erupted. Only the prescient Ben-Gurion realised what this meant in terms of the antagonism of the Arab countries and did not join in the general rejoicing. His announcement declaring the establishment of the State of Israel was broadcast live on the radio on 14 May 1948, marking another milestone in the life of the country.
Thus it was - and I remember this well - that during the Six Day War, when television had not yet been introduced in Israel, the radio reports played a crucial role in bringing the unfolding sequence of events to the listening public. I was living in Jerusalem at the time and, like the rest of the population, was required to remain inside my home for several days as the city was being bombed. The radio was my only source of contact with the outside world and, although my grasp of Hebrew was somewhat limited, I did my best to decipher the news reports and rejoiced to hear the soothing words and insightful analysis of military developments broadcast by the late Chaim Herzog, who had retired from the IDF not long before with the rank of major-general.
But apart from broadcasting momentous events, the radio is also a constant presence in the lives of many people. I personally am always accompanied by classical music in every room of my house and in my car. This was not always the case as initially the radio was a mixture of verbal and music programmes broadcast on only one frequency. This gradually branched out into several channels aimed at different tastes and segments of the population.
In the years immediately following the Second World War, although Hebrew was the prevailing language, there were programmes in Yiddish, French, German, English and various other languages aimed at different groups of Israel’s polyglot population, programmes listing the names of relatives seeking family members, exercise programmes in the early morning, quizzes, children’s programmes and music request programmes. I’ve been told that among the most popular musical requests in pre-State Israel was Smetana’s Voltava because the melody bears a strong resemblance to the national anthem, Hatikva. In my own case, the various programmes on the radio helped me to learn Hebrew.
Today the radio plays a less important role in the life of the nation, having been superseded by television. Nonetheless, its importance in forging national unity and culture will always redound to its credit.