Extracts from the Feb 2016 Journal

Remembering Eleanor Rathbone, 1872-1946

Readers of the AJR Journal are no doubt familiar with the name of Eleanor Rathbone, the Independent MP who became renowned for her campaigning on behalf of Jewish refugees in and from Nazi-occupied Europe before and during the Second World War. I make no apologies for her reappearance in this issue of the Journal as 2 January 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of her death.
During her working life Eleanor made an invaluable contribution to the betterment of many aspects of British life and society, not least as the architect of the family allowance. In recognition of the latter, a Blue Plaque was placed outside her former home, Tufton Court, Tufton Street, London, in 1986 and she was one of six pioneering women whose image appeared on a set of commemorative stamps in 2008. Her social and welfare work has led to many community and university buildings being named after her in and around Liverpool and annual memorial lectures have been endowed in her name. She and her father, also a social reformer, are commemorated on a Blue Plaque outside the family home, ‘Greenbank’, in Liverpool, and Somerville College, Oxford, Eleanor’s alma mater, are naming a room after her in January 2016. How sad then that her refugee work, and the commitment she made to the rescue and welfare of Jews, people with whom she had no personal or religious connection, have not received the same public recognition at home. Notable exceptions are the new centre at the Jewish Care facility in Friern Barnet, named in her honour, and, thanks to Lesley Urbach’s hard work, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at Hoop Lane cemetery in October 2013.
From gaining her seat in parliament in 1929 Eleanor became, it has been argued, the most effective backbench politician of her era, continuing the work she had begun in 1897 as the voice of the underrepresented in society, regardless of race, religion or gender.
Eleanor was never afraid to put her head above the parapet and was the first female politician to warn her fellow MPs, in April 1933, of the threat posed by Hitler’s newly elected regime. She recognised both the danger to world peace and the threat to the lives of Jews and others, whose only crime, as she described it, was to belong to a ‘particular race or religion or profess certain political views’.
A staunch anti-fascist and anti-appeaser, she watched the political situation deteriorating in Europe and protested against the atrocities aimed at German Jewry and the implementation of draconian legislation intended to dispossess and disenfranchise them. In 1935-36 she was party to a campaign that sought to impose an economic and social boycott on Germany but, with King Edward VIII urging the British legion to go there ‘and make friends with the Germans’, her efforts were doomed to failure. She saw a human disaster looming ahead, precipitated by the annexation of Austria, the Munich agreement and the occupation of the Sudetenland, but it was the events of Kristallnacht that were the turning point. Eleanor was thrown almost headlong into a new refugee crisis – vastly different from helping rescue children from the combat zone of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. There was no doubt in her mind that Britain had a personal responsibility towards the Czech refugees and, through her contact with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, she travelled to Prague in early January 1939 to personally assess the refugee crisis, returning home to campaign on behalf of the refugees.
Eleanor Rathbone was, above all, an exceptional human being who would never have contemplated being a bystander of the Nazi atrocities and who, in her own determined way, took action. In November 1938 she established, at her own expense, the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees and gathered around her a cross-party, voluntary committee of over 200 members, spearheading their activities and working closely with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, acting as a conduit between them and government officials. She was an active member of numerous other Jewish and non-Jewish refugee organisations, she proposed and led deputations, asked more than 80 parliamentary questions on internment alone, doggedly challenged ministers, visited many of the internment camps, enlisted support from any quarter she thought could help her cause, and took up innumerable individual cases, responding personally and kindly to distressed refugees and their relatives. Her second committee, the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain news of the atrocities more widely publicised through the BBC and the press and to engage the government in small-scale rescue schemes. The effect on her health was immense and contributed to her untimely death.
It was Children and Youth Aliyah of Great Britain who approached her friend, Elizabeth Macadam, in early 1946, proposing a lasting memorial to Eleanor in Palestine, as it then was. The outcome was Beit Rathbone in Magdiel, inaugurated in October 1949, and the building still stands proudly as a testimony to Eleanor’s devotion to the refugees. Plans are underway to re-dedicate the building in 2016, just one of the many events that the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group – another purely voluntary committee, but made up of just two individuals – are arranging to celebrate and commemorate Eleanor and all her achievements. Organisations, schools, universities and individuals, including members of the Rathbone family and parliamentarians, are working with and supporting us to ensure that Eleanor receives the recognition she so richly deserves. We hope the Jewish community will embrace this opportunity as we all owe Eleanor a special debt of gratitude. Without her personal sacrifices and commitment, Jewish refugees would not have had such a powerful and humanitarian advocate and ally during the 1930s and 1940s.

Sigmaringen’s secret story

Karl Marx’s famous dictum, in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) - that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce - can appositely be applied to the two occasions on which the small German town of Sigmaringen made an appearance on the stage of modern European history. Sigmaringen is an attractive small town of just under 20,000 inhabitants, situated on the upper reaches of the River Danube in the south-western Land of Baden-Württemberg, south of Tübingen and about 25 miles north of Lake Constance.
The town is dominated by Sigmaringen Castle, which was built on the Schlossberg (castle hill) high above the Danube and was until 1850 the seat of the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. The house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was a cadet branch of the Hohenzollern dynasty that ruled first Brandenburg, then Prussia and finally, after 1871, the German Empire. The house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was Catholic, in sharp contrast to the imperial Hohenzollerns, who were closely associated with the Protestant state of Prussia. That Catholic faith briefly propelled the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen into the limelight, when it played a small but significant role in the events leading up to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the unification of Germany under the Prussian crown in 1871; that historic development was engineered - brilliantly if ruthlessly - by Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia from 1862 and Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890.
Under Bismarck, Prussia had in 1866 defeated Austria, its longstanding rival for primacy among the German states, and had established its dominance over the North German Confederation, comprising all the states of northern Germany. Bismarck now prepared for war with France and for the incorporation of the southern states into a united Germany. The pretext for hostilities arose when Queen Isabella of Spain was forced to abdicate in 1868 and the Spanish throne became vacant. It was proposed that Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic, should take the throne. This alarmed the French, who were already dismayed by the stunning Prussian victory over Austria and the emergence across the Rhine of a powerful Prussia ruling over the greater part of Germany; they now faced the prospect of a relative of the King of Prussia, Wilhelm of Hohenzollern, taking the throne of Spain across their southern border.
Leopold accepted the Spanish throne, and France and Prussia prepared for war. But when Count Benedetti, the French ambassador to Prussia, approached King Wilhelm of Prussia on 11 July 1870 at the spa of Ems and asked him to refuse his consent to Leopold’s candidature to the throne of Spain, Wilhelm consented, agreeing to order Leopold to withdraw. This appeared to be a triumph for France and Emperor Napoleon III. But the French ministers overplayed their hand, by instructing Benedetti to seek another audience with the Prussian king and to secure from him further guarantees and an undertaking that Leopold would never be allowed to assume the Spanish throne, assurances that on 13 July Wilhelm refused to give.
When Bismarck, in despair at Prussia’s apparent climb-down in face of French pressure, received a dispatch from Ems to Berlin reporting on this second meeting, he seized his chance. He issued a cunningly doctored version of the dispatch to the press, making it appear to the German public that the French ambassador had approached the Prussian king in a high-handed fashion and to the French public that the Prussian king had abruptly rebuffed the French ambassador. With public opinion in both countries inflamed, war became unavoidable. The Prussian armies advanced into France and won a decisive victory at Sedan (1 September 1870). Napoleon III was taken prisoner and abdicated. On 18 February 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, King Wilhelm of Prussia was declared German Emperor, and the unification of Germany was complete. No prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen ever sat on the Spanish throne.
In September 1944, Sigmaringen became the setting for an extraordinary episode in the Second World War, when it witnessed the final days of the Vichy government that had ruled that part of France not occupied by the Germans in 1940, until it fled in face of the Allied invasion of France in 1944. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the head of the collaborationist Vichy state, Pierre Laval, his prime minister from April 1942 until August 1944, along with a number of their political associates, were evacuated from France by Hitler and sent to Sigmaringen, where their government-in-exile lived out its final months. The farcical spectacle of a government with no country to govern and ministers with no ministerial powers to exercise combined bizarrely with the poisonous cocktail of fascism, collaborationist adulation of the Nazis and virulent anti-Semitism that constituted the politics of the Vichy elite. This band of vipers was housed in the castle at Sigmaringen, where Pétain, sulking in his tent, refused to take any part in politics or to have any contact with Laval, with whom he was by then united in mutual loathing.
The story of Vichy’s last months in Sigmaringen, from September 1944 until April 1945, is the subject of Pierre Assouline’s novel Sigmaringen, published by Gallimard in Paris in 2014. The novel, which is perhaps of greater historical than literary merit, is narrated by Julius Stein, butler to the Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen and in charge of the castle’s household arrangements. So wedded to his function is he that he seems, like his model, the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, to have little character beyond it. Through Stein’s eyes, we observe the daily life of the Vichy politicians and their hangers-on, their intrigues, their self-deluding hopes of a triumphant return to France on the coat-tails of a German victory, and their gradual descent into desperation as the Allied armies approach.
With Pétain maintaining that he was being held prisoner in Sigmaringen and with Laval also refusing to exercise his functions, the leadership of the Vichy government-in-exile, officially called the French Governmental Commission, fell to a second-rank figure, Fernand de Brinon, previously Vichy’s representative to the German High Command in Paris, who became President of the Commission. He was condemned to death after the war and executed. Among those vying for influence and position was Jacques Doriot, an ex-Communist who had founded the far-right Parti Populaire Français in 1936. Doriot was an activist; he had fought on the Eastern Front with a unit of French volunteers in German uniform and after September 1944 sought to secure a leading role for his party in the government-in-exile. Doriot was not based in Sigmaringen; on 22 February 1945 he was killed on his way there, when his car was attacked by Allied aircraft.
A rival to Doriot was Marcel Déat, who had been appointed Minister of Labour and National Solidarity when Laval formed his government in 1942. Déat, an ex-Socialist, had created a political party, the Rassemblement National Populaire, in 1941; it was collaborationist, anti-Semitic and fascist in its ideology, though less extreme than Doriot’s PPF. Déat maintained close relations with Otto Abetz, formerly the German Ambassador in Paris, who remained an influential figure in Sigmaringen. Déat was sentenced to death after the war but fled to Italy, where he was hidden by a religious order, the Institution Jeanne-d’Arc in Turin; he lived there, surrounded by nuns, until his death in 1955. The head of the RNP’s youth wing, Roland Gaucher, was also in Sigmaringen. Sentenced to five years in prison after the war, Gaucher was later one of the co-founders of the Front National, with Jean-Marie Le Pen, in October 1972. He soon fell out with Le Pen, whom he considered too moderate; ironically, the recent electoral successes of the Front National owe much to the rejection of Le Pen’s extremism by its current, seemingly more moderate leader, his daughter, Marine Le Pen.
A third significant figure in Sigmaringen was Joseph Darnand, who had played an active role in extreme and violent organisations of the far right in the 1930s. Darnand founded the collaborationist militia known as the Milice (see Louis Malle’s 1974 film Lacombe Lucien), which conducted operations against the French Resistance. Darnand, who held the rank of an SS officer, was captured in Italy, sent back to France and executed. Among the hangers-on in Sigmaringen were Vichyite literati like Lucien Rebatet, author of the anti-Semitic pamphlet Les Décombres (The Ruins) (1942), who was sentenced to death after the war but had his sentence commuted to a spell of imprisonment, from which he was freed in 1952 thanks to the amnesty of 1951. Now regarded in some quarters as a major literary figure, Louis-Ferdinand Céline was already famous before the war for his novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) (1932); sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in absentia, after the amnesty he returned to France where, without renouncing his crude anti-Semitism, he published, among other works, a book about his time at Sigmaringen: D’un château l’autre (Castle to Castle) (1957).

A vital resource to historians of the Holocaust (review) PRELUDE TO THE HOLOCAUST: POGROM NOVEMBER 1938: TESTIMONIES FROM ‘KRISTALLNACHT’ edited by Ruth Levitt

London: Souvenir Press, 2015, published in association with the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, 754 pp. hardback, illustrated, map, £30.00 [more...]

A determined struggle for justice (review) STOLEN LEGACY: NAZI THEFT AND THE QUEST FOR JUSTICE AT KRAUSENSTRASSE 17/18, BERLIN by Dina Gold Washington 2015, 270 pp. hardback, $26.95, ISBN 978-1-62722-970-8

Although the title of this book refers only to the fight for compensation relating to the ‘aryanisation’ of a large office block in Berlin, this understates the fact that the book covers far more than simply a legal battle. It is also a well researched history of an interesting family.
Dina Gold is the great-great-granddaughter of Heimann Wolff, who founded a fur trade company in 1850. In the first part of the book she describes the rise of the company and the resulting increase in the wealth and status of the family. Although the author herself was born in London in rather different circumstances, she learned about her family’s life in pre-war Germany from her mother and grandmother and is able to describe what life was like for a cultured and prominent Jewish family at that time. As well as having a residence in Berlin, the family owned a villa on the Wannsee, of which her mother had many happy childhood memories. Following Hitler’s rise to power life changed dramatically. Based on discussions with surviving family members and extensive research, Dina Gold is able to cover in some detail the experiences of her mother and grandparents, first moving to Palestine and eventually settling in England.
Dina’s mother Aviva had often talked about a large building in Berlin which had originally been used as head office and storage space for the H. Wolff fur company and was later converted to provide office accommodation for a number of companies. There was a mortgage on the building with the Victoria Insurance Company but after 1933, using pseudo-legal procedures, the Victoria asked for immediate repayments, with the result that H. Wolff was forced into selling it at a nominal price. After the war Aviva felt there was little hope of any compensation, especially as the building was now just inside the German Democratic Republic and had become the headquarters of the Reichsbahn. After re-unification the building was taken over by the Federal Ministry for Transport.
Dina Gold thought otherwise and, as she had worked in financial journalism and as an investigating reporter for the BBC’s Watchdog programme, she felt she could put this experience to good use. In July 1990, through an advert in the AJR Journal, she selected a firm of London solicitors specialising in restitution claims to assist her. The middle part of the book goes into considerable detail on the battle to obtain evidence that the building had fully belonged to her great-grandfather and had been the subject of what was in fact a forced sale. It also had to be proved that Aviva was a legal heir. Unfortunately, once the case had eventually been won and damages agreed, there were family disputes which also had to be resolved. One is full of admiration for the author’s persistence and courage in pursuing this complex claim, although for many readers there may be too much legalistic detail in this part of the book.
Following the successful completion of the claim, Dina did not stop her investigative work and the final third of the book covers this. She first employed the same determination to establish what had happened to her extended family during the Nazi period and one chapter is headed ‘Those who survived and those who did not’. She then concentrates on her great-uncle Fritz, who was not only Jewish but had been a pre-war Communist. He had refused to leave Germany and nothing was known of his fate. With great difficulty she was able to piece together his story as one of the Jews still in Berlin during the war but eventually joining 1,500 others in March 1943 on the last transport to Auschwitz. He was murdered there shortly after he arrived.
Finally, the author determined to find out more about those responsible for the injustices her family had suffered under the Nazis, and in particular the role of the Victoria Insurance Company. This had many Jewish clients before 1933 and had a Jewish chairman who was replaced by an ardent Nazi supporter, Dr Kurt Hamann. He was mainly responsible for the aryanisation of Jewish property and his company also provided the insurance for the Auschwitz death camp. Despite all this he and the company prospered after the war and Mannheim University even established a foundation in his name. It took a long time before the Victoria acknowledged any part of its history under the Nazis.
Dina Gold is to be commended for her persistence and determination not only in fighting for the return of her family’s property but also in tracing the fate of her relations and exposing the misdeeds of apparently respectable organisations and individuals.
The book contains a very useful ‘Cast of Characters’ accompanied by a family tree which helps the reader in following the saga of the family. There is also a glossary of German terms. [link]

Danger on the streets – Vienna, November 1938

On 9 November we hear far-away sounds of smashing glass and noises made by large crowds and later we see flames beyond the rooftops. We are frightened of course. We are used to being frightened most of the time but this feels different. We don’t go to bed. I am allowed to stay up with my mother – an unimaginable treat at any other time.
My mother and I are alone at home on the evening of 9 November 1938. Only it isn’t really home because that has been requisitioned by a local Nazi family. We are kind of squatting in the apartment of an Aryan colleague of my father who left everything behind when she fled the country, including the keys to her flat on the Schottenring, a rather smart and un-Jewish part of Vienna. And where is my father? Dr Max Otto Schnabl is a prisoner in Vienna’s largest prison on the Rossauer Lände, serving a six-week sentence for offending the state.
The morning my father was arrested seemed the same as all mornings. We had breakfast together before he went to work. He had been taken on by a large law firm, unofficially, to help out on a temporary basis. Vienna was rather short of lawyers just then because so many of them had been Jews who were no longer allowed to practise. He bought a newspaper, as he always did, and read it while he drank his tea with lemon. He kissed us goodbye as usual and handed my mother the paper. We watched him from the window with my mother as worried as usual.
Later a friend of my mother calls to ask ‘Has she seen the daily paper? No? Well, perhaps she has a paper? Then she had better sit down and look at it!’ My mother sits down and looks. There it is on the front page. A small item on the left-hand side in bold print. There is our name - my father's Jewish name. He has defended a man accused of forging a passport and he has told the judge that in a country which legalises persecution, forging a passport to avoid persecution cannot be a crime.
My father has gone to the office but the news item says that he will be arrested. He has read it and said nothing and done nothing. He doesn’t believe it will happen. My mother, who is constitutionally anxious, becomes calm and takes control. She will continue to be calm and in control until she breaks. [more...]

German-Israeli relations – 50 years on

To mark both the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Israel Museum and 50 years of German-Israeli diplomatic relations, the Museum is currently presenting an exhibition of masterworks from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The exhibition, entitled ‘Twilight over Berlin’ and showing works from the period 1905 to 1945, provides a fascinating glimpse into the art scene of pre-WWII Germany. It also constitutes an attempt to explain what the Nazis defined as ‘degenerate art’ (entartete Kunst) - as opposed to ‘genuine German art’ - and to which they devoted separate, peripatetic exhibitions in the 1930s.
The works on display in Jerusalem leave the visitor with a sense of wonder at the wealth and originality of the creative minds that produced them, much of it representing the Expressionist school of painting and by painters affiliated with the Blue Rider and Bridge groups, with only a relatively small percentage being created by Jewish artists. The film screened at the entrance to the exhibition depicting ‘a typical day in Berlin’ and created in 1927 by director Walther Ruttmann provides a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of the population of the metropolis.
In association with the same anniversary, the Museum is also displaying a selection of German Renaissance prints in an exhibition entitled ‘Dürer and Friends’, consisting of woodcuts and engravings culled from the Museum’s own Prints and Drawings collection. Another allied exhibition, ‘New Types: Three Pioneers of Hebrew Graphic Design’, is devoted to three graphic designers and originators of Hebrew typography who emigrated to pre-state Israel from pre-WWII Germany. The three ‘yekkes’ - Franziska Baruch, Moshe Spitzer and Henri Friedlander - lived and worked in Israel for many years, leaving their imprint (sorry about the pun!) on Hebrew typefaces, which they sought to simplify and modernise, each one in his or her individual way.
In addition to these visual feasts, the anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations brought Leipzig’s renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra and St Thomas Choir to Israel to perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This was an occasion not to be missed and the performance was indeed memorable. The precision and musicality of instrumentalists and choristers alike, some of the latter still very young boys, constituted a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of us in the audience. A richly illustrated brochure depicting the musical and artistic delights of the region of Saxony was distributed free in the foyer, evidently seeking to encourage its readers to make the trip to that area, which it described as ‘a paradise for music-lovers’.
In one paragraph of the brochure, the phrase ‘Elector Augustus the Strong was addicted to porcelain’ caught my eye and, on reading further, I learned that this eighteenth-century ruler did much to encourage the manufacture of fine porcelain in his realm, which included Dresden, as well as accumulating the largest, high-quality specialist collection of ceramics in the world.
Fifty years of diplomatic relations have served to foster artistic and musical exchange between our two countries, as well as providing financial reparations, and it is sobering to recall that just over 70 years ago Germans were hunting down and murdering Jews at a rate unprecedented in human history. My own German-born parents refused to ever set foot again in that country, the country for which both my grandfathers fought in the First World War. Today, German tourists and well-wishers come to Israel and I have visited Germany a couple of times (once to be present at the launch of the book of my grandmother’s letters published by the Hamburg municipality). To be quite honest, I must confess – albeit with mixed feelings – that I hope one day to visit Leipzig and hear the St Thomas Choir sing in the church where Bach once composed and conducted his sublime music.

Letters to the Editor

[more ...]