Extracts from the Nov 2014 Journal

Marriages of convenience as a survival strategy

The following article is an adapted version of a paper given in March 2014 at the annual conference of the Gesellschaft für Exilforschung (Society for Exile Studies) in Vienna.
For those exposed to persecution in Nazi Germany, marriage to a foreign national presented a means of emigrating to another country, where they were protected by their new citizenship from being deported back to Germany or from being rendered stateless if they were stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazi authorities. The advantages offered by marriages of convenience were primarily of benefit to women; this was due to the patriarchal cast of legislation relating to citizenship at the time, under which a woman, as a mere ‘appendage’ of her husband, automatically assumed his nationality on marriage. These marriages, which often existed only on paper, have in retrospect come to be seen as a form of assistance rendered to those under threat in Nazi Germany and are now judged positively. A number of people also married in order to secure a visa more easily, as was, for example, the case with entry visas for Palestine, then administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate.
Until now, this strategy of escape and of resistance to the Nazis has not been the subject of any academic research, a gap that Irene Messinger, a political scientist working in Vienna, is seeking to fill. It is her intention to raise the profile of marriages of convenience in research into the Holocaust and emigration and to anchor them firmly in the mainstream of historical research. Messinger’s research aims to present the women persecuted by the Nazi regime as active agents, capable of exploiting their networks of contacts in order to enter into marriages of convenience, and also to investigate their marital partners, whose motives would have ranged from friendship and kindness and social and political commitment to straightforward financial gain.
In the course of her research, Messinger has to date unearthed more than 60 marriages of convenience, in works of scholarship, autobiographies and eye-witness accounts (interviews). There are many more such marriages than might appear at first glance. It will never be possible to discover exactly how many women attempted to save themselves by contracting marriages of convenience as this is a deeply private subject and, in many cases, a matter of shame, which only very few have spoken about publicly. Many women concealed the fact of their fictitious marriages on returning to Austria after 1945, fearing possible legal consequences or the loss of pension rights and the like.
Who were the people who entered into marriages of convenience? To judge by those cases that are already known, they were Jewish women who came from the middle classes or sometimes from the social élites and/or were members of political organisations with international connections. Among other factors, this is due to the high proportion of artists, academics and other professional women among those who emigrated to Britain. The individuals discussed in this article are known to us from biographies, autobiographies and other records that have been preserved. However, Messinger is especially interested in cases of marriages of convenience among the ‘ordinary’ émigrés, which have hitherto remained unresearched. Little is known, too, about those individuals, for example members of Jewish youth organisations in Nazi Germany, who contracted marriages of convenience in order to improve their chances of securing a visa for Palestine by applying jointly as a married couple.
The most prominent examples of marriages of convenience among the emigrants to Britain occurred within the circle of friends around Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann, where such marriages proliferated. Erika Mann, writer, cabaret artist and founder of the anti-fascist political cabaret ensemble Die Pfeffermühle (The Peppermill), was stripped of her German citizenship in 1935. Klaus Mann and his circle of homosexual friends assisted her in her efforts to find a British husband. In June 1935 she married the gay British poet W. H. Auden, whom she had never met, thereby immediately acquiring British citizenship.
Erika Mann’s close friend, the actress Therese Giehse, who had also been active in the Pfeffermühle ensemble, found refuge in Switzerland in 1933 but was not secure there. Marriage to the novelist John Hampson-Simpson secured a British passport for Giehse, who, however, remained in Switzerland. She later became famous for her performances in the plays of Bertolt Brecht; cinema fans will recall her last role, in Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974). Sybille von Schoenebeck was another friend of Klaus and Erika Mann. After the German authorities had frozen her bank accounts, and with her German passport about to expire, emigration became an urgent necessity for her. In 1935 she entered into a marriage of convenience with Walter Bedford, an English homosexual, and retained his surname out of gratitude. As Sybil Bedford, she became famous as a novelist; her first novel, A Legacy (1956), was dramatised for television by the BBC in 1975.
The radical left-wing Internationale Sozialistische Kampfbund (International Socialist Combat League, ISK), which had been banned by the Nazis in 1933, also brought a number of its female members to safety in Britain through marriages of convenience. One of them was Susanne Strasser, born in 1915 and brought up in Vienna, who was later to become a historian and a leading authority on the German Social Democratic Party. As a student, she had travelled frequently to London and, after the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, she remained in London, where she rapidly came to play an active role among the women refugees. In order to remain permanently in Britain, she entered into a marriage of convenience with a British citizen, Horace Miller.
Viennese-born Hilde Meisel had joined the ISK at 15. From 1932 she had been a student in London, where, under the pseudonym Hilda Monte, she published a number of articles in magazines and books and made radio broadcasts calling for resistance to the Nazi regime. Through a marriage of convenience to John Olday, a gay artist, cartoonist and anarchist, she acquired British citizenship in 1938. She was killed in April 1945 attempting to cross the border to Austria from Switzerland, where she had been sent on a secret mission. Similar cases are those of the mathematician and philosopher Grete Hermann, who married Edward Henry, and of Maria Saran, the future women’s secretary of the Socialist International. ISK member Liesel Mayer entered into a fictitious marriage with Charles Bruckner but this developed into a love relationship, from which four children were born. After 1933 the ISK continued its activities in Britain, publishing critical texts and news articles; this would not have been possible had its female members not been able to employ the option of a marriage of convenience.
Networks consisting of friends or politically like-minded people were not the only ones to play an important part here. Families and extended circles of relatives also exploited every means to bring endangered women to safety, including marriages of convenience. Rosl Ebner, a student of medicine in Vienna, was able to contract a fictitious marriage in 1938 through her brothers, who were living in Paris. Her brothers were members of the Communist Party and used its networks to arrange a husband for their sister. The husband, who was paid, was a French hatter of Polish descent. Her sister provided a bouquet of white lilies for the wedding so that it did not appear suspicious. Ebner was thus able to emigrate on a French passport, arriving in 1939 in Britain, where she was active in the organisation Austrian Self Aid. The art collector Jenny Steiner, one of Vienna’s wealthiest women, exploited her private networks to organise marriages for her twin daughters Anna and Clara, so that they were able to leave Austria without any difficulty in 1938, one with a British and one with a French husband. Anna married Charles Weinberg, a British subject, and escaped a few days later as a British national - but without her husband - via Paris to Brazil, where she was reunited with her mother.
These examples of women whose lives were saved by marriages of convenience underline the importance of pre-existing networks, whether of family members or politically like-minded people, in the acquisition of British citizenship, with all its attendant advantages. But marriage was not a quick and simple solution in every case. There were also husbands who sought to exploit their new status; for women dependent on their husbands, the consequences could be violence or rape or blackmail extending over years. A further danger was that of betrayal by a third party, of being forced to live a double life, as well as the general insecurity inherent in such marriages.
Irene Messinger is continuing to research this topic in Vienna and would be pleased to receive any information about further cases of fictitious marriage. Such information will be treated confidentially, if required, and should be sent to irene.messinger@univie.ac.at

An assortment of émigré aunties

‘The earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep. One likes to believe that there is memory in the fingers, memory undeveloped but still alive.’ (Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter’s Almanac) [more...]

Art Notes (review)

The range of Anselm Kiefer’s imagination is universal. In the Royal Academy’s first major retrospective of his work (until 14 December 2014), nothing escapes the density and reach of this leading artist. With references to painters like Van Gogh, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, and poets like Nazi labour-camp survivor Paul Celan, he delves into myth, philosophy, alchemy and cosmology to explore with every brushstroke the nature of the universe.
Given that he was born in Germany at the end of the Second World War, it is natural that Kiefer would question the nature of that war and perhaps launch his childhood desire to become an artist. History and the very nature of time generated ambitious themes whose meaning may be sensed beyond what appears on his canvas.
Allusions to the Third Reich appear in a self-portrait wearing his father’s German uniform, giving the Nazi salute. Emblems of Nazism have been banned in Germany since 1945 and Kiefer has been wrongly identified as a Nazi sympathiser rather than a critic. He was, in fact, outraged by claims of Hitler as a great artist and the Nazi ban on leading German Expressionists.
In To the Unknown Painter, a neo-classical courtyard symbolises Hitler’s command to architects to design buildings in stone so they will make beautiful ruins. Here the artist is represented as a solitary palette at the centre. Closer to his German roots is his interest in the symbolism of Norse myths. He poses eternal questions about life and our purpose on earth. In recurring themes such as Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Kiefer represents the Holy Trinity by three chairs within heavenly flames.
The existential longing to explore the eternal cycle of time led him to more elemental themes, such as an exploration of physical elements. Lead pipes, TV circuitry, sunflower seeds and even diamonds symbolise the elemental return to earth and decay in works using a blend of acryclic, emulsion and oil shellac. He believes lead is the only material strong enough to carry the weight of human history. And so he becomes an alchemist, linking the earthly and the celestial in some universal oven in which spirit and matter continuously dissolve and recreate themselves.
The bricks and rubble of bomb-damaged buildings where he played as a child led to an interest in Mesopotamian civilisation, particularly cuneiform writing on clay tablets reflecting a link between clay and writing. Themes of death and rebirth are also reflected in his interest in Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings. He draws a different inspiration from that of the Dutch Impressionist. In The Orders of the Night Kiefer lies beneath monochromatic sunflowers tall as trees, their faces pointing down towards him - another emblem of the life-death cycle.
Kiefer’s work is powerful, organic and devastating. Huge, densely painted barren and frozen landscapes symbolise the Holocaust, often referencing Paul Celan’s poetry. They epitomise the deathly silence of Nazi Europe and seem more moving than his cosmic themes such as the RA-commissioned installation Ages of the World, a totemic funeral pyre in which all Kiefer’s concepts on time, art and the cosmos coalesce.

Memories, Memories …

It’s June 1940. The German armies are storming through the Low Countries, are occupying France, and are now on the Channel coast, threatening to invade England. A very frightening time, not least for us refugees from the Nazis, the so-called ‘friendly enemy aliens’. We are no longer allowed to stay close to the eastern coast of Britain and the men living there are interned. I am not affected as my former host, a professor in Cambridge, has arranged with an acquaintance, the headmaster of a public school in Derbyshire, that I should work at his school as a gardener’s assistant in the mornings and give cello lessons to any interested boys in the afternoons.
I am expecting that internment of all male ‘enemy aliens’, whether ‘friendly’ or not, is bound to come before very long – there is a lot of pressure for it. After all, who can guarantee that no German agents have infiltrated the 60,000 refugees in this country? So I have packed my suitcase and have written a brief letter to my sister, who is still working as housekeeper at the Cambridge professor’s house, informing her that I have been interned, leaving only the date open – to be posted when the day arrives ….
I don’t have to wait for long. While doing my gardening job during the morning of 4 July, I am called to the headmaster’s office, where two gentlemen in civilian clothes are waiting for me. They are police officers who have come to collect me for internment, in accordance with Churchill’s order to ‘Collar the lot!’ I ask whether I can post the letter to my sister. No, certainly not – any letters I write from now on will have to go through the official censorship, like all letters from abroad. And when I want to go to the toilet before we leave the school, one of the detectives comes with me. This makes me smile inwardly – do they think I will try to abscond?
After a brief stay in a transit camp we find ourselves at York Racecourse, where we are housed in the stables. Just over three weeks there and on we go to the Isle of Man – by train to Liverpool, on a steamer across the Irish Sea to Douglas, and another train journey across the island to Peel on the west coast (the railway no longer exists: it was closed down in the 1960s).
Once in Peel, we enter the newly established Peveril Camp, where the British authorities have requisitioned a row of eight houses along the sea front and surrounded them with barbed wire. They are tall houses – four storeys, with the kitchen in the basement. We are told that each house will cater for itself: from the 20-25 ‘residents’, volunteers have to be found to do the cooking. At first, I join a group of three non-Jewish ex-trade unionists as an ‘assistant’, providing general help in the kitchen and serving at meal times and, after my cello arrives (surprisingly undamaged!) from the school in Derbyshire, I join a group of other musicians, some amateur, some professional, to provide entertainment for the other inmates of the camp.
After about two months and severe pressure in Parliament, the Home Office relaxes its rules for the continued detention of ‘friendly enemy aliens’, one of the categories for release from internment applying to me – to join the Pioneer Corps of the British Army as a volunteer.
All this is still very clear in my mind even though 74 years have passed. And suddenly my journalist son asks me whether I would like to revisit the Isle of Man and Peel to refresh my memories. He is engaged on a project ‘to retrace the steps of his forebears’ and this trip will form part of it. Of course I agree. He organises all of it and, after a short flight from City Airport, we are on the Isle of Man, where a half-hour taxi ride takes us from the airport to Peel. It’s a blustery day and, when we find the sea, the tide is in and high waves are breaking against the sea walls and rocks, causing a lot of spray to fall onto the road. We reach the northern end of Peel Bay, where Peveril Camp was situated, and there is the row of eight tall houses in which we lived! Standing in front of them, I know we are at the right place. Yes, I remember the view south, where one can clearly see the ruins of Peel Castle (which I find out later was first built in the 11th century), but I’m not sure which was ‘my house’ – I only remember its approximate position. It’s a very odd feeling, revisiting this place after so many years – I find myself wondering whether it’s a dream ….
Peel is quite an attractive small town. Of course we never saw it as internees since we were allowed to leave the barbed-wire enclosure of the camp only on the few occasions when we were permitted to bathe in the sea and were taken to the neighbouring beach. Even then a soldier with fixed bayonet was guarding us – were the authorities afraid we would try to swim across to Ireland?
Douglas has a large museum, which we visited. My son had a long and very interesting discussion with a senior archivist, who had assembled a lot of material about the internment camps for us to view. We learned that ‘enemy aliens’ were interned on the island in the First World War as well, but that many documents relating to the Second World War had been destroyed. However, quite a few have been recovered from various sources and he showed us copies of instructions from the Home Office laying down exactly what food, and in what quantities, had to be given to the internees. Other instructions, issued by the Isle of Man authorities, specified which streets had to be closed, where the barbed wire fences had to be erected, etc. The sudden establishment of several internment camps meant that the owners of the requisitioned houses had to leave their homes with only a week’s notice, leaving much of their furniture and all their kitchen utensils behind. Naturally this caused a lot of resentment.
Peveril Camp was used later in the war for the detention of British fascists, IRA suspects, and other ‘undesirables’. It is probably for that reason that historical documents about the camp have not been released yet – much less is known about it than about the other camps on the island and the archivist we met was quite frustrated about that. The island authorities are obviously very keen to collect as much material as possible about the internment camps, which form a very important part of the history of the Isle of Man. [more...]

The women of Machsom Watch

The organisation known as Machsom Watch has been in existence for over ten years. Since its first tentative steps as a small group of humanitarian feminists who wanted to protect the human and civil rights of Palestinians, it has grown in number and is less radically feminist but is still confined to women. Curious to see what they did, I joined a group of five women early one morning. They were all of a certain age and belonged to a specific (middle-class, Ashkenazi, secular) segment of the population. Since that is the category into which I too fall, I felt quite at home with them.
Our first stop that chilly morning was Checkpoint 300, also known as Rachel’s Checkpoint due to its proximity to the site of Rachel’s Tomb. We stood and watched as hundreds of Palestinian men filed through electronic barriers where their documents were checked. Soldiers, some of them still in their teens, checked the papers and made sure that everything went without a hitch.
Every Palestinian worker must have a green ID card, issued by the Palestinian Authority, as well as an electronic card and a work permit, issued at the behest of his employer. I did not sense any tension or antagonism in the process and everything appeared to be going smoothly. Once through the barrier, the men boarded buses provided by the employers or began walking towards Jerusalem.
If you are a Palestinian man and want a permit to work in Israel you must be married and have at least one child. If you are the close relative of someone who has been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity, nationalist sympathies or stone-throwing your work permit can be taken away from you, in which case you are ‘blacklisted’. I was told of an instance in which three brothers who had been working in Israel for several years were blacklisted after their teenage brother was arrested for throwing stones.
This is an area in which the women of Machsom Watch have become proficient as there is a process of appeal against being blacklisted. The various procedures, including filling in forms and even appearing before a special administrative court at which the military authority is required to justify the blacklisting, are difficult if not impossible for the average Palestinian manual labourer to master. Some of the women I met can speak some Arabic and it was very touching to see the burly labourers come over to one of the women to ask for her help in solving some administrative problem or other. In many cases, they know the women by name and speak to them as friends. Some 70 per cent of those blacklisted get their work permits back following Machsom Watch’s intervention.
After spending an hour at Checkpoint 300, we drove through the Etzion tunnel and the hilly countryside to the Etzion Bloc, to the office of the District Coordinator Liaison. This is the administrative centre where youngsters wishing to start working come to get their initial permit. In order to work in one of the settlements, the requirements for obtaining a permit are less rigid and this is where many youngsters find employment. This is also where special permits are issued to Palestinians who need to enter Israel in order to attend hospital.
The building where the men wait is equipped with seating and even air-conditioning. Specific days are allocated to specific villages and, while the system seems to be working, it is laborious and time-consuming.
However, when I look back to my early days in Israel, I recall what seemed to me at the time to be complex and mistrustful bureaucratic procedures that often left me frustrated and tearful. If you are a foreigner it’s not easy to get a work permit in any European country or the USA. All over the world bureaucracy is rampant but in Israel it is augmented by the need to maintain security and protect the civilian population.

Letters to the Editor

[more ...]