Extracts from the Nov 2016 Journal
For decades after the war, refugee institutions like the AJR were largely staffed by former refugees, members of the first generation. Until the mid-1990s, the senior offices in the AJR were held by figures like Theo Marx and Ludwig Spiro; its senior social workers, following in the tradition of Adelheid Levy and Margot Williams from the early days, were mostly refugees; and this journal was edited by Richard Grunberger, a Kindertransportee from Vienna, until his death in 2005. There was also a host of first-generation refugees who worked with the AJR to support or entertain its members: many readers of this journal will remember, for example, Gretel Beer’s cookery column or Alice Schwab’s art notes. Having a sweet tooth and a Viennese background, I am not likely to forget Gretel Beer’s recipe for Mohr im Hemd, a deliciously calorific pudding whose dark chocolate (the ‘Moor’) is covered with whipped cream (his ‘Hemd’, or white shirt).
So it was all the sadder to learn of the death of Irene White on 22 July 2016, just short of her hundredth birthday. Irene White was one of nature’s helpers. She was a nurse by profession; she married and brought up two children, then, after her husband’s death, turned to voluntary work for her fellow refugees. Among her many charitable activities, she will probably best be remembered for her recording of the contents of AJR Information onto cassettes for the benefit of visually impaired members. She helped at the AJR Day Centre in Cleve Road, at the Old Age Homes run by the AJR and the Central British Fund, and at Belsize Square Synagogue.
Irene White was born in Dessau in 1917 and brought up in Berlin. She grew up in a highly cultivated German-Jewish family. Her father, Georg Michelsohn, was a doctor who also wrote poems. In 1934 she emigrated to Palestine, then in 1938 to Britain. Her memoirs, I Came as a Stranger (London: Hazelwood, 1991), look back on six decades of her life, starting with her emigration as a young girl.
While still in Palestine, where she started nursing, Irene White was taken under the wing of a distinguished British army officer, Colonel John Henry Patterson, through whose good offices she was able to come to Britain, to take her diploma in nursing at St Mary’s Hospital, London. Patterson, though non-Jewish, had commanded the Zion Mule Corps, which fought in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915-16, and then the Jewish Legion, as the five battalions of Jewish volunteers raised by the British to fight the Turks in the First World War were known. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father was a close friend of Patterson, has described him as the godfather of the modern Israel Defence Forces. Patterson was present at the circumcision ceremony of Yonatan Netanyahu, Benjamin’s elder brother, who was named after Patterson; Yonatan was killed in action, commanding the Israeli commando unit in the rescue operation at Entebbe airport in July 1976.
Irene White belonged to that generation of refugees whose attitude to Britain was shaped by their early years in this country and especially by the war, when she experienced a solidarity and comradeship that as a refugee she valued highly. The title of her memoirs was inspired by a visit she made as a welfare officer to an elderly refugee lady. As she was leaving, that lady said to her: ‘You came as a stranger, and you left as a friend.’ In the introduction to her book, White continues: ‘These were exactly my feelings when I came to England, with only a slight variation. I came as a stranger, and I stayed as a friend. May it remain a country of freedom and fair play for ever.’ The much vaunted ‘spirit of the Blitz’ that enabled British civilians to overcome the sufferings of the war and the hardships of the austerity years was exemplified by the readiness of ordinary people to give the common cause priority over their private interests. After celebrating her marriage to Allan White, a fellow refugee from Germany, with a wedding lunch at the Cosmo Restaurant in Swiss Cottage, Irene spent her wedding night treating air raid casualties at Hampstead General Hospital; her husband spent the night in an air raid shelter.
Irene had had her first experience of wartime nursing at Park Prewett Hospital, near Basingstoke in Hampshire, where she was thrust into the midst of the emergency of May 1940 when the hospital was flooded with casualties evacuated from Dunkirk. While her husband joined the Royal West Kent Regiment, later transferring to No. 3 Troop, 10 Commando, an élite unit mainly composed of German-speaking refugees, Irene, then living in a rented house in Temple Fortune, north of Golders Green, was exposed to the nightly routine of air raids and fire-watching. The matter-of-fact style in which she describes the dropping of incendiary bombs, as markers for the German bombers, conveys the calm determination with which ordinary civilians confronted the attacks on London:
It was one of our jobs to take the metal dustbin lids and cover the fire bombs before they exploded and illuminated everything. The house next door to us caught fire. We formed a bucket chain and, with the help of our neighbours using hosepipes, stirrup pumps and very primitive equipment, the fire was put out.
For Irene and Allan White, as for many refugees from Nazism, the experiences of the war and the post-war years of austerity shaped their attitude to life in Britain, providing a key element in the foundations on which they rebuilt their lives as a young married couple starting out in a new country, but with the loss of their families all too fresh in their minds. White’s memoirs transport her readers back to a vanished London of pea-soup fogs, orderly queues, austerity and shortages – for the first few weeks of her life, her baby daughter slept in a drawer lined with a blanket – but also of courtesy and consideration for others:
When you are alone and very young with no friends or relations, do not know the language well and have no money, the slightest kindness is like a gift from heaven. Altogether, England seemed like a sanctuary to me. People were helpful and, of course, the policemen were wonderful.
After the war, White was able to observe the process of integration anew, in the case of her mother, who arrived from Palestine in 1947, intending to spend a year in Britain, and ended up staying until her death in 1981. At first, her mother was alarmed by the swirling fogs that enveloped the city and, still more, by the crowds of men gathering four deep in St John’s Wood; she took these for a portent of revolutionary unrest, but soon learnt that they were simply queuing at Lord’s Cricket Ground. In those days, White noted, ‘a revolution was not really cricket!’ Although Allan White later built up a multi-million pound business, the Veterinary Drug Company of Yorkshire, working with the vet James Herriot of All Creatures Great and Small fame among others, the habits, values and attitudes of the couple’s early years in Britain continued to influence their family life across the decades.
This is a pattern readily recognisable in other memoirs by refugees, where the first, pre-war period of settlement proves painfully difficult, but is followed by the experience of the common commitment of wartime – any period of internment apart – and by a growing sense of integration into and of identification with British society, leading on to a mostly happy, stable and prosperous life. Two examples of this are Edith Argy’s The Childhood and Teens of a Jewish Girl in Inter-war Austria and Subsequent Adventures (BookSurge, 2005) and Marianne Elsley’s A Chance in Six Million (privately published, Deddington, Oxfordshire, 1989).
Edith Argy, née Tintner, came to Britain on a domestic service visa and endured dreadful conditions skivvying in British households; she even contemplated returning to Nazi-occupied Vienna. Marianne Elsley, née Josephy, arrived on a Kindertransport from Berlin as a teenager, alone and bereft of her adored parents whom, as she rightly feared, she would never see again.
Marianne Elsley trained as a nurse, withstanding the Victorian harshness of the training regime. She was accepted at Salisbury Infirmary, where ‘a young man turned me into a real English woman with a genuine British passport, by marrying me!’ She later became a respected pillar of her local community in the quintessentially English setting of the picture postcard village of Deddington, Oxfordshire. Edith Argy lived through the Blitz in London: ‘When I witnessed people’s stoicism and courage and sense of humour, amidst all the devastation, I felt proud, almost privileged, to live in London – among the English – at that moment in time.’ After the war, she emigrated to Australia, met her husband and returned with him to London, the city she loves; she lives in a desirable area of west London and continues to contribute her elegantly styled articles to this journal.
The AJR’s 75th Anniversary seminar at JW3 was truly inspiring. At the very least, it was a pleasure to meet Tony Grenville at last and put a face to my favourite Page One of the AJR Journal! It was good to be among so many AJR friends of long standing but it was also good that many people had come who were neither AJR members nor had been to JW3 previously.
The richness of the programme was awesome: the order and chairing of the sessions had obviously been carefully thought out. Trudy Gold’s breath-taking opening gallop through the history of the Jewish community in Germany was absolutely gripping, as her presentations always are. Together with Tony Grenville and Bea Lewkowicz outlining the history and achievements of the AJR, this was an amazing introduction. Far from ‘knowing it all’, I discovered how much I had not known and I suspect others found the same.
In the second session, we were treated to a birds-eye view of the heritage and culture of the Jewish refugees from Central Europe by two rabbis - Jonathan Wittenberg and Julia Neuberger - who moved the factual dimension of the first session into a more emotional ambiance.
After lunch, the conference moved into a more nuanced and intimate scrutiny of some of the actual journeys triggered by the refugee crisis of the 1930s-40s. The relevance to today’s refugee crisis was inescapable and was probably awoken in most people’s minds. Some potent themes that need our attention began to emerge: the dignity that was preserved within the indignity of allowing refugees who were professionals to do only menial work – compared with today’s interned refugees, who are allowed no work; the general hostility towards ‘migrants’ today, even children; and the increasing use of the fictional ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ instead of factual testimonies in schools. The most moving presentation of this panel was undoubtedly that of Peter Kurer on the role of the Quakers. This led to a discussion of the lack of acknowledgement of Quakers in Holocaust teaching and to questioning why some rescuers, such as Nicholas Winton, are rightly celebrated but many others, like Wilfrid Israel, are hardly known at all.
In the fourth session, on the contribution to Britain of the Jewish refugees, we were treated to presentations by Lord Alf Dubs, Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s daughter Naomi, Fritz Lustig, and Leo Baeck’s great-grandson James Dreyfus. It was clear that, despite tribulations and trauma, refugees who were treated decently have repaid their country of refuge handsomely. This raises the question of what we can expect from today’s asylum seekers if we don’t protect them from increasing ignorant xenophobia and sheer misplaced hatred.
Unfortunately, I had to miss the final session of the first day as it clashed with the Holocaust Education Trust’s annual dinner, to which I took as guests my granddaughter, a Teach First graduate, and her husband, a Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador from their Lessons from Auschwitz Project. This final session brought in wider contacts in partnership with the AJR: the British Academy (Lord Stern), Central British Fund (Lilian Levy), World Jewish Relief (Paul Anticoni), Council for At-Risk Academics (Stephen Wordsworth), Wiener Library (Kat Hübschmann), and Belsize Square Synagogue (Rob Nothman).
The theme of wider connections continued on the second day, which addressed the future of Holocaust education. In the first panel, Phil Lyons (National Holocaust Centre), Robert Posner (Anne Frank Trust) and Ben Barkow (Wiener Library) gave an overview of projects and material already in operation and in process which will ensure that Holocaust education continues into the future when no live witnesses are left. The three organisations and many others ensure that testimonies, artefacts and projects will continue to be available but, of course, no one can ensure how they will be used by future educators and received by future learners.
This led into the theme of the last panel session, presented as an ‘Intergenerational Conversation’. I represented the First Generation of refugees, Anita Grosz and Raymond Simonson the Second Generation, and Michael Newman the Third Generation. The fact that a Third Generation refugee now heads the AJR shows that the Jewish community will definitely keep our Holocaust legacy from being abandoned or forgotten – but is this the most we can hope for or want for the future? There are survivors of other genocides now reaching a stage of readiness who need to speak out about their journeys and legacies: Remembering Srebrenica is an organisation already sending survivors to speak in schools.
Personally, I always become concerned at Jewish events that focus on the Jewish story of the Holocaust, in which we lost six million of our European community and so many of the few survivors have given so much to their new communities. Commemorating the Jewish loss and the Jewish story is vitally important – essential but not sufficient. I sometimes experience the focus on the Jewish story, especially in schools, as a Jewish-only story, as a form of denial. A reduction to six million of the more than 60 million lives wantonly curtailed in world war is too ‘neat and tidy’ and perhaps the maximum that most minds can tolerate. It is very important that we have Yom Ha’Shoah to focus on and mourn our Jewish loss - but the Holocaust was a loss to the whole of humanity and humanity needs to learn and mourn.
As the outstanding Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer recently stated at JW3, the Holocaust is unique in being a totally unprecedented form of annihilation of a target group on an industrialised scale that has not been repeated – yet. But it could be repeated if we don’t learn from the Holocaust in its wider context of genocide and determine to prevent it. In my view, the two most urgent lessons of the Holocaust that we have not yet learned are to treat all people as equal human beings (no superior or inferior ethnic groups) and to intervene when unacceptable violence begins, instead of turning a blind eye and letting it escalate out of control. There is nothing specifically Jewish about these two lessons. Jews were not the only victims in the Holocaust. Humanity needs a much wider approach to learning about the Holocaust in the context of its predecessors in the first half of the 20th Century and continuing genocides in the second half of the 20th Century into the 21st.
In my view, commemoration and learning are vital but not sufficient without action. The learning we need to add to the way we currently commemorate and teach the Holocaust is to face and understand denial in ourselves and all around us. Denial of unacceptable injustice that we see but do not perceive all around us propels us into being ‘bystanders’ when we can and need to be active ‘upstanders’. Denial keeps us locked in the delusion that ‘There is nothing I can do about it - and, in any case, it’s just human nature and you can’t change that!’ If you believe you can have an effect, you will. We have angels as well as demons in our human nature. We need a conference on ‘Exposing Denial’.
I am left pondering on something that Alf Dubs said at the AJR seminar. When praising Nicky Winton for his rescue actions, Dubs said that Winton’s greatness was that ‘He didn’t have to do it, he chose to do it!’ I would respond to this that Winton did not have to do it from any outside pressure. The pressure was from inside himself and he had to do it because of who he was. This is something that perhaps defines rescuers. Humanity needs more people who have experienced being helped, cherished and valued and are therefore driven from inside to be concerned about others. [link]
The Royal Academy is showing 163 works by 30 artists in its first major UK exhibition of Abstract Expressionism in nearly six decades (to 2 January 2017). The works include sculpture, which reflects the aspirant, thinly vertical forms of the accompanying paintings. Abstract Expressionism emerged at a time when freedom of expression was being celebrated in American culture and politics after the Second World War. While standout artists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Clyfford Still present a vision of dancing shapes, woven swirls or deep and ambiguous colours, you are deceived if you feel this is all it is.
Many early works are figurative and we see how the Surreal transformation, and later the abstraction, took root within each individual artist via a slow, personal progression rather than representing an art movement per se, as the curators emphasise.
The freeing from rigid forms that is loosely termed Abstract Expressionism began to flower in the 1940-50s. It did not come easily. Jackson Pollock grappled with figuration. Some, like the Armenian-born Arshile Gorky, who left for America, fused Surrealism with Cubism, absorbing the works of Kandinsky and his intricately florid forms. While Rothko developed rigid blocks of divided colour poured onto the canvas, Pollock became increasingly diverse. One gallery shows his 19ft-long Night Mist with its strangely animalistic shapes at one end and the more calligraphic Blue Poles at the other. The provenance of Blue Poles is controversial. It was bought for A$1.3 million by the Australian National Gallery in 1973 and approved by former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, creating political uproar in a country not ready to appreciate this art form. The scandal virtually brought down the Labour government – which had actually purchased for the nation an investment worth between A$20 million and A$100 million today.
After the Second World War some of these artists exercised a deeply lugubrious mood such as Franz Kline’s Vawdavitch, a thick scrawl of smudgy black on white, clearly representing the bleakness of the war, while Rothko’s divided blocks of dark colour, sometimes edged with imperceptible shiny white patches, offer emotional depth. The main colour may be black but the black always promises the light, and the passion of this highly intellectual painter is visible if you care to lose yourself in his work. Both he and Pollock use large canvases which arguably render the impact more powerful.
Rothko, who made his first breakthrough in 1946, was influenced by Rembrandt in his love of light and by Clyfford Sill, a noted American painter whom the Gallery is keen to promote in Britain.
Willem de Kooning’s brilliant colours and Surreal imagery describe the female form in often disturbing ways but women artists themselves are less represented here, which may perhaps be a sign of the times. Exceptions include Helen Frankenthaler, whose striking Europa, full of curves and arabesques, is loosely based on Titian’s Rape of Europa. However, Sky Cathedral, a monumental, multi-layered black sculpture, by Louise Nevelson, is thrilling and she is said to have influenced Anselm Kiefer.
The headline in the paper one morning made me shudder. It reported that Israel’s Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, had proclaimed that it was more important to focus on Jewish studies in schools than on maths and science subjects.
Admittedly, the party that Bennett represents, Jewish Home, stands for those values that the religious segment of the population regards as paramount, but one would expect the Minister of Education to take into account the views of the general population, the majority of which sends its children to secular schools. After all, the religious segment of Israel’s population has its own schools, covering all the various shades and gradations of religious observance. In addition, all secular schools are required to include Bible studies and Jewish subjects in their curricula and this has always been the case.
What Bennett’s ideas sound like to me is proselytising - or even an attempt at brainwashing. After all, children’s minds are malleable and pupils generally tend to accept what they are taught by figures of authority, i.e. teachers. In addition, I fail to see how secular teachers can be expected to impart values, customs and mores to which they do not themselves subscribe.
The episode brought to mind my long-lost youth when, as the product of an orthodox home, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to join the Bnei Akiva youth movement. As teenagers we had some good times at weekly meetings, weekend seminars and summer camps, Bnei Akiva in those days was more moderate in its approach to religion than it is today, and boys and girls mixed freely, though I have the feeling that our way of enjoying ourselves then is probably not what today’s youngsters would regard as having a good time. We spent weekends and summer holidays together in rented boarding schools or under canvas, dividing our time between serious subjects and having fun, always under the guidance of some older, supposedly more responsible, members.
One incident that stands out in my mind is a Shabbat lunch when, uplifted by the enthusiastic singing of the entire camp, one of our leaders declared ‘It is by expanding observance of the Shabbat to include all Jews everywhere that we will finally attain our goal of Medinat Halacha, i.e. the State of Israel run on the lines of the universal observance of Judaism.’
At the time I found that inspiring but today the thought fills me with horror. Israel today is witness to a constant battle between the efforts of the religious parties to impose their views on the entire country, with the result that on Shabbat there is no public transport, all shops are shut and essential infrastructure maintenance work cannot be implemented. It goes without saying that the attitude towards women in orthodox Judaism is unacceptable in today’s modern, egalitarian world.
Israel’s unfortunate electoral system has given rise to a situation in which coalition governments are unavoidable and the stranglehold of the religious parties obliges governments to accede to their demands. If it is their intention to make Israel a Medinat Halacha I’m very much afraid they will find themselves in a state of their own, possibly together with the Muslim extremists with whom they have so much in common.