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.