in the garden


Extracts from the Oct 2014 Journal

Judith Kerr and the British

Like her many readers in Britain and worldwide, AJR members who heard Judith Kerr speak about her work at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on 29 June 2014 were enchanted by the sheer charm of her writing. Kerr is best known for her children’s books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog the Cat stories, but When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, her semi-autobiographical account of her family’s flight from Nazi Germany in March 1933 and their arrival in Britain some years later, will always be dear to the hearts of the refugees from Hitler.
Judith Kerr was born in Berlin in 1923, the daughter of Alfred Kerr, Germany’s foremost drama critic, and his wife Julia. Her elder brother was Sir Michael Kerr, a brilliant barrister who became the first non-British-born Lord Justice of Appeal since the twelfth century. Kerr’s three books about her experiences of emigration and life in Britain were republished in a single volume in 1994 under the title Out of the Hitler Time: One Family’s Story. The first part of the trilogy, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, has long been an international bestseller and the third part, A Small Person Far Away, an account of Kerr’s first return visit, in 1956, to Berlin, where her mother had attempted suicide, has also attracted considerable interest. But the second volume, The Other Way Round, which depicts the often difficult process of the family’s acclimatisation to life in Britain and the gradual passing of responsibility from the parents, unable to come to terms with their new life and status, to the more adaptable and energetic children, arguably merits more attention than it has received. (Its recent reissuing under the misbegotten title Bombs on Aunt Dainty will hardly have helped.)
The Other Way Round begins in March 1940, when Anna, Judith Kerr’s fictional self, is struggling to cope with her situation as a teenage refugee in wartime Britain. The interaction between the refugees from Nazism and the British is reflected in the portrayal of the latter through the eyes of an intelligent and sensitive, but naïve and impressionable, young girl. Anna is lodging with American friends in Kensington since her parents cannot afford a room for her even at the shabby-genteel Hotel Continental in Bloomsbury, where they live surrounded by an array of bewildered, anxious and impoverished refugees. Anna is uncomfortably aware of the contrast between the wealth of her hosts, the Bartholomews, and her own family’s poverty - a drastic change from the prosperity and standing they had enjoyed in Germany, and the material counterpart to the marginal status to which they have been reduced as ‘alien’ refugees in an insular Britain ignorant of, and indifferent to, the hardships experienced by those forced to flee the Nazi dictatorship.
Anna’s first impressions of Britain, conveyed in the final pages of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, are predominantly favourable: after the open hostility displayed by their Parisian concierge towards the family both as refugees and as Jews, Britain appears reassuring, if unfamiliar. The weather that greets them on their crossing from France may be appalling but in Newhaven a ‘kind but incomprehensible’ porter puts them on the right train to London. The English passengers may sit bolt upright behind their newspapers, barely exchanging a word, but on alighting from the train they form an orderly queue to leave the platform, with none of the pushing and jostling customary in Continental countries. The language may at first be incomprehensible: the children are puzzled that every station appears to be called ‘Bovril’, until their mother informs them that this is ‘some kind of English food’, eaten, she thinks, with stewed fruit. And though at Victoria Station Anna and her brother Max are initially baffled by a porter’s enquiry ‘Ittla?’, they rapidly understand his meaning when he places his fingers moustache-like under his nose, mimes a Nazi salute, then spits forcefully (and to them reassuringly) onto the platform.
When The Other Way Round begins, in 1940, Anna has experienced life in Britain, with its attendant hardships and humiliations, as a refugee for some four years. Since her parents can no longer pay for her hotel room she has ‘become like a parcel, to be tossed about, handed from one person to another, without knowing who would be holding her next’, a metaphor that strikingly conveys the insecurity of the child refugee’s life. She had first been taken in at the Metcalfe Boarding School for Girls, where she, ‘the clever little refugee girl’, had not fitted in among the beefy, hockey-playing English pupils. As the opening paragraphs of the book show, life with the Bartholomews is more pleasant, but no less demeaning, in that she is constantly conscious of living on her hosts’ charity: she is reduced to wearing the slightly shabby clothes handed down to her by the Bartholomews’ daughters and her handbag is a cast-off of her mother’s from Berlin.
But, apart from these signs of poverty, Anna has become almost indistinguishable from other middle-class English girls after four years of life and schooling in Britain. She and Max have come to feel themselves in large measure British, or at least the equals of their British counterparts, and are intensely resentful and indignant when they are considered inferior on account of their status as ‘alien’ refugees or are singled out for treatment different to that accorded their British peers. Travelling to Cambridge to spend a weekend with Max, who is studying there, Anna’s external appearance is that of a British girl of her age but in matters other than clothing the sense of otherness persists, most importantly in the way that she is perceived as different, both by others and by herself.
On the train to Cambridge, she encounters a ‘tweedy woman’, the archetypal middle-class English lady. At first, the lady takes Anna for an English girl going to Cambridge for social purposes befitting someone of her class and befriends her. But she is disconcerted to learn that Anna comes from Berlin: ‘I should never have thought it. You haven’t got a trace of an accent. I could have sworn that you were just a nice, ordinary English gel.’ The idea that Anna is from Germany but opposed to her native country in time of war is too much for the tweedy lady, who, offended by what she considers a deception practised on her, buries herself reproachfully in Country Life. Only a slow process of immersion in British life during the war leads Anna to feel, by the time of the VE Day celebrations in May 1945, that she belongs in her adopted homeland.
Even more than Anna, Max is desperate to be taken for English. He adapts with astonishing speed to the British educational system; his academic gifts rapidly gain him a scholarship to Cambridge, where his sister is amazed to see him behaving exactly like an English undergraduate, and being treated as such by his English friends. Hence his fury and dismay when, a short time later, he is interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Max suffers no particular ill treatment and is indeed released from internment unusually early: ‘But he clearly hated it. He hated being imprisoned and he hated being treated as an enemy, and most of all he hated being forced back into some kind of German identity which he had long discarded.’
After his release, Max is determined to prove his Britishness to the British: overcoming all obstacles, he succeeds in joining the RAF and, when Bomber Command and Fighter Command refuse to allow him to fly on operations on the grounds that he cannot be allowed to fly over German territory, he persuades Coastal Command to accept him, arguing that no rule prevents him from flying over the sea. By the end of the book, as he walks through the London crowds on VE Day in RAF uniform, the salutes he receives signal his acceptance as a respected member of the national community.
The image of Britain as a country of refuge also changes markedly in the course of the narrative. At first, much of the emphasis is on the failure of the British to understand the position of the Jews driven out of Germany by the Nazis, on the shabby poverty they endure and on the frustration of successful and educated people forced into inactivity or, at best, into menial jobs. However, the Kerrs come to admire the behaviour of the British in wartime, the tenacity of their resistance to the Nazi juggernaut and their stolid resilience during the Blitz. The spirit of solidarity that unites the civilian population embraces even the refugees at the Hotel Continental as they listen exultantly to the BBC radio news announcing the losses suffered by the Luftwaffe on 15 September 1940, the crucial day in the Battle of Britain. By the end of the book, in 1945, the Kerrs also feel a modest pride in being part of the community that has won so hard-fought a victory.

Who can you trust?

Whom indeed? Not journalists, not authors of otherwise well-written fiction, not even the BBC News: ‘Who will you marry?’ ‘The wedding of X who police want to question ….’ ‘Y has been sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a grandfather who he stabbed to death.’
Whom, I’m afraid, is on its way out except in sentences such as: ‘Z, whom I believe is a bachelor ….’ Ouch! According to Google, it has been on a steady decline since 1826. As an editor of the Guardian put it, ‘Correctness is significantly less appealing when the price is the appearance of being a “pompous twerp”.’
I know what he means. At the bridge club, rather than asking ‘Who are you playing with today?’, as everyone else would, I rephrase: ‘Who is your partner today?’
I have written about grammar before and ended the article telling myself sternly that the time had come for me to thoroughly chill out and I do manage to split the odd infinitive – with gritted teeth.
Well, I’m at it again and my latest hobby-horse is the use of who and whom. Once again I consulted Fowler’s Modern English Usage. This book has a history. It was given to me by a fellow boarder at Miss Bull’s in Maidenhead during the war. His inscription reads: ‘To Edith from Little Hibby [his nickname for himself] 26/3/43.’
I was 23 years old. Rather like Mary’s little lamb, the book was sure to go wherever I went. It followed me to Germany, Paris, Sydney and, finally, London. It takes pride of place on my favourite shelf alongside my concise Oxford and Chambers dictionaries, my Roget’s Thesaurus, my Chambers’s Biographical Dictionary, my Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms, my Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and my German, French and Italian dictionaries. Most of these reference books are very old and I fully realise that Google has made them all redundant but I wouldn’t part with any of them.
So what has Henry Watson Fowler (1856-1933) to say on the subject? My edition of the book was first published in 1926 and reprinted (with corrections) in 1940: ‘The interrogative who is often used in talk where grammar demands whom as in “Who did you hear that from?” No further defence than “colloquial” is needed for this, & in the sort of questions that occur in printed matter other than dialogue the liberty is seldom taken.’
Is it really? What would Fowler say if he were to return to earth now? My guess is that he would be fairly relaxed. Although passionate about language and grammar, he was far more tolerant than I am. ‘Language changes,’ he might observe, as indeed it does. My problem is that I can’t change with it.
Yes, I plead guilty to being a grammar freak! But there are extenuating circumstances. As you all know, my mother tongue is German. Every German noun has one of three genders and there are four case forms – nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. (Latin, the second language I learned, has two more: the ablative and vocative.) But let’s stick to German.
In German, it takes six words to express the modest definite article the, as it does for the even more modest indefinite article a. It would be impossible, even for a semi-literate person, to confuse a subject with an object.
I have to confess that I was as finicky about German grammar as I am about English grammar. There was a popular saying in Austria: ‘Bescheidenheit ist eine Zier, doch weiter kommst du ohne ihr‘ (Modesty is a virtue but you’ll get further without it). Now the problem here is that ‘Bescheidenheit’ is a feminine noun and the preposition ‘ohne’ takes the accusative. Therefore, the pronoun should be sie but sie doesn’t rhyme with ‘Zier’. Since I couldn’t bring myself to cite the saying with the wrong pronoun, I changed the second line to ‘doch weiter kommst du nicht mit ihr’ (but you won’t get far with it). That’s me!
I’m very much afraid that very soon I - a b***** foreigner - will be the only person left in Britain to use who and whom correctly. Serves me right for being a pompous twerp.

In between two languages

‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart’ - Nelson Mandela [more...]

Art notes

Chaim Soutine, La Soubrette (Waiting Maid), 1933, acquired by Ben Uri in 2012
The Tower of London is dwarfed by the glassy modernism of the Shard, the Gherkin, the oblong rotunda of City Hall, and a steely cityscape that grew around it after both World Wars became a mere memory. It sits low and threatening behind its 11th-century dry moat with its horrible histories, its medieval menace. Who can look at it and not shudder? It was here that over 1,600 men swore an oath to the Crown after enlisting for war. And here that German spies were shot.
Poppies have a fragile beauty. But, like the Tower, they bear the image of death. So how fitting for ceramicist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper to create an ongoing installation of 888,246 poppies there to represent each British and Colonial soldier killed during that war. The last poppy will be ‘planted’ on Armistice Day, 11 November. The installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was inspired by the will of a Derbyshire serviceman killed in Flanders, and each poppy has been hand-made by Cummins and his team, appropriately in Derby.
Unveiled on 5 August 2014, the centenary of the first day of the First World War, the poppies skim the moat and rise from a wire base, evoking the soldiers’ death-defying spirits. On the railings that surround the Tower, two roses have been pinned, each with a simple message flapping in the breeze. One commemorates William John Hamilton from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers Regiment, killed at the Somme. The second is in memory of E. N. Hubbard and J. Meads. From this distance, the poppies are a sea of red and it’s hard to make out their individuality. But after Armistice Day you can buy one of your own, at £25 each.
On 1 July 2015 the Ben Uri celebrates its 100th birthday with the exhibition Art, Identity, Migration (to December 2015), supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Long an integral part of the community’s cultural and social life, the Gallery was launched in London’s East End as an art society by and for Jewish artists. For some years it was accommodated in spacious premises above the former West End Synagogue at 21 Dean Street, often backed by cultural events hosted by the Israeli Embassy.
The Ben Uri’s research has been long and exhaustive. It has catalogued the ancient archive from which it built its national gallery and museum. Excavating the past has unravelled stories which span the length of the 20th century. Although its early minutes in Yiddish had been lost for over 70 years, they were recently rediscovered in New York with the help of the Rothschild Foundation Europe.
This will be a reflective moment for the Ben Uri, settled for the past few years in limited premises in London’s Boundary Road. It has also launched a new blog: ‘Centenary Stories’. These highlight the hidden artistic, political and academic history of the Gallery, which flourished in the crowded East End, despite early 20th-century poverty, from the First World War up to the contemporary debates on finance, exhibitions and location which challenge the Gallery in today’s world. [link]

Letter from Israel

The German Templers were part of the ‘Christian Zionism’ movement whereby the European powers sought to establish their presence in the Holy Land after 1840. Following their charismatic leader, Christian Hoffman, these adherents of the German Lutheran Church, primarily in Württemberg, established settlements in Jerusalem, Haifa, Galilee and what is now Tel Aviv in an attempt to bring salvation to the Jewish and Muslim denizens of the region.
They combined their calling as emissaries of the true faith with the practical need to support themselves in their new home. As they had been farmers in their country of origin they engaged primarily in agriculture, building houses according to the German rural pattern, cultivating the land and creating a pleasant and aesthetic environment. They served as a model for the Jewish pioneers who came to the country, and in many cases provided instruction and guidance for the newcomers.
The first group of 72 people settled in Haifa at the foot of Mount Carmel in 1868, preceding the first wave of modern Jewish immigration by 14 years. But that influx, largely sponsored and funded by Lord Rothschild, consisted of thousands of people and soon became the predominant element in the population. The Templers built seven small settlements in various parts of the country and one of them, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, is known to this day as the German Colony. As well as engaging in agricultural activity, the Templers participated in the modernisation of Palestine, introducing mechanised farming machinery, paved roads and the use of electricity in their homes.
In 1987 the late Professor Alex Carmel established a Chair for Research into the Christian Contribution to the Development of Palestine at the University of Haifa, as well as the Gottlieb Schumacher Institute, paying tribute to one of the Templers who engaged in exploring the Holy Land. It was Professor Carmel who insisted on spelling the name of these Templers with two ‘e’s’ to distinguish them from the mediaeval Templars, on whom they modelled themselves. This I learned when I translated his fascinating doctoral thesis on the Templers well before he became a professor.
In the 1930s a number of the Templers in Palestine joined the Nazi Party and one of them, a certain Cornelius Schwartz, was appointed head of the Templer community. They made no secret of their allegiance and even ventured to march through the streets of Jerusalem, occasionally in Nazi uniform, bearing aloft the flag of the Third Reich.
It was at this point that the Templers switched from religious messianism to political messianism, according to Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, Rector of the University of Haifa, although less than 20 per cent of the Templers were members of the Nazi Party in 1938. Some of them returned to Europe to fight in the German army and in 1942 a young Jew, Noah Klieger, was summoned to Gestapo headquarters in Brussels and was stunned when he was addressed in Hebrew by the German officer there, Joachim Erdman. He was told later that Erdman had grown up in a Templer village in Samaria.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War the British authorities in Palestine interned the Templers in camps, deported approximately 600 Templers to Australia, and returned about 1,000 of them to Germany in exchange for some 550 Jews who had been in concentration camps. This unprecedented move brought those thus saved to British-controlled Palestine.
Among those rescued were relatives of mine, who regarded their release from the concentration camp as little short of miraculous - as indeed it was. The family’s subsequent ordeal in enduring the siege of Jerusalem led them eventually to leave Israel and settle in London, though subsequently some of their children did return to this country. [link]

Letters to the Editor

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