Extracts from the Jan 2015 Journal
By the outbreak of war in September 1939, some 60,000 Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia had fled to Britain. These refugees are of particular importance when it comes to investigating what was known in Britain about the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust, and what those who had information about these subjects were able truly to comprehend. For the Jewish refugees were the only group in Britain to have lived under the Nazis, to have had direct experience of Nazi persecution, and to have acquired - painfully - some idea of what the Nazis were capable of, especially in their treatment of Jews.
The Jewish refugees from Hitler were thus uniquely well placed to grasp what might be taking place in Nazi-controlled Europe, to comprehend the reality of what we now call the Holocaust, and to inhabit what the French camp survivor David Rousset called ‘l’univers concentrationnaire’, a universe that most people found impossible to access. To ascertain how much that group of refugees knew, and how much they comprehended, about the Holocaust, I have researched the circulars that the AJR, the principal organisation representing the Jewish refugees from Nazism in Britain, distributed to its members during the war. These circulars, the forerunners of our Journal, provide a unique insight into what the acknowledged representative organisation of the Jews from Central Europe in Britain knew, and did not know, about the Holocaust.
The Jews from Germany and Austria in Britain were, of course, aware that persecution on a massive scale was being visited on the Jews of occupied Europe. But a generalised awareness of Nazi atrocities was very different from a proper understanding of the systematic policy of mass killings on an industrial scale that was the reality of the Holocaust. For throughout the war, and even beyond, the circulars maintained the hope that substantial numbers of survivors would emerge from occupied Europe. In June 1943, the AJR appealed for large numbers of its younger members to volunteer for training for post-war relief work so that they could participate in the ‘sacred duty’ of rehabilitating the survivors of Nazi rule. The expectation was plainly that considerable numbers of volunteers would be needed to cope with the liberated Jews: ‘there cannot be too many trained helpers willing to undertake hardship and privations for the sake of those who are now going through suffering and despair and who will need all the assistance we can give them once the war is won’ (pp. 7f).
The AJR also plainly expected that after the war substantial numbers of refugees would be reunited with family members trapped in Europe. That purpose would be served by the Transmare index of addresses of refugees abroad that the AJR had compiled: ‘Such a register would be at the disposal of all those Jews on the Continent who after liberation of a territory from Nazi rule will be anxious to find their relatives in this country. By collecting these addresses and keeping the register up to date we hope to contribute substantially to the re-union of families after the war’ (December 1943, p. 2).
Even in June 1945, after the end of the war, the front page of the circular concentrated not on the vast extent of the mass killings but on the relief and rehabilitation of the survivors: ‘The revelations of the horror camps, in which were imprisoned so many Jews, have shocked humanity. All people of goodwill will wish to succour those who have been so maltreated. It is hoped it may be possible to make arrangements whereby the relatives of those suffering people may be reunited with their own folk in this country, and that they may be able to make a new start either in this land or in some part of the Empire.’ As a commentary on the consequences of the Holocaust, this must strike us as remarkably understated, given that, for all its pathos, it shied away from the mass extermination of the Jews of Europe.
From June 1943, the circulars carried information about the camps, under the heading ‘Jews on the Continent’. At first, information about the Nazi camps was both sparse and vague: it came mainly from Theresienstadt, where conditions were alleged to be tolerable – this was, we now know, largely a Nazi fiction – and from Holland, from where news of the deportation of Jews had reached Britain. Otherwise, the more detailed reports related to Jews who had managed to reach neutral countries, or were in camps in southern Italy liberated by the advancing Allies. Only in August 1944 did substantial reports about the Nazi camps begin to appear, by which time most of the extermination camps had either ceased to function, had been liberated by the Red Army, or, in the case of Auschwitz, was to stop the gassing of Jews within three months.
The front page of the circular of August 1944 was headlined ‘Towards Jewish Freedom’ and it dealt with the fate of the Jews of Budapest, but in an unexpected way: ‘An inconspicuous news item in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency of May 22nd related that in the ghetto of the largest Budapest suburb not more than two square metres of space had been assigned to each person.’ This news was given far greater prominence than the deportation of the Jews of Hungary, though the circular reported, briefly and on an inside page, on the halting of those deportations by the Horthy government in July 1944, indicating that the writer of the circulars knew about the fact of the deportations, but did not - or could not - grasp their true significance. This is one of the clearest instances demonstrating the gulf between knowing about the deportations and comprehending what that knowledge meant.
The circular of August 1944 could throw little light on the fate of Jews in Nazi camps in Poland, where it admitted its almost total ignorance of developments, pleading that ‘tremendous difficulties stand in the way of finding out anything in territories that have been a theatre of war for five years.’ One report, however, stands out from all the others. It was headlined ‘Birkenau’ and read as follows: ‘Parcels to Birkenau in Upper Silesia may still be sent if a person is known to have been sent there. We are aware of the contradictory rumours that have recently been spread about Birkenau, but it has proved impossible to get reliable information at the present moment.’ This was the first reference to the Auschwitz complex in the circulars. Birkenau was, of course, Auschwitz II, the extermination centre itself, and one of the last places on earth to which relief parcels might penetrate.
In contrast to the brief seven lines devoted to Birkenau, 21 lines were devoted to two camps in Upper Bavaria, Ilag VII Z, Tittmoning, and Ilag VII H, Laufen, establishments that would usually hardly merit a footnote in a history of the Holocaust. Camps called Ilag were civilian internment camps where communication with the inmates was possible and from where internees, including Jews, were released in exchange for Germans held in Allied countries. These reports in the circulars were, of course, reliant on whatever information filtered through to the person who wrote them; if they were inaccurate or incomplete, that is only to be expected under the circumstances. But the juxtaposition of the report from Birkenau with that from the Upper Bavarian internment camps is nevertheless striking, even jarring, to us: it illuminates vividly the gulf between our era, where the Holocaust forms part of the historical heritage, and the mental world of an earlier era still innocent of the true import of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The remaining circulars, which continued until October 1945, contained little more detailed information from the camps in the East. The last reference to Auschwitz appeared in October 1945, with a brief and not altogether accurate explanation for this absence of information: ‘we have to make it clear that Auschwitz was not a camp where people were supposed to stay for any length of time, but a distribution centre from which people were sent to working parties or to death camps’ (p. 5). That Auschwitz was itself a death camp of almost unimaginable dimensions seems to have been beyond the writer’s mental grasp.
My purpose has not been to ask or answer questions about who had what factual information about the Holocaust during the period of its implementation, but rather to ask an anterior question: what would people in Britain, in this case the Jewish refugees from Hitler, have made of that information? That question addresses the mental or psychological world of the recipients of the information and it relates not to what they knew but to what they were able, or willing, to comprehend. [more...]
In our December issue, we gave an account of the London premiere of The Last Train to Tomorrow and a selection of photos of this historic occasion. Here we present a selection of reactions to a remarkable concert. [more...]
J. M. W. Turner Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842)
It is hard to reconcile Turner at Tate Britain with Mike Leigh’s version of the unattractive, bumbling, stumbling, grunting artist in his film Mr Turner. In Late Turner: Painting Set Free (until 25 January 2015) we are treated to the mesmerising subtlety of Turner’s imagination, which, towards the end of his life, grappled with the deepening mystery of all things around him. A ship or an architectural ruin becomes redundant and merely the thing that gives life to the quick and pull of universal energy. Here is an artist who, as the first English Impressionist, had a grasp of things that almost cannot be painted because they are so swift and subtle and sensual. The Tate has wisely chosen the last 16 years of his life, from 1835, to project his new-found creativity.
The source of light in Turner’s paintings doesn’t come from the sun: it is not hidden in the clouds - it comes from somewhere within. Like Rembrandt, Turner has an inner luminosity not easily explained but is there within the swell of the sea and the clouds, the flow of the wind, the endless merging of sky, water and landscape – even buildings.
As someone said to me, in Turner’s art the water is not wet. In Constable’s paintings, so vivid, so literal, so earthbound, you can really feel the physical elements, the perfect rendering of trees, horses, grass - and the water is wet. But Turner’s work is so vaporous that you can lose yourself in his sense of the spiritual and insubstantial. The water is open, changing, a life force within the dissolution of light.
While Constable offers a literal translation of the English landscape, Turner seeks a more original and classical interpretation, in the style of Claude. As a marine painter and a superb water colourist, Turner was popular in his day with Jewish industrialists, notably the banker John Julius Angerstein, who collected Claude. Angerstein found a similar symmetry in Turner, who was admired by the Jewish financial and business worlds and the burgeoning ship-building industries in Manchester, Birmingham and Belfast. Queen Victoria, however, was less amused by him, preferring form and shape to abstraction.
Turner loved history, photography and steam engines: you can virtually smell the steam from a train emerging from a tunnel into the countryside. Figurative art was his weaker point, evident in The Departure of the Fleet. He liked to mythologise his landscapes, not all of which are turbulent: some harbour views have no storms and represent peace. In War, the Exile and the Rock Limpet, the colours are vibrant. Napoleon, painted off-centre, references war but the concept suggests Turner’s exploration of states of consciousness, such as in Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, with buffeted ships, red sunsets, cobalt blues – all merging into a stream of consciousness.
In Mike Leigh’s film, the bumbling artist does not come across as the sensitive visionary who travelled all over Europe with his sketchbook to achieve ethereal views of Venice or Lake Lucerne. In Tate Britain, he does. [link]
SPYMASTER: THE SECRET LIFE OF KENDRICK
by Helen Fry
London: Marranos Press, 2014, 528 pp. paperback
‘This book’, writes Helen Fry near the end of her carefully researched account of the life and work of Thomas Kendrick, ‘is just the beginning of a campaign’. It is a campaign for recognition of the lifesaving work Kendrick carried out at the British Passport Office in Vienna in 1938 when, working around the clock, he facilitated the emigration of thousands of Austrian Jews, and others in danger from National Socialism, to Britain and the British Empire. Though precise numbers are hard to come by, it is calculated that, following the Anschluss, and until compelled to leave Austria some months later, Kendrick and his staff succeeded in enabling around 175 to 200 Jews per day to leave the Third Reich. Moreover, Kendrick’s case is made all the stronger by the public recognition already received by his counterpart in Berlin, Frank Foley, for his humanitarian work.
There are further similarities, too, between Kendrick and Foley, both of whom were covertly working for British intelligence while occupying a position, that of Consular Officer, that did not grant them diplomatic immunity. Whilst in Vienna, Kendrick, as one of Britain’s most senior spymasters, ran a team of agents throughout Central Europe to gain information firstly on Communists and secondly on Nazi activities. It was in this shadowy world, which included such figures as Edith Tudor-Hart and Kim Philby ‒ both later revealed as Soviet agents ‒ that one of Kendrick’s team turned out to be a double agent, leading to his arrest by the Gestapo in August 1938. Released after a few days, however, amidst much press and diplomatic interest, Kendrick was swiftly recalled to London.
If this is already a gripping story well told, Helen Fry really comes into her own in her portrayal of the next (wartime) instalment of Kendrick’s life story (and one which continues to bear fairly close comparison with that of Frank Foley, incidentally). Still in the employ of British intelligence, on the outbreak of war Kendrick and a small team began to operate the ‘Combined Services Interrogation Service’, described by Fry as the ‘biggest bugging operation ever mounted against the enemy in British history’. The service was to be used in the interrogation of enemy prisoners of war, first at the Tower of London then, as prisoner numbers increased, at Trent Park and lastly in two further units, Latimer House and Wilton Park in Buckinghamshire. Helen Fry has already shown her mastery of this area of research in her book The M Room: Secret Listeners Who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 (2012) and she does not disappoint here either. From the ‘M room’, a special room that was built into all Kendrick’s prisoner of war units, sophisticated listening equipment made it possible for ‘secret listeners’ to plug into not only the interrogation rooms but also the private conversations of prisoners in their cells (where microphones were placed in the electric light fittings, a device that was apparently never detected).
Although in the first year of the war, relatively small numbers of German officers were captured, by the end of hostilities a staggering number of German generals and other high-ranking officers were being held in the interrogation units: 50 senior officers were captured in April 1945 alone. Interestingly, the most valuable information gleaned - on Hitler’s ‘secret weapons’ the V1 and V2 - was not gathered from formal interrogations but from a private whispered conversation between two generals, bugged as all such conversations were. On receipt of the information, Kendrick immediately phoned the Air Ministry. Evaluating the importance of the work carried out in the interrogation units, Fry quotes one of Kendrick’s colleagues: ‘Had it not been for the information obtained at these centres, it could have been London and not Hiroshima which was devastated by the first atomic bomb.’
Kendrick was released from his post in November 1945 and assigned to ‘special duties’. Although evidence as to their exact nature is sparse, Fry deduces that he continued to work for British intelligence, probably at MI6 headquarters, before being posted to Aldershot to join the interpreters’ ool. He retired in 1948.
Thomas Kendrick died in 1972, unrewarded, in the view of some of Fry’s informants for this book, for his 25 years in British intelligence. While this, presumably, can no longer be remedied, Helen Fry is still keen to make the case for Kendrick, in his Vienna years, to be recognised as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ at Vad Yashem (as was the case with Frank Foley). With this book, certainly, Helen Fry has done her best to publicise the life and work of an exceptional man, to whom many people have cause to feel grateful. [link]
In a part of Jerusalem that is now prime real estate (where the prestigious neighbourhoods of Talbieh and the German Colony meet), but was once on the outskirts of the city, stand the imposing building and grounds of what was initially known as the Jesus Hilfe Asyl (Jesus Help Asylum), then as the Hansen Hospital and, more recently, as Hansen House. [more...]