Extracts from the Dec 2014 Journal
Elisabeth Castonier, 1894-1975
I am currently writing a book, generously supported by the AJR, on the depiction of Britain and the British in texts by refugees from Hitler. While there are numerous studies of British attitudes towards the Jews who fled to Britain after 1933, as yet no one has sought to analyse systematically the reactions of the newcomers to their country of refuge and the images they created of it. Instead, the newcomers mostly feature merely as the passive recipients of British generosity or as the passive victims of British indifference and, on occasion, outright hostility. To redress this balance, to give the refugees their voice and to reinvest them with active agency in determining their lives, I have been researching autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and collections of letters by refugees, many of which make for compelling reading.
Elisabeth Castonier (1894-1975) sought refuge in Britain in 1938, one of a number of gifted female refugee writers from Germany and Austria that included Gabriele Tergit, Hilde Spiel, Ruth Feiner and Anna Gmeyner. The stories she wrote set in Mill Farm, near Alton in Hampshire, began to appear in 1959 and, much loved though they were, are now sadly little known in Britain. My text, Mill Farm: Menschen und Tiere unter einem Dach (Mill Farm: People and Animals under One Roof) (1984), is an edition based on three collections of stories written between 1959 and 1964. One of these collections was originally entitled Die Herzogin Nana (Duchess Nana) after its main character, a Persian Blue cat of delicate, ladylike sensibilities almost human in her fastidiousness. Castonier’s autobiography Stürmisch bis heiter: Memoiren einer Außenseiterin (Stormy to Fair: Memoirs of an Outsider), a bestseller following its publication in 1964, is now familiar mainly to experts on exile literature; Deborah Vietor-Engländer, a British-born scholar now resident in Germany, has championed Castonier alongside other major literary exiles such as Alfred Kerr and Hermann Sinsheimer.
Castonier’s work is characterised by its humour and lightness of touch, as well as by a joyously positive and life-affirming attitude to the experiences she recounts and a deep human sympathy towards those she describes, even (or indeed especially) when they belong to the animal world.
Castonier was born in Dresden on 6 March 1894, the daughter of Felix Borchardt, the half-Jewish son of a German banker who had bequeathed his son a fortune, and his wife Elizabeth, the flighty and self-obsessed daughter of a Russian aristocrat and an English mother. Felix Borchardt had the means to finance his career as an artist, which he chose to pursue in Paris, where Elisabeth, his only daughter, grew up in almost unimaginable luxury. She enjoyed a thoroughly cosmopolitan childhood in artistic circles, during which she met the sculptor Rodin and visited the Impressionist painter Monet at his home at Giverny, where, as she notes in her memoirs, Renoir and his wife were also present.
But Castonier was a born rebel. Her secondary education in Germany was punctuated by expulsions from select boarding schools for young ladies, on one occasion because she lent a fellow pupil Elinor Glyn’s supposedly scandalous novel Three Weeks. Her family returned to Berlin before 1914 so it was in Germany that Castonier began her literary career. By the end of the First World War, she had broken with both her parents, whose marriage had collapsed when her mother moved to Munich to join her lover. As her mother would not house or keep her, Castonier took up residence in a series of inexpensive lodgings in Schwabing, the centre of Munich’s bohemian and artistic world. She came to know many of the major figures in German cultural life, including Franz Blei, Oskar Bie, Alfred Kerr and Theodor Wolff. In 1923 she married Paul Castonier, a Danish opera singer whose career remained stuck at the level of short-term provincial engagements; they separated amicably after several years. Chronically short of money, Castonier earned her living by her pen, in a wide variety of literary and journalistic endeavours.
She made her breakthrough with the dramatised version of one of her novels early in 1933, but the Nazi regime put an end to her literary career. She moved to Vienna, but was driven out by the Anschluss; she settled in Positano, but was forced to leave Italy as Mussolini’s regime increased its pressure on the refugees from Germany. As she had invested what remained of her inheritance in a London bank, she came, reluctantly, to Britain in autumn 1938, at the height of the Munich crisis. Life in Britain was initially hard for her. She struggled to earn her living, though she was befriended by Audrey Mildmay, the opera singer wife of John Christie, founder of Glyndebourne, and had articles published in the News Chronicle and New Statesman; she also had a series of books about animals published. Characteristically, when she was finally offered secure, well-paid employment as an interpreter in a government department, she turned it down, opting instead for the job as a farmhand that a British farmer, Jane Napier, had offered her, for a far smaller wage and in an occupation utterly unfamiliar to her.
Castonier was to spend some ten years working and living on Mill Farm, in the small village of Froyle in Hampshire, where, by now in her fifties, she fell under the spell of the English countryside, whose misty skies and gently undulating landscapes she saw as the counterpart to a way of life and a set of values that she came to admire and love. The work on Mill Farm was heavy and unrelenting, borne as it was by two women no longer young. Such permanent helpers as they had were the trusty Old Hand and the elderly female factotum nicknamed Gremlin, whose friendly and helpful spirit suffused the household and whose death, bereft of family but surrounded by the instinctive support and compassion of animals, is at once among the saddest and the most uplifting passages in Mill Farm. Gremlin is portrayed as a kind of genius loci, as if she had sprung from the same countryside as the farm and the ancient, increasingly decrepit farmhouse.
The ten years that Castonier spent working on the farm had, as she puts it in her autobiography, made her a new person, enabling her to return to her writing with fresh energy and creativity and a fresh perspective on the world. Much of this was due to the animals around her: among the cast of characters that populate Mill Farm are the parrot Pollykeye, the tomcat Rum, the grey mares Ma Belle and Fairy Queen, the sheepdog Bimbo, the cock Rigoletto and the gander Rosenkavalier, as well as Herzogin Nana and the - aptly named - wild heron Luzifer, whose antics during the visit of an elderly aunt of Jane Napier caused me to laugh out loud in the hushed precincts of a British Library reading room. The humans, though plainly taking second place to the animals, are also delineated with affectionate humour, for instance the aged local doctor, Dr Pain, who disapproves of modern, scientific medicine and the new-fangled, centralised National Health Service, but who insists on being buried with his battered bag of instruments, just in case some angelic denizen of the hereafter might be in need of the traditional modes of assistance that he had so selflessly dispensed to his human patients.
Mill Farm, whose farmhouse is depicted almost as an organic extension to the landscape around it, came to stand for the qualities that Castonier loved in England and the English: their humane, unshakable conservatism, their self-deprecating humour, their determination to defend their freedoms, and the tolerance and respect for the individual that she saw as the hallmarks of English life. From Waterloo Bridge, Castonier had watched the armada of ‘little ships’ setting sail for the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940; Britain’s stubborn defiance of Hitler’s armies convinced her that the country’s centuries-long freedom from invasion had allowed it to develop its own traditions and values by a process of gradual, organic evolution that set it apart from its Continental neighbours.
Mill Farm opens with a memorable image of an almost mythical island nation:
Ein durchsichtiger, opalfarbener Dom aus Nebel und Dunst wölbt sich schützend über der Insel Großbritannien und isoliert sie von den anderen Weltteilen. Denn England ist ein Weltteil für sich, auch wenn behauptet wird, dies wie ein zerfetztes Segel geformtes Stück Erde inmitten des Meeres sei in Urzeiten von Europa losgerissen worden. (A transparent, opal-coloured dome of fog and mist rises like a protective arch over the island of Great Britain, isolating it from other parts of the world. For England is a part of the world unto itself, even though it is claimed that this piece of land, set amidst the ocean in the shape of a tattered sail, was torn loose from Europe in prehistoric times.)
The book closes with Castonier’s reflections on the vibrant and colourful odyssey of her life, now reaching its twilight among the pastel shades of the English countryside. [more...]
The deadline for applications to the Claims Conference Late Applicants Fund is 31 December 2014. The €50m Fund accepts applications from certain heirs of former owners of Jewish property/assets located in the former East Germany for which the Claims Conference received proceeds.
Following the demise of Communism in 1989 and the formal re-uniting of East and West Germany in 1990, the unified German government introduced the national German restitution law allowing owners, or their heirs, of properties in the former East Germany to submit claims for the return of their properties.
With the expiry of the timeframe to file claims in accordance with the national restitution law in 1992, the Claims Conference filed a blanket claim for properties that were once owned by Jewish victims of the Holocaust who lived in that part of Germany that came under the Communist sphere of influence at the end of the Second World War.
In 1996 the Claims Conference created the Goodwill Fund, through which properties were returned to their rightful owners with 20 per cent of the value being kept by the Claims Conference for allocation to worldwide social and welfare programmes, including the Emergency Fund disbursed by the AJR.
For full details of the Late Applicants Fund, including a list of former owners, properties and assets, visit http://www.claimscon.org/?url=LAF where you will also find a link to download the application form.
All communications regarding the Late Applicants Fund should be submitted to: Claims Conference Successor Organization, Sophienstrasse 26, D-60487 Frankfurt am Main, Germany, fax 0049-69-97-07-08-11, email email@example.com [link]
His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was guest of honour at the London premiere of The Last Train to Tomorrow by the internationally acclaimed composer and conductor Carl Davis CBE.
The special concert, organised by the AJR and attended by over 1,200 people, was held on Sunday 9 November, on both Remembrance Sunday and the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The event was held at London’s Roundhouse, historically a turning point for trains and located close to Swiss Cottage and Finchley Road, where many of the Jewish refugees who fled Nazi oppression settled.
Natasha Kaplinsky, the newsreader and television presenter and a member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, introduced the event. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, whose grandfather, Georg Salzberger, was the Rabbi of Frankfurt’s Westend Synagogue, which was destroyed on Kristallnacht, oversaw the candle-lighting ceremony.
During the interval, His Royal Highness took the opportunity to chat with Kinder.
Commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra, The Last Train to Tomorrow tells the story of the Kindertransport through a sequence of songs written by the celebrated children’s author Hiawyn Oram. The song cycle was performed with great passion and power by Finchley Children’s Music Group and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by the composer.
The special concert also featured Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro Overture and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Fourteen-year-old soloist Louisa Staples, from the Yehudi Menuhin School, made a great impression on the audience.
Among those present were Sir Andrew Burns KCMG, UK Envoy for Post Holocaust Issues; Lord Alf Dubs (himself a Kind) and Lady Dubs; Malcolm Singer, Director of Music at the Yehudi Menuhin School; Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies; and representatives of the Austrian, Czech and German Ambassadors to the UK. Unfortunately, Sir Nicholas Winton, now 105 years old, who rescued almost 700 Kinder from Czechoslovakia, was unable to be present.
The concert, an outstanding success, concluded the series of events the AJR had organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
The January 2015 issue of the Journal will feature a selection of reactions to the special concert.
Given the popularity of the souvenir brochure, the AJR is to issue a re-print. If you would like a copy, please send a cheque for £5 to the AJR, Jubilee House, Merrion Avenue, Stanmore, Middx HA7 4RL.
If you wish to purchase a CD, please visit www.carldaviscollection.com or http://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Train-Tomorrow-Davis-Collection/dp/BOON83U810 [link]
Carry GorneyCarry Gorney, aged around 8
I’m eight years old, staring at a white sheet pinned to our living room wall. I’m sitting in darkness, watching grainy black and white film. My dad is the projectionist.
A single shaft of light projects the flickering images of my parents’ wedding. The only sound is the whirring of spools turning on the 8mm movie projector. The characters on the sheet are laughing, hands holding wine glasses, arms raised, toasting and - by the way their lips are moving - often singing.
There are only a few shots of my teenage mother, the bride with flowers in her hair. She waves shyly with one hand, the other holding her long shiny dress, nervous she’ll trip on her stiletto heels. There are many shots of my dad, Jack the Lad, aged 24, dark eyes flashing, kissing his bride, kissing his mother, pushing and shoving his younger brother, and lunging forward to grab the camera.
I’m noticing another figure always somewhere in shot. He also looks about 24. He is laughing, he plays camera tag with my dad. One films a few seconds, then the other one. They film each other. He pulls faces at the camera, he makes my dad pull faces, he kisses the bride, then the bridesmaid, once, twice.
‘Who’s he?’ I ask.
‘My best man, Manfred Marks.’
‘Has he visited us?’
‘Why not, daddy?’
‘Where is he?’
‘He just disappeared.’
What did that mean? How can you just disappear? I think of the pot labelled vanishing cream on my mum’s dressing table. Did he apply it and then pouf, he disappeared? Was it a joke? Has he disappeared forever? Silence, except for the whirring of the spools.
I glance back to the screen. My dad and his best man are now dancing together - a Russian dance, going down on their haunches, kicking their legs and falling over each other helpless with laughter.
‘How did he disappear?’
Silence except for the whirr of the projector.
‘Is he your best friend, Manfred Marks?’
‘Yes, he was. We were at school together, we were always in trouble with the teacher, he called us Manfred One and Manfred Two.’
‘Which were you?’
‘Manfred Two, I was the younger.’
‘If he is your best friend why doesn’t he write to you?”
I understand about writing letters. Every month I listen to the letters read out by my gran and great aunts. So why didn’t he write?
Just the whirring of the spools.
I watch Manfred One on the film blow kisses at the camera. Two stare frozen at the screen. I really wanted to know what happened but I daren’t ask any more. A fog of silence has descended.
A long pause, everyone kissing everyone else on the screen. Eventually, I try again.
‘How can you just disappear?’
He turns to me in the dark. I scrutinise his face, lit up by the projector beam. For a moment I feel scared, I think he’s angry with me, I know what happens if I go too far. I move carefully away from him, silently out of reach of his hand just in case. He holds my gaze for a long time.
‘His mum said they came at dawn. There was a knock on the door and they took him away. We never heard again.’
I shift slightly in my seat and pull my socks up.
‘Did they come at dawn for you?’
‘I had already left. We left straight after the wedding.’
I turn back to the screen. My parents are running along a station platform each carrying a large, stiff leather suitcase. Manfred Marks is leading a gaggle of waving, leaping young people throwing confetti. The images wobble as the camera is passed around. The next shots are from the train; my father is filming his friends. There is a long close-up of Manfred Marks’s face and his eyes seem to meet mine in our darkened 1950s living room. Then the screen goes black. The whirring has stopped.
We sit in silence for what seems forever. I suck the ends of my pigtails.
‘Daddy, who are all those people throwing confetti?’
‘Where are they now?’
‘They just disappeared.’
Where did they go, I wonder, where did they go? [link]
Rembrandt van Rijn: The Jewish Bride (1654)
What makes a great master? For me, it’s sensitivity and luminosity - and who better to demonstrate these qualities than Rembrandt? The National Gallery has chosen the artist’s most mature phase as the exemplar of his greatest genius. In an exhibition which includes 40 paintings, 20 drawings and 30 prints, Rembrandt: The Late Works explores this final burst of energy, including several self-portraits which show the artist’s deepest introspection as he delves into the secrets within a face growing from maturity to elderliness. His familiar stubby features and serious expression beneath the artist’s cap do not essentially change but a there is a perceptible dwindling of his remarkable vitality and a sense of his own fragility.
These are the years from the 1650s to his death in 1669 at the age of 63, showing the artist at his best, reflecting back to us his creative growth developed through tragedy and personal setbacks. The self-portraits, some in oils, some etchings, include one in which he features as the Apostle Paul; in another, Self-Portrait with Two Circles, he appears with his brushes and palette suggesting a creative other-worldly significance. It is certainly true of Rembrandt that everything can be said within a human face.
Rembrandt lived and worked in Amsterdam, an area highly populated by Jews from the ghetto. Betsy Wieseman, who sensitively created this excellent exhibition, pointed out that Rembrandt would have known members of the Jewish community and was intrigued by Judaism as he was by all religions. She alluded to the artist’s fascination with the Old Testament and certainly Rembrandt mined it for narratives to prove his fascination with biblical history. Clearly he managed to capture the emotion and spirit of the Old Testament in order to understand humanity. There is no better example of this than his painting The Jewish Bride, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is understood to be a reference to the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca and such is the tenderness of the bridegroom as his hand gently meets that of his bride at her breast, that its subtle sensuality reaches us down the ages - truly a biblical love affair.
Other versions may be more cynical. Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, is shown Holding King David’s Letter. She must choose her husband or her king and there is a deep female knowledge in the play of her features as she considers her options. Another biblical subject is Abraham Entertaining the Angels, a drypoint etching, and Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, in which the youngest son, Benjamin, is the first to receive the blessing.
But it is Rembrandt’s celebrated use of light, of which he stands the undisputed master, where we see him exploring New Testament subjects. A spiritual effulgence emanates from the canvas. There are darker paintings such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp – who can forget that ghostly green pallor of the corpse? – or his pen-and-brush drawings of a hanged woman on a gibbet. Some of his drypoint etchings, particularly the delightful Young Woman Sleeping, have an almost Modernist poignancy. [link]