Research on the Jewish refugees from Hitler in Britain has, it is often argued, focused almost exclusively on London, and in particular on the well-known areas of settlement in the north-west of the city, like Hampstead, Belsize Park and Swiss Cottage (NW3), West Hampstead (NW6), and Golders Green (NW11). While it is true that refugees settled in these areas in numbers unequalled elsewhere in the country, the wealth of information about the communities that grew up along ‘Finchleystraße’ has allowed them to overshadow the groups of refugees living outside the capital. Regional studies like Zoe Joseph’s Survivors: Jewish Refugees in Birmingham 1933-1945 (1988), based on oral-history interviews with refugees in that city, are few indeed, or, as is the case with the two short pages that Judith Samuel devotes to the refugees from Hitler in her book Jews in Bristol (1997), sadly inadequate.
The appearance of a major scholarly study of the Jewish refugees from Nazism who came to Manchester is therefore greatly to be welcomed, the more so as its author, Bill Williams, is an acknowledged and much admired expert on Manchester Jewry. His book, ‘Jews and Other Foreigners’: Manchester and the Rescue of the Victims of European Fascism, 1933-1940, published by Manchester University Press in 2011 and supported by the AJR, is in many respects a model for studies of the refugees from Nazism in cities and regions outside London – though at the price of £95 hardback, readers may be forgiven for waiting for the paperback version. Its 420 pages are, however, devoted to a mere seven years in the history of its subject.
The book is distinguished by the exemplary thoroughness of its research. Williams displays a remarkable knowledge of Manchester Jewry, its communal institutions and organisations, its personalities, places of worship and, not least, internal divisions. Already in the chapter that follows the Introduction, Williams presents to us the first of a series of largely forgotten and unsung individuals who, in the face of general indifference or hostility, stepped forward to assist the new arrivals from Hitler’s Germany. One such was Isidore Apfelbaum, ‘a relatively obscure local jeweller and communal worker’, who as early as 1933 created an improvised agency that rescued some hundreds of German Jews, operating ‘from Apfelbaum’s house at 17 Wellington Road East, Higher Broughton, and from the offices of his firm at 42 Bull’s Head Yard, a dreary alleyway off Market Place, in central Manchester’.
This extract demonstrates Williams’s sovereign mastery of his material. Yet he is also capable of setting his rich range of material in the wider context of the issues and controversies surrounding the reception of the Jewish refugees in Manchester in the first years after 1933. Williams is at pains to contrast Apfelbaum’s activist willingness to help with the more circumspect policy adopted by Nathan Laski, the leading figure in Manchester Jewry and the target of considerable criticism from Williams. Through Manchester’s Jewish Representative Council, Laski was instrumental in imposing what Williams considers an unduly cautious and restrictive approach to the rescue of the endangered Jews of the Reich. The fear of appearing ‘disloyal to Britain’ was, Williams argues, the Achilles’ heel of men like Laski, who were concerned that a more radical strategy would fan the flames of native anti-Semitism. Such men, ‘who had already passed through the anglicising and embourgeoising processes of communal life into the Jewish middle classes’, placed their faith in the essential benevolence of British society, which might not tolerate a more militant response by Jews to the plight of their German co-religionists.
Though the Jewish community of Manchester, then numbering about 40,000, came to play host to some 7-8,000 refugees from Hitler - a substantial number - Williams argues that Laski’s strategy of loyally following the British government’s policies on refugees from the Reich, and of avoiding any criticism of the appeasement-tinged failings of those policies, meant that the operation to aid the refugees was not conducted with full vigour and single-mindedness. In Williams’s view, Laski’s unwillingness to adopt a high-profile strategy of rescue independent of the government caused him to shy away from ‘giving too open a welcome to those seeking to flee Germany in 1933, who, in large numbers, might have been seen as a threat to the British workforce, and who, in whatever numbers, could be construed … as a threat to a supposed “British identity”’. This, Williams continues, was ‘part of a tradition of communal leadership deferential to the British state and culturally subservient to what it saw as the British identity’.
Williams works within a broadly chronological framework, beginning with those relatively few organisations that provided assistance to the refugees in the first years after 1933 and moving on to the greater number of agencies of support that came into existence in the critical years 1938-39. Within that framework, he provides a detailed and expert account of the main organisations concerned. At first, organised efforts to help the refugees were few in Manchester. Williams notes the initiatives of the Manchester Women’s Lodge of the Order B’nai B’rith, from whose ranks came Rae Barash, subsequently one of the leading activists in the Manchester Jewish Refugees Committee (MJRC), the important agency set up in November 1938 to take forward the work of supporting the rapidly increasing number of Jews fleeing the Reich. Otherwise, the responses of institutions like the University of Manchester, which gave positions to some refugee scholars, or the Lancashire Industrial Development Council, which supported refugee industrialists and entrepreneurs, earn scant praise from Williams. Even the Manchester Quakers were, in Williams’s words, ‘slow off the mark’, their objective of bringing about international harmony between Britain and Germany being hard to reconcile with their desire to assist the victims of Nazism.
Only after the intensification of Nazi persecution of the Jews in 1938 did men and women like Norman Jacobs, Morris Feinmann and Margaret Langdon, all members of the MJRC alongside Rae Barash, become fully active, setting up Kershaw House in Alexandra Road South, Whalley Range, the first hostel for refugees to be established by Anglo-Jewry outside London. It was named after Arthur Kershaw, who offered the spacious mansion as a residence for refugees. Its Orthodox counterpart, Cassell-Fox House in Upper Park Road, Higher Broughton, was likewise named after its creators, Eli Fox and Adolf Cassell. The pogrom of 9-10 November 1938 also galvanised the Quakers into setting up hostels for the refugees. Through the Refugee Committee of the Society of Friends in Manchester and District, the Quakers excelled in the support and assistance that they extended to the refugees.
Williams details the efforts by various Jewish organisations to assist the refugees, ranging from those of the Manchester Yeshiva, which concerned itself with the Orthodox, to those of Bachad, which established a settlement for Zionist agricultural trainees at Thornham Fold Farm in Castleton, outside Manchester. A hostel for refugee boys was set up in Stockport, and one for girls, Harris House, in Southport; as a collective diary of the girls at Harris House has survived, the history of that hostel is better known than most. The Manchester Jewish Home for the Aged provided accommodation for elderly refugees, probably at the instigation of Morris Feinmann, who died on a rescue mission in North Africa in 1944. In his memory, the present home, whose construction was largely funded by former refugees, was named Morris Feinmann Home, a symbolic act of gratitude to Manchester Jewry.
The book’s underlying argument is that, for all their good will and intentions, the efforts of those in Manchester involved in the attempts to rescue the Jews of Germany and Austria remained seriously inadequate. By referring to Manchester as ‘the liberal city’, Williams strongly implies that things were considerably worse in the rest of the country, and for that he holds the British government and its desire to restrict immigration from the Reich primarily responsible. He is critical of those scholars (including myself) who, in his view, seek to obscure the shortcomings of government policies and thereby fall back onto a traditional narrative of British generosity and hospitality towards the refugees from Hitler. Such studies, he claims, concentrate on those refugees who were broadly successful in building new lives in Britain, thereby excluding those condemned by emigration to loneliness, poverty, poor-quality jobs, mental illness and even suicide.
His criticism of Britain leads Williams to underestimate the part played by the German government in preventing the emigration of Jewish refugees to Britain. In a chapter entitled ‘The Saved and the Trapped’, echoing Primo Levi’s study of Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, he makes eloquent use of the story of Ruth Edwards, née Schneier, who reached Manchester on a Kindertransport while her parents, unable to gain entry to Britain, perished in the Holocaust. But the story of another child refugee, Gina Bauer of Harris House, would, had Williams chosen to use it, have led to a different conclusion, since her parents had been granted admission to Britain and were prevented from leaving Germany solely by Hitler’s invasion of Poland.