Archive for category Second World War
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. In November 1938, after Kristallnacht demonstrated clearly to any doubters that Jews in Germany and Austria were in real danger, Parliament agreed to allow unaccompanied children to enter the country, under certain conditions, and with financial support from refugee organisations. An appeal was put out for foster parents here, and in Germany and Austria a network of organisers worked to identify priority cases, and to get the necessary paperwork. The children could bring with them only a small suitcase, in which many parents placed photographs or other keepsakes along with more prosaic items. Between December 1938 and May 1940, 10,000 unaccompanied children, mainly Jewish, arrived in Britain. As the danger spread, Czech and Polish children were helped too. They went by train to the Netherlands, and then crossed the Channel by ferry before taking another train to Liverpool Street station where most were met by their foster families.
The last group of children left Germany on 1 September 1939. A party left Prague on 3 September 1939 but was sent back. The last boat transport left the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to Germany.
Of the children who joined the transports, some were later reunited with their families, many others discovered after the war that their parents and other close family had been killed. As were many of the children left behind, after the borders closed.
I wanted to tell a Kindertransport story this Refugee Week, and so I asked Pauline Levis about her father’s experiences.
When 11-year-old Arthur Levi travelled to England with his older sister Inge in 1939, his strongest impressions of the journey were of the warm welcome when they crossed the Dutch border, and the train was boarded by people with flowers and gifts, and of the barrel of biscuits provided on the boat. They were in the unusual situation amongst other children on the Kindertransport, that their father had already arrived here. (He was later interned on the Isle of Man, and then joined the army, where he changed his name from Levi to Levis, for safety should he be captured by the Germans.) Their mother was to follow, six weeks later, the last of the family to make it out of Cologne, and went into domestic service. Both parents lived into their 90s. Members of the wider family were not so fortunate – Arthur’s aunt was deported from France and an uncle from Belgium. His grandfather was long thought to have been killed but it was later discovered that he had in fact died of natural causes in the Jewish old people’s home in Cologne.
Arthur and his sister were fortunate in so many ways. They got out in time. They found a safe place, unlike those who fled to territories later occupied by the Nazis. His immediate family escaped too, and so whilst he lived in a series of hostels for refugee children and foster homes, he did have family, and links with his past, beyond the small collection of photographs he brought with him.
He always felt lucky, and grateful, and his love for his adopted country was such that after six years living in Australia in the 70s, he felt the need to come back where he belonged. When he was given the chance to participate in the Spielberg Foundation’s Visual History Archive, his daughter Pauline had to work to persuade him that his story was worth telling – he was reluctant because he saw that so many others had lost so much more.
Arthur’s family was from Cologne, where they had lived for hundreds of years. His father was a travelling salesman, much of the family had been cattle dealers. Life before the Nazis was not idyllic – his parents’ marriage was turbulent and home life was tense and difficult. Under the Nazis there were some close calls – the Gestapo came for his father just around the time of Kristallnacht, but he’d already left, with the help of his non-Jewish employer. And the old people’s home where his grandfather lived, where many Jewish families had taken refuge in the cellar, was raided, and men and boys over 14 taken away. Arthur had to attend a Jewish school (his own background was secular), where the foreign-born children were targeted first – he remembered the Gestapo arriving, with a list of the Polish children, who were taken away and never seen again. Of Kristallnacht itself he remembered the mix of excitement and fear.
Arthur met Edna Gordon, herself the daughter of Lithuanian Jews who’d come to the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was 21, and they were very happily married for fifty years. He had a successful career as a dental technician, working for many years in the hospital service.
He died in 2000, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, 9 November.
The stories Arthur shared with his daughter Pauline shaped her passion for justice, for example in her campaign against the deportation of young Iranian artist Behnam and his family, who were facing imprisonment and torture if they returned, which achieved over 11,0o0 signatures on a petition and ultimately saw the family being granted indefinite leave to remain.
His sister’s son and grandson, along with Pauline, are to take part in commemorations leading up to the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport later this year. I’m immensely grateful to Pauline for sharing her father’s story.
For all mothers in anguish
Pushing out their babies
In a small basket
To let the river cradle them
And kind hands find
And nurture them
In a hostile world:
Our constant gratitude.
As in this last century
The crowded trains
Taking us away from home
Became our baby baskets
Rattling to foreign parts
Our exodus from death.
(Kindertransport, Before and After: Elegy and Celebration. Sixty Poems 1980–2007 by Lotte Kramer).
- Kindertransport: ‘To my dying day, I will be grateful to this country’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- The unsung British hero with his own Schindler’s List (telegraph.co.uk)
I’m not a train person in general. Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines. I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden. Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.
In general. But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance. I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.
The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects. And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food in it. Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.
His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.
Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred. The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.
Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred. Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.
I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’ Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced. And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.
And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.
But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark. This photograph captures an extraordinary moment. The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified. They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this moment they understood that they were free.
And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom. They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish
(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)
- The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” (rosslangager.com)
- Disused train station to host Holocaust museum (praguepost.com)
… and so were an astonishing number of the other great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century.
These famous photographs are from the 1927 and 1933 Solvay Physics Conferences, and given the dates, it is interesting to ponder what became of those gathered there, not in terms of their scientific contribution (about which I am not qualified to speak) but how they fared as Europe was engulfed in barbarism.
P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson
Erwin Schrodinger left Germany in 1933 to work, in the UK, but took up a post in Austria. In 1939, after the Anschluss, Schrödinger was dismissed from the University and fled to Italy. Wolfgang Pauli fled to the United States in 1940. Leon Brillouin resigned from his post in France after the Occupation, and went to the United States. Peter Debye left Germany in early 1940, and became a professor at Cornell. Max Born was suspended from his post in 1933 – he emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge.
Niels Bohr gave refugees from Nazism temporary jobs at the Institute, provided them with financial support, arranged for them to be awarded fellowships or found them places at various institutions around the world. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled to Sweden, where he persuaded the King to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum, helping to effect the rescue of many Danish Jews.
Albert Einstein was visiting the US when Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany. He spoke at the inaugural public meeting of the Academic Assistance Committee (later CARA).
The seventh Conference, in 1933: Seated (left to right): Erwin Schrödinger, Irène Joliot, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Abram Ioffe, Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, Owen Willans Richardson, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Théophile de Donder, Maurice de Broglie, Louis de Broglie, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick. Standing (left to right): Émile Henriot, Francis Perrin, Frédéric Joliot, Werner Heisenberg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, E. Stahel, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Paul Dirac, Peter Joseph William Debye, Nevill Francis Mott, Blas Cabrera, George Gamow, Walther Bothe, Patrick Blackett, M.S. Rosenblum, Jacques Errera, Ed. Bauer, Wolfgang Pauli, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, M. Cosyns, E. Herzen, John Douglas Cockcroft, Charles Drummond Ellis, Rudolf Peierls, Auguste Piccard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Léon Rosenfeld.
Max Cosyns, from Belgium, joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in Dachau. Enrico Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape Mussolini’s racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, and emigrated to the United States. Rudolf Peierls
was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came
to power – he was granted leave to remain in Britain, and worked in Manchester
under a fund set up for refugees.
Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew, escaped to the Netherlands, with help from Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse. From the Netherlands she went on to Stockholm, and worked with Niels Bohr.
George Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. In 1933 he was suddenly granted permission to attend the Solvay Conference. He attended, with his wife, and arranged to extend their stay. Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London and University of Michigan.
In addition -
Ugo Fano left Italy for the US in 1939 because of anti-Semitism. Liviu Librescu was born in 1930 to a Romanian Jewish family, and was deported first to a labour camp and then a ghetto in Focsani. Walter Kohn came to England with the Kindertransport after the annexation of Austria. Both of his parents were killed in the Holocaust. Svein Rosseland fled Norway after the German occupation and went to the US. Otto Stern resigned his post at the University of Hamburg in 1933 and became Professor of Physics at the Carnegie Institute. Guido Beck studied physics in Vienna. Jewish born, he travelled in the 1930s to avoid persecution in Germany, but was imprisoned in France in 1937 at the start of the war – in 1941 he fled to Portugal and then in 1943 to Argentina. Felix Bloch left Germany immediately after Hitler came to power, and emigrated to work at Stanford University. James Franck left his post in Germany and continued his research in the United States. Otto Robert Frisch left Vienna for London to work at Birkbeck College. Hilde Levi fled Denmark when the round-ups of Jews began, moving to Sweden, where she worked at the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Stockholm. Edward Teller left Göttingen in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee, worked in the UK and then in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, before being invited to the United States in 1935. Arthur von Hippel left Germany in 1933, mainly because his wife was Jewish, but due also to his political stance against the new regime – he was able to secure a position in Turkey, then spent a year in Denmark before moving to the US to work at MIT. Viki Weisskopf was born in Vienna, and worked with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen – Bohr then helped him find a position in the US.
For the last eighty years, academics in various parts of the world whose freedom and whose lives have been threatened in their home countries, have been helped to build new lives in the UK by CARA. That’s the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, as it is known today. In 1933, when it started its work, it was called the Academic Assistance Council, and the impetus for its creation was the dismissal from German Universities of Jewish academics. The Council had three related goals: to promote acceptance of the value of employing refugees by British universities, colleges, and industry; to raise funds to support them; and to ensure that the Government allowed refugees to enter Britain (Zimmerman, p. 33). The name changed in 1936 to the Society for Protection of Science and Learning, as the darkening climate in Europe showed that the threat was not just to individuals but to academic freedom. By the outbreak of the Second World War, they had helped over 900 scholars.
It was not a foregone conclusion that the academic establishment would respond in this way. Many took their time to conclude that maintaining an ‘aloof and detached’ stance outside of politics was unsustainable in light of what was happening in Europe. My own University’s initial response to a request for support and funds makes uncomfortable reading:
‘The funds at our disposal are very small indeed and that there is a very strong feeling that our own students – many of whose parents are unemployed – have the first claim upon them. The opinion has also been strongly expressed that, as there are many rich men of the Jewish religion whose individual incomes are larger than the whole income of the University, it would be appropriate that they be asked to support the teachers in the first instance. At the same time we are very far from being unsympathetic towards the condition of these unfortunate persons, and it is only our poverty and not our will which suggests difficulties.’
‘ I would like to see the strengthening of this country and of the British race by the admission freely into this country of those elements which are now suffering from persecution. The hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) who has just spoken is a Huguenot of distinguished Huguenot ancestry. Does not everybody to-day realise the enormous strengthening of the Anglo-Saxon race that has come from the admission of those Huguenot migrants into this country? They were flying from a persecution that was, I suppose, as bad as that which reigns in Germany to-day. The dragonnades of Louis XIV sent to this country an element of religion and of independence, and a commercial and intellectual element which has been of inestimable service to this country in war and in peace. I would beg the Government not to miss this opportunity of so benefiting England to-day and in the future. There we have, driven out of Germany, flying, when they can fly, to all the neighbouring countries, the thinkers, the intellectually-independent people, scientists, doctors, civil servants, artists and musicians. … To-day those people are being turned back at Harwich, while nations like France, Belgium, Spain—rejuvenated Spain—are welcoming this new intellectual element. Those scientists would be our business men of the future, just as the Huguenots brought us the silk trade, made Norwich and made Leek in my own county of Staffordshire. The Huguenot element built up a great export trade for this country. We are now anxious to import foreign capital into this country; how much better is it to import foreign brains and amalgamate them. I do not speak from the obvious humanitarian point of view, but from the point of view of the material advantage of this country. Get those people in. … Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed. … I wish that one result of this Debate to-day might be the opening of those doors, and the welcoming here not merely of the scientists who make the trade of the future, not merely of the doctors whom in the past all the world has gone to seek in Germany, but of those political exiles about whose fate we hear less, and who are now under preventive arrest in a dozen concentration camps throughout Germany. I wish that we might welcome those men, the free spirits of a free people, who decline to live in a land where liberty is no longer allowed, and get them here to strengthen our home and our love of liberty.
By mid-1936, however, the tenor of the debates had shifted. There were concerns being raised about refugees taking work from British people, and the word ‘alien’ rather than refugee started to be used. The marvellously named Lt-Colonel Gilbert Acland-Troyte raised the familiar question: ‘Why should we give away public money on these refugees from other countries?’ Another marvellously monikered military chap, Tufton Percy Hamilton Beamish, came up with yet another reason to be cautious – apparently ‘every refugee received into this country is only an incitement to foreign rulers to get rid of people who, in their opinion, are either racially or politically undesirable’. And MP Will Thorne, in 1938, in a debate about permitting refugee doctors to practice in the UK, asked the question: ‘Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that if an application were made to the German Government, they would allow these doctors to stop in their own country?’. Hansard does not record the right hon. Gentleman’s response.
The Chair of SPSL, Professor Archibald Hill of Cambridge University (Nobel laureate in Physiology & Medicine, 1922) spoke in 1943 in response to comments about the danger of anti-Semitism here, in response to the influx of refugees. It is pertinent to quote him at some length, since these and similar arguments are to be found every day on the pages of the Daily Mail, and in less literate form in the comments below the line on every newspaper article concerning refugees.
It has been urged on the Home Secretary that a danger of anti-Semitism will exist, if more Jews are introduced here. This, again, is the argument of the last straw. Are the Jews so powerful and baneful an influence that one extra Jew among 5,000 Englishmen will make the whole mixture unstable? That is the proposition. To those who prefer arithmetic to magic, the whole thing is pure moonshine, but Hitler has managed to put his own pet obsession across among an otherwise sensible people. We hear wonderful stories about the number of Jews in Great Britain who have arrived here in the last ten years. An hon. Member asked me recently what on earth we were to do with the 40,000 Jewish doctors who were now in this country. As a matter of fact he had got the number 50 times too large. The Jews are said to be living in luxury while others fight; but the records of the last war and of this one show that this insult is completely unwarranted, either as to the number of those serving, or the number of distinctions for gallantry. The country is said to be flooded with Jewish refugees; in fact 60,000 or 70,000 have come in since 1933, and of that number between 10,000 and 20,000 came in as children, of whom many are still children. That is one to 700 of our population, which seems to make a funny sort of flood, not comparable with the one which has just been made by the R.A.F.
It is said that the danger to our national traditions from having so many Jews here must be regarded; but our national traditions must be pretty weak things if people who make up rather less than one per cent. of the whole can produce so great an effect. One is forced to regard anti-Semitism as a sort of contagious mental disease upon the victims of which facts and arguments are completely without effect. Ridicule, not reason, is the only form of treatment. To suggest, as responsible people sometimes do, that there is serious danger of anti-Semitism here if an extra 10,000 Jews are introduced from Europe, one in 5,000 of our people, is a gross insult to the intelligence, good nature and common sense of the normal citizen and is to confess oneself the foolish dupe of Nazi propaganda. The success of that propaganda shows that there is little chance for the human race being able to settle its affairs sensibly if it does not learn to examine critically and quantitatively what it is told.
With the benefit of our knowledge of what lay ahead for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, we might find it difficult to echo Sir Samuel Hoare’s belief that the most tragic aspect was that many of those driven out ‘have been men of intellectual eminence who felt that their life’s training had been wasted, and that there was no future for them to carry out the professional work in which they held so eminent a place.’ But this was one aspect of the tragedy and the roll-call of ‘men of intellectual eminence’ who left in time, with the help of AAC/SPSL/CARA is extraordinary. The loss to science, music, literature, medicine, philosophy – to all academic disciplines – had this and other organisations not reached out, would have been vast. The loss of those who did not make it, who might have been as great or greater, is impossible to grasp. This is not to say that the murder of a brilliant scientist or composer is worse than that of a clerk or a factory worker. But it surely is the role of the academy to rally to the defence of academic freedom – and the freedom of individual academics – wherever it is under threat, and to the support of those who have risked so much for its sake.
With CARA’s 80th birthday and the start of Refugee Week in mind then, here are just a few of those who they helped in those first few years:
Sir Walter Bodmer, a prominent human geneticist who is also credited with expanding public understanding of the sciences – his family escaped in 1938, when he was two years old.
Sir Hermann Bondi, a mathematician who helped develop radar and influenced relativity theory, served as Chief Scientist to two UK government departments and as Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Max Born became the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics.
Sir Ernst Chain won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his shared work on penicillin.
Sir Geoffrey Elton, a historian and philosopher of history, helped to advance understanding of the Tudor government. Born Gottfried Ehrenburg, his father Victor was also a historian, and came to England in 1939, from Czechoslovakia.
Sir Ernst Gombrich brought fundamental questions of aesthetics in art to scholarly and public attention. He came to Britain in 1936, along with colleagues from the Warburg Institute, which had itself relocated to London from the University of Hamburg.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of spinal cord injury treatment, the Paralympic Games and the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
Sir Otto Kahn-Freund was a leading theorist and practitioner of labour law.
Sir Bernard Katz won the Nobel Prize in 1950 for shared research on mechanisms of neuro-muscular transmission.
Sir Hans Krebs won the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his shared research into the complex sequence of metabolic chemical reactions known as the Krebs Cycle.
Sir Rudolf Peierls taught theoretical physics at Birmingham and Oxford and was involved in both the development of atomic weaponry and the Pugwash anti-nuclear movement. He was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came to power. Granted leave to remain in Britain, he worked in Manchester under a fund set up for refugees
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner brought new perspectives on the UK’s architectural heritage to scholars and the wider public. The AAC helped to fund a research fellowship at Birmingham University when he left Germany in 1933
Sir Francis Simon pioneered research in thermodynamics and low-temperature physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory.
‘It is perhaps unsurprising that academics (about one-third of whom in CARA’s experience are in medicine or other related disciplines relevant to psychiatry) are overrepresented among refugees from the professions. When regimes are, or become, dictatorial, or where civil strife intensifies, those who ‘speak truth unto power’ through criticism, through pointing out alternative possibilities, or through upholding ethical standards – key academic duties – are all too likely to suffer job loss, imprisonment, torture or expulsion. Furthermore, the loss of the academic members of a society will, unless they can maintain skills in exile and later return, permanently affect that society’s future. Germany was a world leader in scholarship before Hitler but never fully recovered its academic position (Medawar & Pyke, 2000); the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK all gained immeasurably, as to a lesser extent did others. The number seeking CARA’s help has quadrupled in the past 3 years and continues to grow. There has been a very significant increase in the number of medical and other healthcare professionals seeking refugee status in the UK and in other countries according to our own figures. This is partly because of the situation in Iraq, where healthcare professionals are still being targeted by extreme elements,despite media reports that the situation is improving. Several hundreds have been assassinated there since 2003, mostly because they have sought to continue their work in their specialty. Also, in Zimbabwe extremely harsh conditions apply and many have gone to South Africa and neighbouring countries after finding it impossible to practise.’ (Boyd et al, 2009)
Syrian academics ‘must be helped just like those who fled the Nazis’ (standard.co.uk)
‘Eighty years of solace for exiles fleeing the storm’, THE, 13-19 June 2013, p.p. 18-19
Robert Boyd, John Akker, Laura Wintour, ‘Academic Refugees’, International Psychiatry, 6, 3 (July 2009), pp. 53-4
Renee Farrar, Ludwig Guttman and the Paralympics, The Lancet, 380, 9845 (8 September 2012), p. 877.http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2812%2961491-3/fulltext
Lucy Mayblin, ‘Beyond the Hostile State: Imagining Universities of Sanctuary’, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration,1, 1 (2011), 31-34. Online access at http://www.oxmofm.com
Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad (Penguin,2010)
Jeremy Seabrook, The Refuge and the Fortress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2013)
David Zimmerman,’The Society for the Protection of Science & Learning and the Politicisation of British Science in the 1930s’, Minerva (2006), 44: 25–45
It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. I’m thinking about how we can build bridges between past and present, by telling individual stories, by giving back to the people who were swallowed up in that terror their names, their faces, their uniqueness.
Frieda Linder-Kornweitz, from Vienna, died aged 31 with her daughter Karin (aged 7) at Auschwitz, December 1943 (http://jewishtraces.org/plus-quun-nom-dans-une-liste-frieda-linder-kornweitz/)
Sulamite-Solange Ast, age 18, died with her younger brother Marc and their mother, at Auschwitz in 1943. Their father survived.
Sometimes we just have a name, sometimes a photograph and fragments of a life. And sometimes from the darkness a voice emerges that is so vivid that as you read you hear it, you hear the urgency, the passion, the despair and you want to reach out. Helene Berr’s is such a voice.
Her diary describes her life in Paris between 1942 and 1944. It wasn’t published till 2008, but since then it has become an essential document of the Holocaust and specifically of the Occupation of France. After the Liberation, her fiance and surviving family members circulated the manuscript amongst themselves, but eventually it was offered to the Shoah Memorial, published to great acclaim, and since then has been translated into 26 languages. It’s inspired an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial , which uses Helene’s story and her words to illuminate some of the darkest corners of those dark years.
Hélène has been called the French Anne Frank, but whilst both kept journals which have become key documents of the Holocaust, and both died in the last weeks before Liberation, they’re very different. Others have noted the parallels between the publication of her journal, and the discovery of the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.
However, these comparisons don’t do justice to the remarkable and unique qualities of this diary. Hélène lived in the heart of Occupied Paris, walked its streets wearing the yellow star, worked with Jewish orphans, played music, fell in love. And she wrote this poignant, vivid and impassioned account of the events she witnessed, ‘pour ne pas les oublier, parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier’, setting herself the task of recording everything, giving the unfolding tragedy its full weight, showing it raw, naked, without distortion.
16 April 1942
S said ‘The Germans are going to win the war’. I said ‘No!’. But I didn’t know what else to say. I was conscious of my cowardice – the cowardice of not standing up in front of him for what I believed – so I shook myself – I exclaimed ‘But what will become of us if the Germans win?’. He shrugged: ‘Bah! Nothing will change ‘. I knew what he would say. ‘There will always be the sun and the water’. I was all the more irritated because deep down, at that moment, I felt the supreme pointlessness of all these arguments, in the face of beauty. And yet I knew that I was falling under a malign spell. … I forced myself to say: ‘but they won’t let everyone enjoy the light and the water’. Happily, this phrase saved me. I don’t want to be a coward.
8 June 1942
My God, I had no idea it would be so hard. I was so brave all day. I held my head high, and looked people straight in the face, when they averted their eyes. But it’s hard. …. This morning I went out with Mother. Two kids in the street pointed at us, saying ‘Hey, have you seen? Jews’. But otherwise things seemed normal. … A young couple were waiting, I saw the woman point me out to her companion. I heard her say. ‘It’s heartbreaking’. On the bus there was a woman, probably a domestic servant, who had already smiled at me before getting on board, and who turned serveral times to smile; a smart gentleman stared at me: I couldn’t interpret the stare, but I looked back proudly.
18 July 1942
I felt guilty, that there was something I hadn’t seen, this reality. This woman, her sister who has four children has been taken. The evening of the round-up, she hid, but unluckily went back up to the concierge just as they came to find her. Mme Bieder is like a hunted animal. She’s not afraid for herself. but she’s terrified that they’ll take her children from her. …. At Montmartre, there were so many arrests that the streets were blocked. The faubourg Saint Denis is almost deserted. They’re separating mothers from their children. I’m recording the facts hastily, so as not to forget, because we musn’t forget.
31 January 1944
I used to quote, not long ago, a phrase from a Russian play: ‘We shall rest, Uncle Vanya, we shall rest’. It meant the sleep of the tomb. But more and more I say to myself that only the dead escape this persecution; when I hear of the death of a Jew now, I think, ‘they’re out of the reach of the Germans’. Isn’t that horrible? We hardly weep for the dead any more.
15 February 1944
Why then does the German soldier who I pass in the street not attack or bother me? Why does he often hold the train door for me, or say ‘Excuse me’ if he blocks my way? Why? Becuase people don’t know – or rather they don’t think any more, they’re just about whatever they’ve been ordered to do right now. But they don’t even see the incomprehensible illogic of holding the door open for me, when tomorrow they may send me to be deported, and yet I will be the same unique person. … Also no doubt they don’t know everything – one atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They don’t know all of the horrible details of the persecutions, because there’s only a small group of torturers, and of Gestapo who are implicated in it. Would they feel it, if they knew? Would they feel the suffering of these people dragged from their homes, these women separated from their flesh and blood? They’re too brutalised for that. And then they don’t think – I always come back to that – I believe it’s the source of evil and the thing on which this regime bases its power. Annihilate personal thoughts, the reaction of the individual conscience, that’s the first step to Nazism’.
Cultured and intelligent, a student at the Sorbonne until the anti-semitic laws prevented her from continuing her studies, 21 year old Hélène begins her journal in 1942 with an account of her visit to the home of poet Paul Valéry, who’s signed a copy of a book for her. She is ‘overwhelmed with joy’. At this stage, the war is, in a sense, just background noise. Even so, even this early on, she senses a chasm opening up between her life, and that of her non-Jewish friends. Little by little she is overwhelmed as she grasps the reality of what is happening around her, and the last words of her journal are a quotation from Macbeth ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’
Hélène constantly questions herself. Should she try to get away, or stay in Paris? She asks herself why, knowing what her fate is likely to be, she’s done nothing to avoid it. She understands that the danger is increasing: ‘There aren’t many Jews left in Paris, and it’s the Germans who are arresting people now [rather than the French police], so there is less chance of escaping, because we won’t be warned.’ She believes, nonetheless, that to flee would be a defection, an act of bad faith.
In January 1944, Hélène writes ‘Will I make it to the end?’. After several months of moving around each day and staying with different friends, she and her parents went home, for just one night. That’s where they were arrested, on 8 March.
They were taken to the Drancy transit camp, and then deported, on Convoy 70 to Auschwitz, where Antoinette Berr was gassed on 30 April, and Raymond Berr was murdered in September. Hélène survived for more than a year. She was moved to Bergen-Belsen in November, where she was killed, just five days before the camp was liberated.
She so nearly did make it to the end.
- Berr, Hélène, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008)
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Des Considérations inactuelles au cœur de l’Occupation: Le Cogito à rebours d’Hélène Berr’, Modern & Contemporary France, 18, 1 (2010), 17-32
- Bracher, Nathan, ‘Éthique et esthétique dans le Journal d’Hélène Berr’, L’Esprit Créateur, 50, 4 (2010), 150–63
- Jaillant, Lise, ‘A Masterpiece Ripped from Oblivion: Rediscovered Manuscripts and the Memory of the Holocaust in Contemporary France’, Clio, 39, 3 (2010), 359-79
- Kelly, Debra, ‘From Cultural Amnesia to “Anamnesia”’, Synthesis, 2 (2010), 48-61
- Sinder, Henri, ‘Lights and Shades of Jewish Life in France, 1940-2’, Jewish Social Studies, 5 (1943), 367
- Classe de 1° ES2, Lycée Pierre Bourdieu-Fronton, ‘Helene Berr, une jeune étoile dans le Paris de l’Occupation’, 2008-9
Not an English phrase, as it turns out, but American. Who'd have thought it? Nonetheless, as Ian Hislop's recent series showed, it came to sum up a kind of Britishness - stoicism in the face of adversity, keeping calm and carrying on. Hislop's series, inevitably, raised as many questions as it answered - it would be interesting to analyse further how the notion of the stiff upper lip varied according to class, for example, or the different forms it took between the sexes, or whether it is British, or English.
Thursday 16 July. At 4 in the morning, it is still very dark. The streets are deserted, the doors and windows closed. But on this early Thursday morning, police cars are converging on pre-arranged spots, carrying officers and civilian assistants. They consult their instructions, block the streets. Each small team has a list of names and addresses. Alongside the police vehicles, buses are parked along the pavements, awaiting their passengers. At the appointed moment, the teams go in. They knock. ‘Police – open up!’.
The occupants are escorted to the buses, and taken on to one of two destinations – single adults to transit camps, including a half-built housing estate on the edge of the city, recently cleared of many of its occupants to make room for this influx, and families to a nearby sports stadium. At the latter, no food or water is provided. It’s mid-July, and once the building is sealed, the heat rapidly becomes oppressive. The few working toilets don’t work for long. The people in the stadium are afraid, and some in despair throw themselves from the balconies to the floor below. A few manage to use the general chaos to slip out, provided that the police at the entry are either sufficiently distracted, or willing to be suddenly inattentive. A few manage to get themselves transferred to hospital (this may prove to be only a temporary respite). Once space in the transit camp has been cleared again, the families in the stadium are transported there. Until the trains take them, too, to their final destination.
Thursday 16 July 1942, Paris. The Vel’ d’Hiv round up, named after the sports stadium used to house the Jews who were dragged from their homes that morning and in the hours that followed. Drancy camp, next stop en route to Auschwitz. 13,152 were arrested, of whom 5802 were women, and 4051 children. Some of the adults – less than 3% – made it home after the Liberation, to search fruitlessly for news of their children at the Hotel Lutétia. None of the children came home.
This wasn’t the first round-up of Jews in occupied Paris, but it was the largest yet, and a turning point, both in the persecution and in the resistance to it. It shattered the illusion that in France, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, nothing too terrible could happen, even under Occupation – an illusion which had led many to register themselves voluntarily, thus providing the information required for the round-up. It showed the extent of collaboration, with the round-up being executed by French police, not by the Germans. And it shattered the myth that the deportations were intended to provide workers for the Reich, when young children, the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, were taken, as their neighbours watched.
François Mauriac wrote in his clandestine publication Le Cahier noir: ‘Entire races are condemned to perish. At what other moment in history have the prisons been so full of innocents? At what other era have children been dragged from their mothers, crammed into cattle trucks, as I saw one sombre morning at Austerlitz station?’. People saw, and some were moved to active resistance by what they saw.
It is 70 years since this event. Do we still need to tell this story?
In 2010 two new films came out which focused on the Vel d’Hiv round up, and the responses (if one sets aside those which focused on the merits or demerits of the films themselves) were polarised. Some critics felt that they were fulfilling an indispensible ‘devoir de mémoire’, particularly in drawing attention to the responsibility (only publicly acknowledged in the 1990s) of the French authorities , whilst audience members spoke of being shocked and overwhelmed. On the other hand, some felt it was counterproductive – that the constant telling and re-telling actually creates ‘une certaine lassitude’, that if the younger generations see ‘remembering’ as a chore, the temptation to forget will become ever stronger.
There’s plenty of evidence that, however much people may have heard about these events, they are still fairly hazy about the detail. When Andreas Whittam Smith wrote a piece for the Independent about how the film The Round-Up was bringing to light hidden events, a letter appeared in the paper arguing that:
- The events concerned were never denied
- Those responsible were executed after the war
- Of the 300,000 French nationals registered as Jews, 80% survived
- Not all the deported children died in the camps, some came back but spoke little of their sufferings
In reality, whilst the fact of the event was not denied, the responsibility of French officials was (a nano-second clip of a gendarme’s cap in Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard had to be cut before the film was released).
Of those most particularly responsible for the round-up, only Pierre Laval was executed - Louis Darquier de Pellepoix escaped to Spain and died free and utterly unrepentant, and Rene Bousquet was acquitted immediately after the war, and assassinated in 1993, just before he was due to stand trial.
France did, it is true, lose only 20% of its Jewish population – if one counts only Jews with French nationality. They managed this by offering up non-naturalised Jews, aiming to meet their deportation quotas by filling the convoys with foreigners for as long as possible. To make up the promised numbers, the Vichy leadership persuaded the Germans that children should be taken along with their parents, even though most of them had been born in France and were therefore French citizens. And on the day, the official exemptions eg for women in late pregnancy or with new babies were ignored. This deal with the devil did, arguably, save the lives of many naturalised French citizens who were Jews – some were not arrested until much later so giving them slightly better odds of survival, and others had time to find a way of escaping or living under cover. But non-French Jews clearly didn’t count. They were expendable.
And did all the deported children die in the camps? Of those deported after this round-up, yes, all of them. The only survivors were those children who managed to escape either from the velodrome or from the transit camps. And of the 11,400 children deported in total from France, 200 did come back. 200.
So, as I’ve said elsewhere, we must remember, in order to preserve the truth, in order to give back to the victims their names, their voices, their stories.
Pamphlet distributed by the Mouvement national contre le racisme, September 1942.
French mothers and fathers, young people, teachers, educators! When you kiss your child goodnight in bed before their happy sleep, in the morning when you catch their first smile on waking, think of those hellish trains where, crammed in like a herd of beasts on the way to the abbatoir, 2000 little Jewish children, alone, abandoned to their mortal anguish, crying with terror and thirst. Is there anywhere in the world, in all modern history, anything more atrocious, more inhuman, more barbaric than the torture of innocent children? These children, just like yours, have mothers and fathers ready to protect them. But they are dragged from them without pity, with bestial savagery. .. These horrors happen amongst us, on our sweet French earth, with the complicity of the French government collaborating with those who starve us, who loot our treasures, who hold our prisoners, who murder the patriots fighting for a free and happy France….
French Youth! Schoolchildren! Students! When you go back to school, you will find in your classes thousands of empty places. They are those of your Jewish friends, brought up as you are in the love of France. Know that the Pétain-Laval government has handed them over to certain death. Is this the new order? Is this the National Revolution? …
Protest to the authorities! Shelter, protect, hide Jewish children and their families! Do not let them be handed over to Hitler’s killers! Save the honour of France!
From Hélène Berr’s journal:
15 July – Something is about to happen, something which will be a tragedy, perhaps the tragedy. M Simon came here this evening to warn us that there was talk of a round-up of 20,000 people the day after tomorrow.
18 July – I thought on Thursday that life would stop. But it continues. … [Mme Bieder's] sister who has 4 children, has been taken. The evening of the round-up she hid, but unfortunately came back down to the concierge just at the moment they came to look for her … They are separating mothers from their children. I am noting the facts, hastily, so as not to forget, because we must not forget.
16 July 1995, Jacques Chirac:
These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations… France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.
On 25/6 September 1940 a man took his own life in a hotel in Portbou, Catalonia. He was 48 years old. He was a writer, an intellectual, whose work, cut terribly short as it was, is still hugely influential. He was Jewish, and had crossed the border from France, having escaped Paris ahead of the German army. He’d just heard that all transit visas had been cancelled, and that he and his fellow-travellers would be forced to return to France.
The UNHCR’s campaign for World Refugee Day focused on the ‘choice’ faced by refugees – to stay or to go, either one fraught with danger. Walter Benjamin – and many others – took a third option. He had contemplated suicide before, seeing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He’d recently been interned in France as a stateless person, and knew already that the Gestapo had instructions to arrest him.
His choice is made bitter by our knowledge that his travelling companion, Arthur Koestler, took morphine tablets too, but survived and escaped, and that the embargo on visas was lifted a few weeks later. As Hannah Arendt says in her introduction to Illuminations, ‘only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible’ (p. 18).
It’s also bitter because, if the scope of his influence on the humanities is so great on the basis of the work he published in his short lifetime, it could have been so much more had he lived. In the words of his friend Gershom Scholem, his ‘genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretative power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar’. (Reflections, vii). Anyone interested in the city, in maps and labyrinths, in Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, in text and translation, history and memory, will encounter Benjamin.
Walter Benjamin stands, in this context, for our loss, the loss of those who didn’t escape, and particularly those – notable and anonymous – who chose this third way. On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou these words are inscribed: IT IS MORE ARDUOUS TO HONOUR THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS THAN THAT OF THE RENOWNED. HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION IS DEVOTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
— Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Peter Demetz (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
Extracts from You and the Refugee, published 1939:
‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture. … In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot. Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’ (p 231)
‘Hundreds of Jews are hiding in the German woods near the Dutch frontier. Whenever they try to cross into Holland they are forced back by the Dutch gendarmes, to be arrested by the German police’ (The Times, 19 November, 1938)
‘In England, when we are aroused in the early hours of the morning by a sharp rap on the door, we think only of the milkman. But the refugee who is safely in England still finds himself starting up in bed, his heart turning sick at such a sound’ (p. 233)
Norman Angell & Dorothy Frances Buxton, You and the Refugee: the morals and economics of the problem (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939)