8. Culture and Identity

The assimilated, German-speaking Jews brought their culture with them to Britain, enriching their new homeland immeasurably. In the immediate post-war years, the refugees from Central Europe were almost the only recognisable immigrant group in Britain, which was still a largely homogeneous, monocultural society. Their accents, dress, tastes and customs became part of public life in North-West London.


The refugees transformed the British arts scene. In music, refugees created Glyndebourne and played a key part in establishing the Edinburgh Festival, while the Amadeus Quartet became the leading string quartet in the land and refugees thronged the Wigmore Hall.


Famous artists from Central Europe included the writers Arthur Koestler and Elias Canetti, the painter Lucian Freud, the actor Anton Walbrook and the singer Richard Tauber. The philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, the historian Geoffrey Elton, the sociologists Karl Mannheim and Norbert Elias and the art historians Ernst Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner added lustre to British intellectual life.


Paul Hamlyn, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, André Deutsch, Thames & Hudson and Phaidon Press reinvigorated British publishing. There were refugee art galleries, bookshops and music publishers. Stefan Lorant created a new dimension to British journalism with Picture Post, and Vicky was the outstanding political cartoonist of his day. Hans Keller and Martin Esslin became arbiters of culture at the BBC.


In the 1950s the modernising, cosmopolitan impact of the refugees on British culture was unmistakable. The old insularity had gone forever.

Yes, well I certainly would say that being an outsider has huge advantages, so long as you can get over the- the anxiety about it.

I went to Sadler’s Wells, where I met Clive Carey, whom I knew from College… he produced operas. I was in the opera class there and he said, “Oh, this is Lawrence Collingwood, this is Charles Danson. Charlie boy, would you like to sing something for us, from the stage?” I went on stage and sang Ricordita harmonia from Tosca. I came down again from the stage… And Collingwood said “… Give him the part!” And the part was… an opera by Vaughan Williams, Sir John in Love … I was given the part of Master Slender…and of course Vaughan Williams came to all the rehearsals. I’ve got the programme here… And one day he said to me, “Would you like to do Messiah for me, at my Dorking Festival?” I said, “I’d love to.” So I think it was after the - we did about fifteen or twenty performances of it…

And the Pinkerton was Tudor Davis, a very well-known tenor. He said, “Charlie-boy, don’t you worry, I’ve seen this opera perhaps 250 times and I know every part. If you should feel that you are going to dry up, turn your back to the audience- No, I will turn my back to the audience, and I’ll sing it for you.” But I went through it alright, and that was the beginning of me doing the Goro. And from that then I later graduated to the main role. I did Pinkerton, and Rodolfo in Bohème, Camillo ...

I became a fully-fledged actress- Used to go to these interviews, and, ‘yes dear, we’ll get in touch’- Until somehow or other it came up that I was bilingual. They took a greater interest in me and I ended up doing quite a lot of work for the BBC as a foreign actress. I had to relearn my accent… Playing an Austrian refugee in a play called Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, my leading man was no less than Michael Hordern.

I got a bit of teaching at Camberwell School of Art. There I met a man who had a huge influence on my life, John Minton. And because England was so isolated during the war that it turned in on itself and the young artists who came up, went back for their influence to William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Englishness. I became very involved with the whole bohemian scene in Soho in the 40s and 50s.

Eventually I got a fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. It was very hard to get. After that I did a further examination in Liverpool University to be a Master of orthopaedic surgery. I was very proud to get it and I got the first prize.

You’re stateless forever because... I mean I have this loyalty to the... to the British. But... you don't really... I don’t know where I belong. [half laughs] It’s... it’s...I’m alright here, really. I mean I wouldn't know where else... you know... Yeah, I mean... I’m, I’m- I’m at home here, really. I'm not sure if anybody who's, who's- is not born and who went through this ever can ...totally identify with this... with you know- with the country that- with their ‘host country’ if you like... I still have this very strong affinity feeling with Germany. With Berlin. Whether I like it or not. So...

My mother destroyed all documents that involved her Jewish background. She said after the war that “I don’t want to be Jewish. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. And I have no- I have no papers left at all.” She destroyed her background - completely. And when my daughter got married, Erika had a tremendous amount of difficulties to find the Ketubah.

Well, I know who I am. And I wouldn’t deny it. I’ve suffered for it and with it. It’s part of me! It’s part of me, I mean, my- even my Jewish jewellery. They’ve made jewellery for centuries haven’t they, Jewish people, because they weren’t allowed to do anything else. So I’ve taken it up anyhow. So I can’t deny…can’t deny my hair, my nose.


@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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