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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.

By all means, assimilate and contribute as much as to the society and the country where you live. And do it. But just be aware that if you look at history, Jewish communities have settled for hundreds of years in countries only to find that from one day to the next they are not wanted. Just, therefore, concentrate on education that you can take with yourself. You know what I mean?

We were advised- everyone was advised not to speak German in public in the war. And so I was ashamed of having German-speaking parents. I'm sure this is a very common story that you've heard from lots of people. And I forgot my German because I wasn't living with my parents, I heard English all day at school and at home. My parents, obeying the rules, spoke to me in English - very accented English, but still English. And then, and for many years, I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to be English. I didn't want to have anything to do with being somebody who was different, despised - what have you. I’m a bit ashamed of that, but that's how it was.

Yes, always [had her German doll, Erika]. I also had an English doll, which I called Margaret Rose. Shows how English I’d become. I didn't like her as much though. Erika was the one. [Did they get on?] We had dolls’ tea parties. I know that!

In fact, it's one of those problems, because we never spoke German to them. We never spoke German to each other. We never talked about our history to them… under the possibly mistaken view that we didn’t want to burden them. We wanted them to have as normal a childhood as possible. But of course, they knew we'd come from Germany as children. And they knew we were different. I mean, they had a birthday party, there's just us, and the two aunts - and maybe a cousin. When they went to other children's cele- birthday celebrations, there were the grandparents, and the aunts, and the uncles and the cousins. They didn't have that. So, of course they found out what was going on, but not from us. And in fact, the first time we spoke, which was at Northwood here at the invitation of Rabbi Andrew Goldstein for Kristallnacht service, David our elder son was in- in the audience. And a friend turned around to him after and said, “Of course you knew all that.” He said, “No.” And it- it may have been a mistake, but that was our choice. Our decision.

They [their two sons] knew we had come as children from Germany. We didn't talk to them at all until the first time we talked at Northwood Synagogue, when David was in the audience, and people asked him afterwards, “Did you know that?” And he said, “No.” We knew they’d come from Germany as children, and we knew we were different because when we went to birthday parties, there were uncles, aunts, cousins. When we went, and we had our own birthday parties, there were just the aunts.

I wanted them [her children] to be able to adjust. Wherever they were, to do the thing that they enjoyed doing and to adjust. And… I guess that’s what I did achieve. I didn’t want them to be either very Czech, or very Jewish or very anything.

I was German but it’s an accident of birth, as everything is. I say to people, I am British by choice and I am proud of that.

And I felt- I know in London during the war, there was the London Zoo. And I remember we went there once, and that American bison. And there in front it said, “Extinct in the free range”. And that’s how I felt in Vienna. Because my background wasn’t there. It was a Vienna, but it was a different Vienna...
In Vienna, there was... ten percent Jews, and that was gone. The culture, it was gone. It was all... it, it- The language was slightly different as well. It was all so... And I felt sort of “extinct in the free range”. There is no- it’’s... So I’m... a Vienna Jew, but... that Vienna isn’t there.

Well, the fact that I didn't have a family, a near, close family of my own, to support me… That would be probably- I mean you need that, even if they're not always the best. You know, where you belong. I was always sort of floating a bit you know, not well-grounded… You, you have to know your heritage if you like, your inheritance. And I think that's- that's a great loss if you don't have that from the word go.

My father went to the synagogue. And I don't know which one it was, whether it was Prinzregentenstraße or Oranienburger Straße. And he picked up some pages from a prayer book. And they're in the shape, almost like, like the tablets of the Ten Commandments! Just pure chance.

[First reunion after the war with his parents] I picked them up in Liverpool Street. They came over by boat, of course. It was a very odd feeling, obviously. These are my parents. You know? There was no rush of emotion; it was a very odd feeling. I- I had to laugh, because in those days, everything was on ration and points. And my mother tipped the porter with a tin of sardines for which he was jolly grateful because they had no money. And they came- they came and my landlady was very pleased, and she put them up in the- in- Stoke Newington. And I remember we had our first lunch. And Mrs. Weitz, who’d never done this before, laid a table in her living room. And she brought out her best cholent or whatever, and made them very welcome. It was very sweet. And I remember my first lunch with them. And- I won't say I was embarrassed, but my father took my mother's hand and kissed it and said, “I wish you a good appetite, my love.” And she said, “Thank you, Leo.” And I got this, you know, the slight embarrassment having been used to the English ways of no emotion, nor nothing, you know.

I had a lot of friends. One very good friend who lived opposite me. She wasn’t Jewish and after Hitler came she was told she mustn’t see me anymore. In school I had other friends as well. They were Jewish most of them. When we went to the Judenschule, one day they came in from a paper called the Stürmer, and they pulled one girl out by the hair who looked very Jewish and photographed her. And one of them called out, ‘Aber wir sind doch Kinder.’ ‘We are children.’ He said, ‘Shut your mouth or I’ll take you too.’ These are the memories I’m trying not to remember.
It didn’t really mean much [visiting Vienna after the war]. It didn’t mean really much. What I liked was the theatre and it’s a beautiful town as you know probably, but I always thought what did you do during the War? You know, especially people my age sort of thing – no, people a bit older than me. When I looked at them, I thought, you know, what did you do? What did you do to my family? And that persisted for a long time. I know I couldn’t blame the new generation ‘cos they had nothing to do with it, but I would never want to live there again.

I found out for a start, my sister and I always wondered how we got to Ijmuiden, the port, and I found out that there were three – there’s either three or five bus coaches from Amsterdam that went to IJmuiden, and it was all arranged by Truus Wijsmuller who was a friend of the children of the orphanage there. All I know how we got these buses is, my uncle coming to my parents’ shop and saying he could get my sister Selma and me away. They were coming back in an hour’s time for a decision. When he came back he said, ‘There’s room for you as well.’

When I was at school- I didn’t know I was Jewish at that time, and I thought I was different because I wasn’t born here [UK], in the junior school that was. Where I got to senior school, I felt different. I did feel different then, and then it was – as I said before, I didn’t know we were Jewish, and it wasn’t until I was about fourteen or fifteen that I knew that I was Jewish.

Oh, yes, I remember when he [Hitler] got in power. I remember before, he used to travel up and down the Maximilianstraße, after that. He had his escort of Stormtroopers that were sort of –if you can imagine a bus which just had seats either side, with safety belts, but they could jump off those. There were eight people each site, with – they would go into a crowd and disperse them. Oh yes, that was already 1934.
I do remember when the train came from Vienna for the Kindertransport, and it was full of crying kinders. And there were a couple of two or three women, looking after. I know when I got off the train, the woman said to me, “You look after that boy until we get to England.” It was a kid about four years old, crying his eyes out. He didn't know what was happening, or where we were going, or what he was doing. And she – I had to try to comfort him as much as I could.

Well, one day out of the blue, I got a telephone call and who was on the other end? Bertha Leverton, but I knew her as Bertha Engelhard, her maiden name. I knew her as well as I knew anybody else, because I used to take her to school during the Nazi period. She said, “Come on down and see me, so I can see you again.” So, I went down there and she had that other girl with her, Ilse Durst. Her name was Rosenduft now, she married. And Bertha wasn’t Engelhard, she was Leverton. Well, I hadn’t seen them, either of them, for fifty years but I could recognise them immediately. And she said to me, “Do you think it’s a good idea to have a reunion of the ones we came to England with and the others?” I said, “Yeah, it'd be a good idea.” That’s how she started her idea of a reunion.

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