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Ursula Owen

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
August 1938
Interview number:


Dr Bea Lewkowicz

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Ursula Owen was born Urusla Sachs in Oxford in 1937. Her mother and father knew each other as teenagers in Frankfurt. Her mother Emma Sachs travelled from Berlin to Oxford to give birth to Ursula. Family friends had advised that with Nazis in power, it would be good for the children to have a British passports. Ursula’s mother did the same for her brother’s birth in 1933. In both cases Emma stayed for six weeks with family members, who had emigrated to the UK, and then returned to Germany. Ursula’s father was a chemical engineer and worked for his cousin’s metal company called ‘Gesellschaft für Elektrometallurgie’. The company was Aryanised and the parents received exit papers to leave for the UK in July 1938. The children were left in Heidelberg for a short time with the grandparents. Six weeks later their German nanny brought the children to Holland, where their father was waiting for her. From there they flew to the UK.

Ursula’s father found work with the British government and the family bought a house in Putney where Ursula attended primary school and her brother was sent to a boarding school. Ursula also has a sister who is seven years younger than her. Her mother developed health issues which made her depend heavily on Ursula. After her parents’ divorce, Ursula’s father remarried and later lived with his second wife in a retirement home in Germany.

Ursula studied medicine but later realised that her true passion was literature and politics. She married in 1960 and travelled for her husband’s research to Egypt and Lebanon. After their divorce Ursula went into publishing, first at Frank Cass (a publishing house for scientific books). But it is for her involvement with feminist publishing house Virago Press, where Ursula was a founder director, that she is most celebrated, publishing Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou among many others. In 1972 she worked for Index on Censorship magazine and later became a founder of Free Word, a centre for literature, literacy and free expression. She received an OBE for her commitment to human rights.

Although her parents were non-observant, Ursula feels Jewish but also European. Although she loves visiting Berlin she does not consider herself German at all. She has a strong attachment to ‘Englishness’. Growing up with foreign parents she viewed herself as an outsider but learnt to embrace that she “didn’t feel the need to belong” and to observe from the margins.

Key words: Oxford. Berlin. Frankfurt/Main. Richard Grelling J’asccuse. Gesellschaft für Elektrometallurgie (Grünfeld). Kattowitz. Elias Sachs, pharmacology, University Heidelberg. Virago. Frank Cass. The Index on Censorship. The Free Word.


Full Interview


And people are quite scornful about assimilation. I mean, I see it when I read books, too. I think a lot of Jews felt that assimilation, the desire for German Jews to assimilate, was partly responsible for what happened. That they kidded themselves that they were part of the society when they weren’t. Lots of stuff like that. And there was a very- quite an antagonistic feeling.

So... I went up the side path [to the house in Berlin Dahlem where her parents used to live], ... and I burst into tears. It was sort of something about... being in the place where you were first- when you first were. And of course you don’t - if you’re exiled you don’t have that. You can’t touch the place where you came from.

Well I don’t feel very English. I never have. And I think- I used to feel myself as an outsider, and then I discovered that most people do. Most people do for this reason or that. When I wrote that 6,000 word piece and people read it in the book. People wrote to me and said, “Yeah, I feel just the same about class.” You know, I think- but I think I did also discover gradually, slowly, and that was partly because of the context of the world we were living in, that... it was a good, quite a good place to be, in the margins.

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.

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