One of the questions Dr. Bea Lewkowicz, Director of the AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive asks every interviewee is about their identity. Very often that is connected to the question: has the interviewee retained their native language (mostly German).
How does language define us? Painful memories and beautiful memories – loving your culture and hating the native country that made you leave everything behind. Letting go and making a new life. What would life have been without the rupture?
Language and culture are entwined and define us despite a painful past, as was the case for many of the RV interviewees. Every interview is unique and every interviewee has a different story depending on many factors, such as: their age on arrival in Britain, their family history and of course, their personalities.
Eva Mendelsson tells us about her 12th birthday in a camp in France, (where she had been deported with her mother and sister from Offenburg in South-West Germany). Her mother gave her a book of her own poems which remained a treasure all throughout Eva’s life. Her mother perished in Auschwitz, but many years later Eva published her mother’s poems celebrating her 100th birthday (Sylvia Cohn: 1904-1942 Gedichte und Briefe).
Was retaining the native language, (despite pain and resentment) for some refugee children, a way to stay connected with the memory of loved ones? Because of her German language skills, Eva Mendelsson was able to visit German schools and give students an account of her family’s history and suffering. She was able to bring the message to the place where it’s most important to be heard.
Some had to suffer for their German accent. For example, read the interview of Paul Willer who went to boarding school in Northern Ireland (Mourne Grange): “Being German I used to roll my R's. In the word to “hear” in Latin or “audare,” I used to say “odaré”. The headmaster couldn't stand it. He was appalled at this “rolling of Rs” and he caned me mercifully - mercilessly: Tried to make me not roll my “Rs”. No, I couldn't do it. Now if somebody had explained to me that by putting the tip of your tongue at the top of the mouth you would say “oh- daree” not “odaré”, then I would have of course immediately been able to do it but nobody did that. So, I suffered it for some time.” Later in the interview he answers the question if people noticed that he was a refugee: “No. I was just another boy who by now knew how to pronounce his Rs.“
Some had to live for the rest of their lives with a German accent – Walter Kammerling says: “there has [not] been a time in England where I was, where I wasn’t together with people where, who didn’t speak German. And I wonder whether this is the reason that I never got rid of my accent. …when a friend of mine once said, jokingly, but of course there is such truth in that, he says, Walter, you have a beautiful accent! No trace of English. Then I realised…So, I live with that. But its Ok. Ja.” Walter Kammerling changed his name to Kerrison when he joined the Pioneer Corps and back to Kammerling when he left it. He states in the interview that he wanted to keep the name that connected him to his parents and grandparents, even if it made him stand out in Britain.
Some had parents who stopped speaking German with their children to turn them into proper British children and to forget the painful past.
Gerti Baruch tells us in her interview that she and her husband chose English as the family language, reverting to German when they didn’t want their children to understand the conversation. Gerti identifies as Continental and liked going back to her native Vienna, describing her former life there as “a dream”. Despite loving her life in Britain, she indulged sometimes in Viennese comfort food, in The Dorice or The Cosmo.
Some interviewees say they were ashamed of their parents’ German accent or their mistakes speaking English. There seems to be a whole range of jokes about the pitfalls for native Germans.
And Ralph Land realised later what a difficult time it must have been for his parents making a new start in a country not speaking the language on top of everything else. “I remember my mother going into a shop to buy some orange juice. And she bought a- she said, “Can I have a flasch [sounds like “flesh”] of orange juice?” ‘Flasche'…”
If German didn’t disappear in the first, (for example child survivors) or second generation, then it has usually left by the third. By now, immigrants were assimilated and identified with the country that had saved their lives and given them a home and a future.
The interviews show that life for the refugees was not easy and once settled many were busy building a life for their own families. Life for many just got in the way of dwelling on the past. Many questions remained un-asked and time went by. Often it took several generations to ask, “How did our family get here? What is our story?”
Sometimes however, children and grandchildren who find old photos, letters and documents can’t read German or decipher the old writing style.
I was asked to look at a document that seemed official and was from the mid 19th century. I had seen this kind of handwriting many years ago at my own grandmother’s house and she had read and taught me some of the so-called Sütterlin alphabet. After a little bit of research, it turned out that the document from the mid 19th century was Kurrent handwriting, which is slightly older. There is an interesting history attached to how Sütterlin became the official handwriting style, until Germany adopted its contemporary alphabet. Deciphering the document felt like working on the Rosetta stone. I managed to decipher one word and went from there. In the end, the three pages of beautiful handwriting turned out to be a birth announcement.
The collection of the Refugee Voices interviews is a treasure trove in so many ways.
Foremost, it is a rich source of oral history – about Jewish life in continental Europe during and before the war. Researchers can comb it for all kinds of information. If you follow the AJR Refugee Voices Project, please let us know what aspects you would like to read more about.