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About Refugee Voices



In 2002 Dr Anthony Grenville, Carol Seigel, and Dr Bea Lewkowicz curated the exhibition “Continental Britons: Jewish Refugees from Nazi Europe”, shown at the Jewish Museum London. The exhibition contained Lewkowicz’s film “Continental Britons”, consisting of edited extracts from sixteen interviews with former refugees. The impact of the film was noted by one visitor: “watching the video and walking round the exhibition was like walking with history” (entry 23rd of July 2002, visitor’s book). Inspired by the success of the film, Dr Anthony Grenville and Dr Bea Lewkowicz submitted the proposal for a Refugee Voices Archive, a large scale video oral history project, to the AJR. The AJR, the organisation that has represented the Jewish refugees that fled from Hitler to Britain since 1941, realised how important it was to create a resource that would memorialise the history and the experience of the refugees and commissioned this project. The first interview was carried out in January 2003 and the first phase of the project was finished in 2008. When it became clear that there were still many people who wanted to record their testimony, another phase of the project was commissioned and in 2015 interviewing was re-started and is still ongoing.  


The remit of the project was to conduct initially 150 interviews, as widely as possible across the entire UK, avoiding too exclusive a concentration on North-West London, the principal area of refugee settlement. Consequently, there is a balance between the number of interviews carried out in London and the South-East and those carried out in the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland, and other regions. The spread of the interviews ranges from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Winchester and Southend, from Batley and Knaresborough to Bristol and Cardiff. A considerable number of interviews were filmed in the Manchester area, some of them with members of the local Orthodox Jewish community, a thus far under-represented group among the German Jewish refugees.


Another aim of Refugee Voices was to record the experiences of “ordinary people”, who form the bulk of the refugee community in Britain, and not only concentrate on the prominent and high-achieving refugees, a handful of whom have been interviewed for the Refugee Voices collection, such as the film set designer Ken Adam. Most of the interviewees have never been interviewed before and very few on film.



The development of oral history in the UK is clearly linked to the development of Alltagsgeschichte and “history from below” which attempted to give voice to marginalised groups, to “give history back to the people in their own words” (Thompson 2000: 308). At the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties some oral historians challenged the pure “recovery” and “gathering” focus of oral history and asserted that “memory” should be moved to the centre stage of analysis and not only remain the method of oral history (Frisch 1990: 188). These methodological developments suggested that the purpose of the Refugee Voices interviews needed to be two-fold:  


a) To gather evidence of historical experiences not widely recorded (of the emigration and settlement of German-speaking refugees in the UK in general and specific experiences in particular, for example women as domestic servants, accounts of internment, refugees as POWs in Germany etc.); and b) to enable an individual to narrate his/her life story and reflect on his/her experiences.


Keeping in mind the aim of historical reconstruction on the one hand and the creation of narrative memory on the other, the nature of the interview questions was of crucial importance. The questions needed to be open, not suggestive, and descriptive (“Could you please describe …?”, “What was it like …?”, “How do you remember …?”). Many of the interviews start with the question “Can you tell us about your family background?” The answers can vary from one minute to five minutes, from talking about the history of the family to immediately talking about Hitler and the experience of emigration. The interviewers were also instructed to accept silences as part of the interview. The interviews vary in length from one to six hours, the average interview lasts for two to three hours. All the interviews are life story interviews, covering the interviewees’ lives from childhood to today. We created guidelines for interviewers and camera operators in order to be as consistent as possible.


The project had three principal interviewers, Anthony Grenville and Bea Lewkowicz in the South and Rosalyn Lifshin in the North of England. The first interview took place in January 2003 with Elena Lederman, who had survived the war in hiding in Brussels, and our last interview was conducted in March 2007 in the Wiener Library with Professor John Grenville, who had come to the UK on a Kindertransport from Berlin (an edited version of the interview has been published in the Leo Baeck Yearbook 2011 (Lewkowicz 2011)).


We decided to film a “head and shoulder” shot throughout the interview but to zoom out at the end of the interview in order to get a sense of the interviewee’s space. Our aim was not to change the shot during an interview, thereby not giving more or less visual importance to certain parts or sequences of the interview. The aesthetics of the video testimony image is a quite interesting topic and I think in future we will see research about the varied choices made by different video oral history projects, looking at the different impacts these choices make on the viewer and user of testimonies.

The advantage of video testimony, as suggested by James Young, is that unlike literary testimony (which is edited), silences are part of the image and unlike audio interviews, gestures, movements, and expressions provide an additional layer of interpretation (Young 1988: 161). Inspired by other video history projects, such as the Fortunoff Video Archive of Yale University (4,300 interviews), the USC Shoah Foundation, (52,000 interviews), and the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivors Oral History Archive at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (300 interviews), Refugee Voices is the first dedicated video archive of life histories by refugees from Germany and Austria in the UK. It was decided very early on in the project that all interviews needed to be fully transcribed in order to provide the best access possible for researchers to the raw material of the interviews.


The time code in the transcripts makes it possible for a researcher to locate specific passages within an interview in a short amount of time. They can easily locate information relevant to any number of specific areas of interest, for example “Kindertransportees”, “domestic servants”, “internment on the Isle of Man”, or relating to interviewees from specific locations. Each interview is also accompanied by still shots of photographs of family members and friends, of places of importance for the interviewee and of other items and documents of special importance in the interviewee’s life. Refugee Voices is therefore both an archive of video testimonies but also of private photographs and documents.


One should note here that while transcriptions are very useful in terms of access to the material, they should not be treated as a primary source. Due to the nature of the many languages involved (German, English, Yiddish, Hebrew etc.) and the sheer volume of transcripts, mistakes in transforming the spoken words to written words are unavoidable, despite our editorial efforts. One interviewee was very upset that the transcript cited Wroclaw and not Inowrozlaw as the birth place of his father. Although we were able to correct this mistake at the time, we are aware that other mistakes might only be found once researchers are working on and using the interviews.

The Interviews


The interviews cover a very wide spectrum of experiences, including those of refugees who escaped to Britain before the outbreak of war in 1939, those who survived in hiding in occupied Europe, and those who survived the camps. Of the first 150 interviews, 71 were conducted with men and 79 with women, the biggest groups of interviewees were born in Berlin (31) and Vienna (25), 35 interviewees had come to Britain on a Kindertransport. 67 interviewees were over 80 when we interviewed them, the oldest interviewee is 97 years old and the youngest was 64. The interviews conducted from 2015 onwards include more child survivors and younger Kindertransportees and children who had come to the UK with their parents.


The life stories of the interviewees reflect many aspects of the history of forced emigration and survival. Alongside those interviewees who came directly to the UK there are interviewees who came to Britain via Shanghai, via Palestine, and on the notorious ship St Louis; there are also interviewees who were in the East of Poland in 1939, were deported to Central Asia by the Soviets and made their way to the Middle East after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, joining the British forces there. There is an interview with a survivor who was smuggled to safety from Denmark to Sweden in the famous sea-borne rescue of Jews, an interview with a survivor who was released from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland in January 1945 as part of a prisoner exchange, and an interview with a man who was present at the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. As the interviews also explore the post-war lives of the interviewees, the testimonies contain a wealth of material on the lives of the interviewees in Britain after 1945: on the manner of their settlement, the obstacles they encountered, their sense of belonging, identity and their religious affiliation, as well as their professional development, their attitudes to Britain and to their countries of birth, as well as their reflections on their experiences and messages for the future. The open-ended nature of the questions allows the interviewees to create their own narratives and thus provide ample opportunity for oral history research.  



Frisch, M. (1990). A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: SUNY Press.


Grenville, A., Lewkowicz, B. (2009). Refugee Voices. In German Historical Institute London Bulletin 31 (2), pp. 178–183.


Grenville, A. (2011). Stimmen der Flucht: Österreichische Emigration nach Großbritannien 1938/39. Vienna: Czernin.


Lewkowicz, B. (2010). Changing Stories? An Exploration of the Relationship between the Interviewer and The Interviewee’s Narrative, Paper given at the ESSHC Conference in Ghent.


Lewkowicz, B. (2011). An Interview by Dr Bea Lewkowicz with Professor John Grenville. Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 56 (1), pp. 7–26.


Lewkowicz, B. (2011). Double Exposure. Jewish Refugees from Austria in Britain. Exhibition catalogue.


Lewkowicz, B. (2012). Refugee Voices (The AJR Audio-Visual Testimony Archive): A New Resource for the Study of the Kindertransport. In The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39. New Perspectives (pp. 239-246).  Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi.


Thompson, P. (2000). The Voice of the Past. Oral History (third edition). Oxford: OUP.


Young, J. (1988), Writing and Re-writing the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Indiana 1988.



By Dr Anthony Grenville and Dr Bea Lewkowicz

  • The Association of Jewish Refugees Audio-Visual Testimony Archive. In Bearing Witness: Testimony and the Historical Memory of the Holocaust (Volume 2, 2009).


By Dr Bea Lewkowicz

  • An Interview by Dr Bea Lewkowicz with Professor John Grenville. In: The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Volume 56, Issue 1, 1 January 2011

  • The AJR Refugee Voices Archive: A Recourse for Scholarship and Learning. In: Preserving Survivors Memories: Digital Testimony Collections about Nazi Persecution:     History, Education, Media. Editors: Apostolopoulos, N., Barricelli. M., and Koch,G. (2016)

  • Refugee Voices (The AJR Audio-Visual Testimony Archive): A New Resource for the Study of the Kindertransport, in The Kindertransport to Britain 1938/39. Editors: Andrea Hammel and Bea Lewkowicz

  • Reflections on the Role of Gender in Women's Oral History Narratives, in Exile and Gender II: Politics, Education and the Arts. Editors: Andrea Hammel, Charmian Brinson,  and Jana Barbora Buresova.

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