Monica Bohm-Duchen (R); Norman Rosenthal

The conversation

Monica Bohm-Duchen; Norman Rosenthal, Issue 119/03, 01.03.2019
What can we learn from the cultural impact made by those who fled to the UK from Nazi Germany?
Dear Monica:

The impact, both direct and indirect, of those who fled here from Nazi-dominated Europe on the cultural life of Britain was huge. In music, the visual arts, literature and patronage, not to speak of academic life in all disciplines, no end of examples can be cited. Refugees with established cultural credentials had it relatively easy. But to understand the complexity of their experience, one has only to cite the case of writer Stefan Zweig who, despite escaping from Austria, later committed suicide in desperation at what he perceived as the likely end of European civilisation.

Best wishes, Norman

Dear Norman:

The importance of these refugees’ contribution to Britain is often mentioned in passing, and there have, of course, been detailed studies of certain key figures. But numerous individuals (a disproportionate number of them women), many successful in their own lifetimes, have been almost entirely forgotten, and richly deserve being brought back into the limelight. As you say, the dark undertow of that success needs to be remembered, since all these people not only experienced the trauma of persecution and forced uprooting, but suffered the most profound family losses in the Holocaust.

Best wishes, Monica

Dear Monica:

Nor should we forget that as September 1939 drew closer, entering the UK became ever more difficult. One either needed a sponsor, the security of a promised job or the “fortune” of being on a Kindertransport, which nevertheless meant separation from parents who would probably end their lives in the hellish worlds of the gas chambers. My own mother arrived from Germany in August 1939 thanks to a domestic job in the house of a Cambridge academic, and my father arrived in 1941 with the Free Czech Army – both barely speaking English.

Best wishes, Norman

Dear Norman:

It’s important to remember that, then as now, the British government was hardly willing, let alone generous, in allowing refugees into this country. In addition, one needs to acknowledge that certain professional bodies took active measures to exclude the refugees, whose greater sophistication and expertise, international contacts and openness to radical new ideas they perceived as a distinct threat. It’s also important, though, to remember the groups of British-born individuals, both religious and secular, who went out of their way to offer moral and practical support to the incomers.

Best wishes, Monica

Dear Monica:

I’d like to emphasise the difficulty of being a refugee at any time in history. In his recent film Human Flow, Ai Wei Wei demonstrates with poetic intensity the incredible strength needed to flee one’s home and then, by implication, to build a new life in a new land. “Foreigners” have always helped create the dynamic human and cultural profile of this country.

Those who fled from Nazi Europe (most of them, by force of circumstance, Jewish) represent a significant moment in Britain’s diverse cultural history. But such moments, born of the human flow of history, must always be given space, now and in the future.

Best wishes, Norman

Dear Norman:

A more nuanced and detailed analysis, both of their indisputable achievements and the obstacles and prejudices that these 1930s refugees had to overcome when they first arrived, is essential, not only for a deeper historical understanding of those achievements and their legacy, but also for a greater empathy with those fleeing war and persecution in the present.

My great hope is that the Insiders/Outsiders festival, founded on the belief that refugees can, and do, make an indelible contribution to their adoptive countries, will go some way to achieving this aim.

Best wishes, Monica

Norman Rosenthal is a former exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy of Arts, London; Monica Bohm-Duchen is a London-based freelance art historian

Norman Rosenthal was the exhibitions secretary at the RA from 1977 until 2008. He still curates shows, and his particular interests include German art of the 20th and 21st centuries

Monica Bohm-Duchen is the initiator of Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Culture, a nationwide arts festival that runs for a year from 2 March. See www.insidersoutsidersfestival.org

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