Some of the best stories of our age are to be found on obituaries pages. There we can find one of the unexpected gifts of Nazi Germany – the high culture, literature science and the arts brought to these shores by a generation of emigres. The pickings are becoming thinner as the generation that arrived here in the 1930s and later passes. But what they left and will leave is eternal.
One was reminded of this by the laudatory tributes to Judith Kerr the ‘beloved’ author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, as the Guardian headline described her. Kerr’s chaotic childhood has been widely recorded. Her father Alfred was leading German theatre critic and columnist and her mother Julia a talented composer.
As an outspoken criticism of Nazism Alfred Kerr became a marked person fleeing Germany in 1933 as Jewish freedoms were curtailed. He landed first in Switzerland, then France before making it to England. The Kerr family story is a wonderful example of the survival of the human spirit amid the thuggery which ended with the death camps.
Famously there were efforts to interpret the ‘The Tiger,’ a children’s favourite, as the Gestapo which frightened Kerr’s family into fleeing the assimilated home of their birth. But in interviews she always insisted that it was just what it said on the tin. The tiger was a friendly visitor enjoying an English tea. Among Kerr’s 50 hand- illustrated books When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, published in 1971, was one of trilogy of semi-biographical works.
The emigres brought with them a zest and imagination which lifted British art out of the staidness of Constable and Stubbs, the pugnacious patriotism of Elgar and conventional scientific research traditions of Cambridge. In fine art the contributions of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (whose parents died in the Shoah) changed the face of British painting.
There were also brilliant contributions to the City of London symbolised by Sigmund Warburg of the investment bank SG Warburg which eventually was absorbed into Swiss giant UBS. Indeed, a whole generation of merchant bankers who arrived from Frankfurt provided the platforms for the Square Mile’s resurgence as Europe and the world’s financial sector.
Among those emigres recently to grace the obituaries was the impresario Victor Hochhauser who in contrast to many of the more assimilated emigres never lost touch with his deep seated Judaism. It was Hochauser’s vision which opened the eyes of British culture to artists from the former Soviet Union such as Rudolf Nureyev and the pianist Sviastoslav Richtet and the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets. Hochauser was born in Kosice, then in Hungary now in Slovakia, and arrived in Britain in 1938, another refugee from Nazi persecution.
Obituary readers may also have noticed the deaths in the last several years of George Weidenfeld and Peter Owen, two of the giants of post-war publishing in the UK. Together with Paul Hamlyn, Max Reinhardt, proprietor of Bodley Head, Kurt Maschler of Jonathan Cape and the vilified Robert Maxwell, they were part of an émigré generation which recreated the London publishing scene post-war.
Almost all of these publishers and typographers were refugees from Nazism. The English publishing scene was populated by gifted scions of wealthy families in cardigans. The Jewish arrivals brought with them a highly professional approach to printing and a willingness to experiment with new authors, overseas writers and the avant garde.
In her resignation speech in front of the door of Number 10 Theresa evoked the name of Sir Nicholas Winton, Britain’s Wallenberg, praising him for his wisdom on political compromise. Winton’s work and that of others who helped bring brilliant young emigres to Britain send a big message. Social media has coarsened the political debate whereas the refugee and emigres permanently broadened the nation’s cultural and scientific horizons. Many of a brilliant generation have now passed on and the great stories of their lives will be less rehearsed on the obituary pages. It is important that their lives continue to commemorated as a testimony to what the immeasurable benefits of a tolerant and open society.