David Kernek wonders if today’s refugees from the Middle East and North Africa get the Welcome to England guide that was given to those fleeing Europe in 1939. He doubts it.
My mother, Greta Kernek, didn’t know she was a Jew until a girl in her class told her she was. She was told she was a ‘Jewish bitch’. This happened in the school’s playground. My mother said she wasn’t. ‘Look in the mirror,’ she was told. This was news to her. Like most middle class, thoroughly-assimilated Austrian and German Jews, she’d been raised nominally as a Roman Catholic. In her contribution to Stephen Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah testimony project, she says: ‘I was bought up as a Catholic. I was an ardent Catholic when I was a child. I felt very happy in church.’ Thanks, however, to the co-operation of the church in Vienna, Adolf Eichmann’s Central Agency for Jewish Emigration had the family records of all Austrian Roman Catholics and was able from August 1938 to find those who could be classified as Half and Full Jews as defined by the Nuremberg Race Laws. My uncle, Erich Kernek, was summoned to the agency’s Linz office. He was asked why he and his sister were still in Austria. He asked why he was being asked this ridiculous question, although he well knew the answer. He was told that he and his sister had three Jewish grandparents, all of them from Czechoslovakia, which made them Full Jews, and that they had three months in which to leave Austria. Linz was Hitler’s home town; the agency’s goal, therefore, was to ensure it as Austria’s first Jude frei town.
Too old for the Kinder Transports, they spent days in line at the British and American embassies in Vienna, and within – just about – three months they were on their way to Ostend and, beyond Ostend, Folkestone. They had sponsors in England. Erich carried with him the J passport issued by the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration. My mother tore hers up and threw the bits into the sea as Folkestone came into view.
The J mark was one she could never, ever, understand and accept. But in storms, ports are useful. In London, she went to Bloomsbury to register with the German Jewish Aid Committee, an organization set up in conjunction with the Jewish Board of Deputies ‘to give useful information and friendly guidance to all Refugees from Greater Germany (excluding Czechoslovakia) who are Jewish by religion’. She must have lied to the good people at Bloomsbury House about that. Putting the two and two together of the first days of her life in London, I don’t think she found the committee useful; perhaps the help offered didn’t suit her needs. She did, though, keep the 26-page booklet – While you are in England/HELPFUL INFORMATION and Guidance FOR EVERY REFUGEE – that was given to her. In English and German, it explains politely but firmly what refugees are expected to understand about their host country and the behaviour expected of them at a time – although this is not explained – when England’s indigenous and largely observant Jewish population, the folks let in by Cromwell, feared the arrival of albeit secular Jewish refugees from Middle Europe in the 1930s would fuel waves of anti-Semitism.
Refugees are told about the ‘traditional tolerance and sympathy’ of Britain and the British Commonwealth towards Jews. This is ‘something every British Jew appreciates profoundly’. The British Jew ‘does all in his power to express his loyalty to Britain and the British Commonwealth … this loyalty comes first and foremost, and every Refugee should realise how deeply it is felt’. The Jewish Community in Britain will do ‘its very utmost to welcome and maintain all Refugees, to educate their Children and to care for the Aged and Sick. This is work that a ‘great many Christians in all walks of life have spontaneously associated themselves. ‘All that we ask from you in return is to carry out to your utmost the following lines of conduct. Regard them, please, as duties to which you are in honour bound.’
There are eight lines of such becoming conduct:
- Spend your spare time immediately learning the English language and its correct pronounciation.
- Refrain from speaking German in public places … Talk halting English rather than fluent German … Do not talk in a loud voice … Do not read German newspapers in public.
- Do not criticize any Government regulations, nor the way things are done over here. Do not speak of ‘how much better this or that is done in Germany’. It may be true in some matters, but it weighs as nothing against the sympathy and freedom and liberty of England which are now given to you. Never forget that point.
- Do not join any Political organization, or take part in any political activities.
- Do not make yourself conspicuous by speaking loudly, nor by your manner or dress. The Englishman greatly dislikes ostentation, loudness of dress or manner, or unconventionality of dress or manner. He attaches very great importance to modesty, and under-statement in speech … He values good manners far more than he values the evidence of wealth. You will find that he says ‘Thank you’ for the slightest service – even for a penny ’bus ticket for which he has paid.
- Try to observe the manners and customs and habits of this country in social and business relations.
- Do not spread the poison of ‘It’s [fascism] bound to come to your country’. The British Jew greatly objects to this craven thought.
- Above all, please realize that the Jewish Community is relying on you – on each and every one of you – to uphold in this country the highest Jewish qualities, to maintain dignity, and to help and serve others.
Good refugees are warned not to expect to be welcomed immediately in English homes, ‘because the Englishman takes some time to before he opens his home wide to strangers. They are told which work is allowed and which isn’t … ‘It must not be said that the Refugees are taking work away from British workers’, while ‘the Home Office will always give consideration to the cases of business and professional men who can bring to this country special knowledge and skill not already here – and which may perhaps create new industries’.
It closes, before a guide to British money, weights and measures, with a cautionary note on the training for the young, and an eye on those who might be looking at ‘occupations likely to be useful to them, and their neighbours, overseas’. What promised land could they have been thinking about? For boys, it was agriculture and handicrafts, and for girls, nursing and domestic service. ‘Please do not expect these young people to be trained as doctors, dentists, lawyers, professors, etc. There are already far too many professional men amongst Refugees for the needs of today.’ The example 0f Palestine shows what miracles manual labour can accomplish when a good brain works with good hands.’ Ah, that promised land. For my mother and Uncle Erich, London NW6 was theirs.