Friday, 2 March 2018

Rules for refugees: 'Don't speak loudly.'

I recently came across a little booklet that was given to my mother in 1939, when she arrived in the UK as an 18-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany.

It is called 'Helpful information and guidance for every refugee' -- and in the light of the current debate about refugees and immigrants, it makes fascinating reading.

But first some context: in the 1930s and early 1940s, an estimated 70,000 Jewish refugees were granted asylum in the UK. Another 500,000 who applied for entry were unsuccessful; among them was my grandmother, who had to stay behind in Germany and was shot by a Nazi death squad in 1941. (I tell her story here.)

The booklet that I found among my mother's possessions was published by the German Jewish Aid Committee and the Jewish Board of Deputies (as it then was). Each section is in both English and German.

First, there is a list of  'organisations useful for our visitors'. Then comes 'How to register with your local police'. And then, under the heading 'The tolerance and sympathy of Britain and the British Commonwealth', comes a long list of do's and don'ts.

Rule No. 1: 'Spend your spare time immediately in learning the English language and its correct pronunciation.'

Rule No. 2: 'Refrain from speaking German in the streets and in public conveyances and in public places such as restaurants. Talk halting English rather than fluent German -- and do not talk in a loud voice (Italics in the original). Do not read German newspapers in public.'

Another rule says: '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. The Englishman attaches very great importance to modesty, under-statement in speech rather than over-statement, and quietness of dress and manner. 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.)'

There are also words of warning: 'Do not expect to be received immediately in English homes, because the Englishman takes some time before he opens his home wide to strangers.'

And a final admonition, in heavy, bold type: 'Be loyal to England, your host.'

What a long time ago it was. How Britain has changed. And how quaint was the language, the writers apparently unaware of the existence either of women or of anywhere in the UK that isn't England.

The picture that the booklet painted, of a country obsessed with good manners and keeping up appearances, was, perhaps understandably, very definitely rose-tinted. Why upset newly-arrived refugees with tales of Oswald Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street, which had taken place in the East End of London less than three years previously, when Jewish and other anti-Fascists resisted a planned march through a Jewish neighbourhood by Mosley's Blackshirts?

Why remind them that in 1938, the Daily Mail had approvingly quoted a London magistrate who said: 'The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage.'

My mother soon learned for herself that refugees were not universally welcomed: within two weeks of having found work as a mother's help in north London, war had been declared and she was summarily dismissed. Her employer, who was Jewish, said she didn't want 'a German' in her home.

Inevitably, leafing through that nearly eighty-year-old booklet, my thoughts turned to today's refugees, from Syria, Yemen, Eritrea or Sudan. Especially as I had just been reminded yet again of the bigotry and prejudice that still greets foreigners fleeing from violence and persecution.

A couple of days ago, I suggested on television that the German chancellor Angela Merkel had done the right thing in 2015 by opening Germany's doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants, even though it was clearly to her political disadvantage. The reaction, in messages to me on social media, was immediate and ugly.

'Europeans do NOT need low IQ Africans to flood in bringing their lack of restraint, bestial sexual habits & violence.'

'We do not need Islam or millions of uneducated people from Africa in Europe who bring violence, rape, fgm, child marriage, crime, jihad, and a burden on the tax payer.'

There was more in a similar vein. I found it depressing, although not surprising. But I also remembered the hundreds of British friends my parents made in post-war Britain, many of whom will be joining us in a couple of weeks' time to celebrate the life of my late father, another refugee from Nazi Germany, who died just before Christmas at the ripe old age of ninety-eight.

Both my parents followed the rules in that little booklet to the letter -- and they enjoyed long and happy lives together in the country they called home. Shortly before he died, my father wrote: 'Unless you were born and grew up in this country, you will never be an Englishman, and nobody will call you that. But all the same, I call Great Britain my "home country", as I feel at home here, and I am glad this is where I lived my life, rather than anywhere else.'

I hope that one day, today's refugees will be able to say the same. 


Unknown said...

This was the spirit of my parental home; and I never made the grade. I have remained a second-generation refugee, correctly understood by my father as a liability for our family’s assimilation, all my life. The blame should fall on me, and my low-IQ or otherwise maladaptive *nature* (this is what my father assumed though he blamed my alleged bad will and specifically my alleged antisemitism towards him), on my two parents’ equally idealistic but mutually contradictory Anglophilias, but mostly on 1960s Britain, the culture of which imposed impossible dilemmas on some European-origin immigrants.

Anonymous said...

Socrates - I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

Thomas Paine - The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.

Theresa May - If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what the very word "citizenship" means.

And finally:

Aldous Huxley - That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.

Andy Popperwell said...

My mother arrived here at the end of 1938 aged 14; she must have been given the same advice. Her parents weren't allowed in and a similar fate befell them. All her life she struggled with the concept of 'home', but was drawn back to Vienna every year. Her assimilation came through music. She was a wonderful pianist, accompanist and teacher, and this enabled communication with decent people. I still smile to think of her learning the hymns she played for in school assemblies. 'Jerusalem' for example!

johngfitzgerald said...

Thank you for shining a light on this obscure corner of history. We seem to be doomed to repeat ugly aspects of the past, like an unwanted inheritance we cannot disown. Let's hope we can avoid the worst of it this time.

Anonymous said...

There are a small number of small-minded people living in their own Little England, and some of these have broadcast their pathetic little message. It's a sad indictment of this that skilled Europeans are currently leaving the UK in droves

There are numerous broad-minded people in (Great) Britain who welcome strangers, who agree with your analyses, but don't feel it necessary to comment. It's easier to moan than it is to support

Certainly there are complications, but surely hospitality is traditionally a strong British trait, n'est pas ? And I think we've got more problems with the native British than with visitors