A 1939 leaflet gave displaced Jews unflinching advice. It contained lessons for todayby Mary Dejevsky / January 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
The smallest thing is often more instructive than the grandest gesture. The United Nations held a summit on refugees this autumn, but it left the world’s 65m-plus displaced people with little prospect of swifter resettlement. In contrast, a little booklet, now more than 70 years old, could offer-—if not an actual blueprint—some serious pointers, for smoothing the reception of today’s refugees.
Published in 1939 and entitled While you are in England (pictured right), it was put out by the philanthropic German-Jewish Aid Committee in conjunction with the Jewish Board of Deputies and addressed to the thousands of German Jews then fleeing to Britain. Its modest promise was “helpful information and guidance for every refugee,” and it provided exactly that. The booklet came to my notice as a facsimile, having been reproduced by London’s estimable Wiener Library as it publicised its National Holocaust Archive. Shame to say, it languished on my desk for weeks before something made me pick it up and read all of its 24 briskly instructive pages.
The utility of the information, the clarity of the slightly dated language—English and German—and the simplicity of the presentation make this a thoroughly practical document: the sort of primer I’d want to keep to hand, if ever—heaven forbid—I had to seek safety in a foreign land. With precise addresses and directions, and warnings about not taking English reserve the wrong way, everything is relevant.
But something else shines out from this little booklet. All the advice it dispenses comes not from the British government, but from other Jews already living and thriving here, and it proceeds from an assumption of gratitude, not right. The tenor of the booklet is about not making demands and about trying, so far as possible, to fit in. Arriving refugees, it recommends, will do best if they regard themselves as guests in someone else’s country. They are urged to be patient. “We are all doing our very utmost to help you and a large number of others whose plight is as tragic as your own.”
The deal, it might be said in today’s parlance, is presented as reciprocal. “The traditional tolerance and sympathy of Britain… towards the Jews is something which every British Jew appreciates profoundly. On his part, he does all in his power to express his loyalty to Britain… in word and deed and by communal effort.” There follows a mini-rulebook of do’s and don’ts, which starts: “spend your spare time immediately in learning the English language and its correct pronunciation.” Note the word “immediately.”
Newcomers are advised to refrain from speaking German in public places—“talk halting English rather than fluent German”—and not to talk loudly. They are discouraged from criticising the way things are done or, perish the thought, from suggesting that it was better 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.”
Other don’ts include getting involved in politics and making oneself conspicuous, “including by manner of dress”—because the English dislike ostentation. Do’s include following “the manners and customs and habits of this country in social and business relations” and understanding that indiscretions reflect poorly on the Jewish community as a whole.
From the space allocated to it, we can see work is a matter of great contention—as indeed it remains. Refugees are told in no uncertain terms to obey the rules as to what work is and isn’t allowed. They are particularly warned not to expect their older children to train as doctors or lawyers —“there are already far too many professional men amongst refugees for the needs of today.”
They are also reminded that their upkeep is the business of the Jewish community, not the British taxpayer, and warned against volunteering or accepting less than the “customary” wage. “The Jewish community would rather pay out of its own pocket for the maintenance of refugees until they can find their own permanent homes overseas, than have it thought that work was being taken from British people.”
Now you can object that all this—from the actual advice to the prescriptive tone—is unconscionably old-fashioned and demeaning, and that people forced to seek safety in another land should not be cast as lowly petitioners expressing gratitude at every turn. They are individual human beings with the same rights to personal dignity and decent living conditions as the rest of us—rights that were recognised in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which governs the treatment of displaced people to this day.
It would also be fair to observe that some of the sensitivities evident in “While you are in England” owe as much to internal Jewish politics in Britain at the time as to the desirability of becoming integrated into British life. Some of the older European Jews already settled here were still in a precarious economic situation and resented the sometimes richer, more cosmopolitan, newcomers, to whose maintenance they were nonetheless expected to contribute. Hence another reason for the refugees to keep their heads down.
Yet it might be worth asking whether the enshrining of refugee rights in the 1951 Convention—and a 1967 protocol which universalised it, by removing the original restrictions regarding time and place—perhaps tipped the balance a fraction too far towards rights and away from responsibilities. Fulfilling duties to obey the law, learn the language, and show loyalty to the host country helps people to fit in. And might it ease the resettlement of refugees today if, say, Syrians already settled in the UK were more prominent in resettling their fellow-Syrians, both financially and in other ways?
Could it even be that the introduction of statutory rights for refugees has stifled natural compassion—both because resettlement is now deeemed a government responsibility, and because rights have reduced the need for thoughtful discretion? At a time when there is growing political pressure internationally to revisit the UN provisions, “While you are in England” serves as a reminder that rights need to be complemented by a recognition of the human factor—respecting the sensitivities of both guest and host.