Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) has had a profound impact on sociology and social theory, with its passionate argument that the Holocaust needs to be understood as a searing indictment of the perversions of industrial modernity.
Less well known are the details of Bauman’s personal history. Born in the Polish city of Poznań, he escaped to the Soviet Union with his parents after the German invasion in September 1939. At the end of the war, he attempted to pick up the shards of his shattered life and returned to his native Poland. Studying at Warsaw University, he became determined not only to rebuild his devastated country but to use his newfound knowledge of philosophy and sociology to create a fairer, more equal society.
This was not to be. The communist purges of Jewish intellectuals meant that Bauman was forced yet again to flee his beloved Poland in 1968. He finally settled in the UK, where he became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds. He continued to be a prolific writer right up until his death in 2017.
Bauman was just one of the thousands of displaced Jewish émigrés who made their way to the UK and contributed to its intellectual, cultural and political life. Recent years have seen studies of figures such as Nikolaus Pevsner, the pioneering architectural historian, and E. H. Gombrich, the leading art historian of his age. In 2017, a collection titled Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945 (edited by Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider and Jás Elsner), explored how the institution had been transformed by dozens of émigrés such as historian Arnaldo Momigliano, classicist Otto Brendel and philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Beyond the university, the arrival of artists such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach led one critic to proclaim that “The best British art of the 20th century is Jewish.”
The post-war contributions of Jewish refugee scholars to the creation of development studies is less well understood, yet it was important – and their impact seems likely to become even more central in the decades to come. Living as we do in an acutely unequal global order in which one in four children experiences starvation, Bauman’s warnings about the inequities of globalisation become harder to ignore. And he is not alone.
Through in-depth interviews with Bauman and other lesser-known figures in development studies, David Simon makes apparent how it is because of rather than despite their experiences that refugees are often at the forefront of intellectual developments. Moreover, it is his modest and unassuming voice that allows his subjects to reflect on how their individual traumas influenced their dedication to a new theory of policy and practice. Simon, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, is in a better position than most to understand that the formative experiences of persecution and exile can never go away but constantly emerge in new and unexpected ways. It is not surprising to find that figures such as Bauman – famously reticent about his difficult past – were finally able to discuss such matters with him. This is a timely reminder of the remarkable contribution that refugees can make to the intellectual life of their host country, when they are allowed to.
Zoë Waxman is lecturer in modern Jewish history at the University of Oxford and the author of Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History (2017).
Holocaust Escapees and Global Development: Hidden Histories
By David Simon
Zed Books, 352pp, £70.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781786995131 and 5124
Published 15 January 2019