How Fifi became free

Retrospective Sympathetic Affection
January 17, 1997

Anyone wondering what this book is about will have to read to page 236 to learn that its title represents a dictionary's (not the Oxford's) definition of gratitude: its English author's gratitude to those who helped the scholars driven into exile by the Nazis and Fascists in the 1930s to find shelter and work in this country.

In March 1933 Sir William Beveridge, then director of the London School of Economics, and Lionel Robbins, one of its professors, were enjoying themselves in Vienna when they read the first news of Hitler's wholesale dismissal of Jewish teachers from German universities. Possession of even a single Jewish grandparent disqualified academics from teaching the German Master Race. Refusal to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler was another ground for dismissal. Outraged, Beveridge and Robbins returned to London and convened the professorial council that invited all teachers and administrators to contribute to an academic assistance fund for helping displaced scholars in economic and political science. Beveridge recalled: "The answer to Hitler of British Universities generally was as immediate and emphatic as the answer of the London School of Economics.'' On May 22 1933, 41 prominent academics, including Maynard Keynes, Gilbert Murray, George Trevelyan and seven Nobel laureates in science and medicine wrote to The Times announcing the foundation of the Academic Assistance Council "to raise a fund, to be used primarily, though not exclusively, in providing maintenance for displaced teachers and investigators, and finding them work in universities and scientific institutions''.

Accommodated in two small offices in the Royal Society's rooms in Burlington House, it became as much a specialised labour exchange as an income provider. In 1936 the council's name was changed to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning.

At the end of the second world war 2,541 refugee scholars were registered with the society, most of them Germans and Austrians. Other refugees came from Czechoslovakia, Italy and Spain. The society's income from its formation to the outbreak of war was nearly Pounds 100,000, equivalent to about Pounds 6 million today, most of it from private individuals. The City of London kept its coffers closed.

Ray Cooper's book begins with a short history of the society and its long-time secretary, Esther Simpson, the heroine of his previous book Refugee Scholars who recently died in London aged 93. That history is followed by an account of a meeting at the Albert Hall in October 1933, where Einstein, in halting English, helped to launch a public appeal on its behalf. Next comes the text of Sir Claus Moser's 1992 Stefan Zweig lecture on "Britain's life in the arts and the influence of Jewish immigrants". Then comes a history of the Society for Visiting Scientists, a modest London club set up by the British Council in 1944 to help re-establish international contacts between scientists interrupted by the war. The book ends with reminiscences by Archibald Vivian Hill, physiologist, Nobel laureate and statesman of science who championed both societies.

Einstein was asked to appeal for the refugees without saying a word in condemnation of the Nazi regime. The academics who signed the appeal in The Times followed the same line in order not to embarrass the British government in its relations with Germany. The Nazis interpreted that silence as approval, and the British government as encouragement of its support of the Nazis as a bulwark against Communism. It is always a mistake not to speak out against evil. Moser recalls the remarks of that remarkable Christian, Pastor Niemoller, who wrote: "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out -because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Moser's lecture is a tribute to the refugees' part in making London a world centre of music. According to him they raised standards, heightened disciplined professionalism, discouraged dilettantism, widened artistic interest, and increased support and participation. Moser found that the Amadeus Quartet, three of whose members were refugees, achieved a major musical transformation in England. He writes that the Glyndebourne Opera, though founded by John Christie, owes its high quality to Fritz Busch from Dresden and Carl Ebert from Berlin. The Edinburgh Festival was Rudolf Bing's brainchild in 1947 and was run from 1965 to 1978 by Peter Diamond, another ex-refugee. George Solti, an ex-refugee from Hungary, has also exercised tremendous influence on London's music. Moser credits the Jewish immigrant musicians too with increasing the public's enthusiasm for music, so that about three million people now attend opera in Britain every year, and for raising the quality of British artists to a level that brings them engagements in opera houses around the world. He complains of the British Government's philistine view that public money spent on the arts is wasted, when in fact the arts raise far more money than they cost.

A. V. Hill's reminiscences focus on some of his activities during the second world war when the work of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning received a terrible setback. The government, fearing incorrectly that the refugee scholars had been infiltrated by German spies, interned about 500 of us and deported many, myself included, to Canada or Australia. Hill and Simpson worked tirelessly to convince the authorities that we were on Britain's side and were keen to play our part in the war against Hitler. When most of us had finally been released, Hill tried to convince government departments that we might be useful to the war effort, but he found himself up against a rule forbidding even British subjects with foreign-born parents from being employed by government departments. On the other hand, I have the impression that this prejudice gradually gave way and that most refugee scholars were eventually employed in the war effort. When Hill turned his diplomatic skills to getting American scientists' help in the war against Hitler before the United States had entered the war, he ran up against a similar suspicion of foreigners, not on the American, but on the British side, even though Britain had everything to gain from such collaboration. It took several months of fighting official obstruction before an official mission under Sir Henry Tizard was sent to Washington for scientific liaison with the Americans.

Cooper's book expresses Britain's debt to the refugee scholars and artists, but is largely silent about the debt we owe Britain, not just for providing us with shelter and work. Some years ago I ran into a former Viennese friend who asked: "What do you think of Fifi?" "Who's Fifi?'' I asked.

"Don't you remember, she was the girl with the dachshund."

"What about her?" "Don't you know that she emigrated to Kenya, became Joy Adamson, and wrote those wonderful books about her lions?'' Had Fifi remained in Vienna, she would have continued to keep dachshunds; it was her emigration that led her to keep a lioness. This story is symbolic of the greater opportunities many of us found in our new homes.

Max Perutz, OM, FRS, is a Nobel laureate in chemistry.

Retrospective Sympathetic Affection: A Tribute to the Academic Community

Author - Ray Cooper
ISBN - 0 9519411 1 9
Publisher - Moorland Books
Price - £11.70
Pages - 263

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