The Wiener Library

For the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide

Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust

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Britain and the Holocaust

Overview

The Wiener Library exhibition Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust considers British responses to the Holocaust and the Nazis’ antisemitic persecution. As the Nazi Party’s grip on power in Germany strengthened through the 1930s, the persecution of Jews intensified. The Nazi takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939 threatened the Jewish communities in these countries. In the midst of the Second World War, and particularly after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, mass killings of Jews began. By 1942, a plan for the systematic annihilation of the Jews of Europe was in place.

Whilst Britain’s role in fighting the Nazis during the Second World War is well known, its response to the Holocaust is less familiar. The British government was aware of the mass murder of the Jews, and the matter was discussed in Parliament as well as in the press.

The exhibition was a collaborative project between The Wiener Library and the Regional Ambassadors of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). One of the Regional Ambassadors, Imogen Dalziel wrote on the exhibition’s Thought Wall that “it has been such a privilege to work on this exhibition. I will continue to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive long after my work as a Regional Ambassador for the HET has come to an end."

Did Antisemitism affect British attitudes and policies towards refugees before the War?

Antisemitic attitudes were widespread in Britain in the 1930s, and fascist ideas gained support in some quarters, especially after Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany in January 1933. In 1932, in the context of the mass unemployment that had emerged during the Great Depression, Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF). By the mid-1930s the BUF were espousing radically antisemitic rhetoric. 

An indication of fascist antisemitic activities in Britain at the time can be found in The Reynolds News which reported in November 1933 that “police yesterday found large quantities of labels about 4in. x 1 ½ in. bearing the words ‘Down with the Jews,’” in the vicinity of Millbank and the Houses of Parliament.

This type of rhetoric alienated some of the the fascists' supporters, however, and anti-fascist movements, often led by the British Communist Party, fought back against BUF provocations. At the Battle of Cable Street on the 4th October 1936, hundreds of thousands of anti-fascist protesters blocked a fascist march through the Jewish area of London’s East End. A member of the Stepney Labour Party, William J. Fishman, described his first hand experiences of the Battle of Cable Street: “A forest of banners arose, born aloft, with the watchwords THEY SHALL NOT PASS emblazoned in a multi-variety of colour, with red predominately. Youngsters clustered at the rear of the marchers chanting ‘Mosley shall not pass!’ and ‘Bar the road to fascism!’”

Did Antisemitism affect British attitudes and policies towards refugees before the War?

Young refugee children during the Kindertransport in 1938. Wiener Library Photo Archive

Young refugee children during the Kindertransport in 1938

Image WL1582

The intensification of Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in the years preceding the war started a debate in Britain about whether Jewish refugees from these areas should be accepted. The Evian Conference, held to address the growing Jewish refugee crisis, took place between 6 - 15 July 1938 in France. However, most of the thirty-two countries present, including Britain, were not willing to expand their immigration quota.

Ultimately, approximately 80,000 Jewish refugees came to Britain, a fraction of the number that required help. A limited scheme, known as the Kindertransport, saw around 10,000 mostly unaccompanied children arrive in Britain in the months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

On the "Thought Wall" of the exhibition, many of our visitors paralleled the refugee crisis today to the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s; one visitor wrote, “very relevant for today as there have been calls for a modern day Kindertransport to keep Syrian refugee child find refuge. This again reveals how important this memory and we should learn from it.”

The first Kindertransport arrived in Britain in December 1938. Kindertransport refugee Hannalore Cohen recollects that “as a child, it was an adventure. You did not realise the seriousness of it. You never thought you would never see your parents again.”

Making Britain Home

Personal Stories: Harry Bibring

“Extremely impressive to see how many young people are taking an interest in the lives & fates of refugees & survivors. I find it so encouraging!”
         Message left on our Thoughts Wall

While the question remains of whether or not Britain could have opened its doors to more Jewish refugees, we know that for many of the thousands who arrived here, the country became home. Each of these individuals came having experienced different horrors. One visitor to the exhibition noted that “this is an exhibition that brings the lessons home. It’s great to see the formal lessons of the Holocaust alongside survivor testimony.” 

One Jewish refugee was Harry Bibring who was born 1925 in Vienna, Austria. After the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany) in 1938, Harry was forced to leave his grammar school and attend the secondary school designated to accommodate Jewish children. Harry’s father’s menswear business was looted and destroyed during the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht). His father was arrested and the family were forced to leave their flat. Shortly after Harry’s father was released, the family decided to leave Vienna. Harry’s parents decided he and his sister should leave for Britain on the Kindertransport. Harry explains that his “parents planned to follow my sister and me to England, and expected to obtain a visa on the grounds that they had children there being looked after by strangers. However, from the correspondence we received they found closed doors wherever they went and the outbreak of WWII made it even more difficult.”

Upon arrival in Britain, Harry and his sister were separated as there wasn’t enough room for Harry at the house in which his parents had arranged for the children to stay. Despite a turbulent childhood, Harry and his sister were later reunited, and Harry went on to settle in London, where he married Muriel and together they raised a son.

What did the British government know and how did it respond?

“A powerful exhibition of the truth. Every city in the UK should have a copy. A permanent & clear written testament to a dark time in History which must never, never be forgotten lest History repeats itself.”                                                                                 Visitor to the exhibition, Emmanuel Cohen

Although some argue that Britain did relatively little to provide aid to Jews during the Holocaust, this was not always due to lack of information about the atrocities being committed in Nazi-occupied Europe. Various sources, including the Polish government-in-exile and the Reigner Telegram, provided reliable information about the Nazi attempt to murder the Jews of Europe, as well as British Intelligence agents and resistance fighters. Polish resistance fighter, Jan Karski, reported to the Allies on the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the existence of extermination camps.

Following the growing body of intelligence on the subject, the British and US governments issued a joint declaration on behalf of the Allies on 17th December 1942, in which they described the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe. The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden MP, read the declaration in the House of Commons and in the following days it was widely reported in the press. The declaration highlighted the body of intelligence that the British and US governments had obtained about the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe.

“In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettoes established by the German invaders are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few highly skilled worked required for war industries. None of those take away are ever heard of again" (Extract from the Allied Declaration).

What did the British government know and how did it respond?

“A fantastic exhibition, very thought-provoking and incredibly relevant. When Britain’s response to the Holocaust is often presented positively in public discourse it is important to highlight the shortcomings of its action. We must learn that such inaction is not repeated, especially in the light of the current humanitarian crisis.”
                     Message left on our Thoughts Wall

In March 1943, the persecution of European Jewry was raised again after a proposal from Washington that the British and US governments should describe possible means of helping the persecuted. The Allies convened a conference in Bermuda but failed to propose any meaningful solutions.

The British government undoubtedly recognised the implications of the unfolding destruction of the European Jews. In the summer of 1944 Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the deportation of the Hungarian Jews was “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world”. However, in the midst of fighting an ongoing war, the government continued to follow the strategy that considered winning the war the only and ‘most effective’ way to save Jewish lives.

 

How did British society respond to the plight of the Jews in Europe as the Holocaust unfolded?

Responses to the persecution of European Jewry

 “Examines & tackles serious issue. Truly confronts Britain’s relationship with the Holocaust. Important to remember more could have been done. We will always remember!”
           Message left on our Thoughts Wall

‘Ordinary’ Britons had sympathy for persecuted Jews during the Holocaust but were often reluctant to identify them as special case of Nazi persecution. The murder of the Jews was viewed within the context of civilian suffering in wartime, and the British public were predominately focused upon supporting the war effort. Moreover, there was reluctance from the British Government to treat Jewish victims differently due to fears that this might spark antisemitic reactions amongst the public. On the 11th May 1943, Szmul Zygielbojm of the National Council of Polish government-in-exile committed suicide in London in protest over the apparent indifference of the Allies towards the persecution of the Jews.

A lack of prominent reporting in the media may have also contributed to the muted sympathy shown by the British public toward the Jews. The BBC in particular has been criticised for its lack of coverage. Robert Foot (then BBC Director-General) noted that too much focus on the persecution of the Jews “would be only likely to make matters worse, since the antisemites would demand the right to reply, which would be difficult to refuse.”

How did British society respond to the plight of the Jews in Europe as the Holocaust unfolded?

Response to German Jewish Refugees in Britain

“By looking at history, we know to what egoism, nationalism and angst leads us. Unfortunately, we do not seem to learn from it. Thank you, Wiener Library, for keeping up memory and holding facts together.”                                                                       Message left on our Thought Wall 

In 1939 nearly 4,000 German Jewish men were given visas to travel to the Kitchener Camp at Richborough near Sandwich, Kent. Many of them had previously been imprisoned in Nazi Concentration Camps. Cultural life at the camp flourished and fears about the influx of refugees inflaming local tensions and giving momentum to British fascists did not materialise.

In 1940 many German and Austrian Jewish refugees were interned, usually briefly, as ‘enemy aliens.’ Ludwig Neumann, who had previously been a prisoner at Dachau Concentration Camp was briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man; at the end of the war Ludwig attempted to re-establish his family business in Germany, but eventually returned and settled in Britain. 

 

Was the liberation of the camps the end of the story?

On 15 April 1945, the British Army’s 11th Armoured Division liberated Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. They encountered more than 60,000 surviving prisoners and some 13,000 corpses. A further 14,000 victims died during the first month after liberation due to disease and malnourishment. Widespread media coverage of the conditions discovered by the troops in Bergen-Belsen and the ensuing relief efforts made a great impact on British public opinion.

British journalist Richard Dimbleby, who reported from Belsen remembered that, “as we went deeper into the camp and further from the main gate, we saw more and more of the horrors of the place and I realised that what is so ghastly is not so much the individual act of barbarism that take place in SS camps, but the gradual breakdown of civilisation that happens when human beings are herded like animals behind barbed wire”.

Many survivors were unable to return to their homes or did not wish to do so due to the destruction of their communities and on-going antisemitism. But options for emigration were limited. British post­war immigration policy towards European refugees was shaped by contradictory pressures. On one hand, sympathy towards victims led to the arrival of a few thousand Jewish refugees via the Distressed Relatives Scheme in late 1945, and through sponsorship by the Central British Fund which allowed 732 Jewish teenagers, later nicknamed ‘the Boys’ (although their numbers included around 80 girls) to come to Britain. 

Making Britain Home

Personal Stories: Gena Turgel

"To ensure the legacy of the survivors worlds is vital. It is our duty to learn from these incredible men and women. It is our responsibility and duty to carry their words.”
                   Message left on our Thoughts Wall

Gena Turgel endured the horrors of the Nazi Ghettos, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and as a Holocaust survivor, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Gena was born in Krakow, Poland in 1923 - the youngest of nine children. She was just 16 when the Nazis bombarded the city in 1939. Her family were first expelled from Krakow in 1940 and then forced into the Krakow ghetto when it was created in 1941. Gena was subsequently forced into the Plaszow labour camp from where she was later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She endured a gruelling death march and found herself, in February 1945, in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Gena was at Bergen-Belsen for three months, where she worked in the hospital. 

Amongst the liberators of Bergen-Belsen was Norman Turgel – the man who, within six months, would become Gena’s husband. Gena remembers their wedding, “We were married by Rabbi Leslie Hartman, who was the first British Army Chaplain to enter Bergen-Belsen. He later said that he saw our wedding as a symbol of life after death. We arrived in England on 10th November 1945. All of Fleet Street heard we were coming, and dozens of reporters and photographers were waiting for us at St. Pancras station. The papers were full of headlines: ‘The Bride from Belsen is here!’ I felt as if I had come from outer space. In 1946 my Mother’s immigration papers came through and she was able to move into a flat on our floor. Seeing her again was the joy of my life.”

Was the liberation of the camps the end of the story?

Immigration policy proved largely unwilling to accommodate refugees unless they could support themselves. Due to post-war labour shortages, some policies, such as the European Volunteers Workers (EVW) scheme, offered opportunities to particular national groups to enter Britain, but not Jews. In 1947, the EVW programme primarily helped Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians, among them were people who had served in auxiliary police forces or the Waffen-SS under the Nazis. The British government made little effort to prevent their immigration. 

Languishing in Displaced Persons (DP) camps across liberated Europe, many Jewish survivors yearned to go to Palestine, to which the British sought (largely unsuccessfully) to restrict access. Thus immigration to Britain in the immediate post-war years largely excluded Jews, while possibly allowing war criminals to enter the country. There are known cases of ‘illegal’ immigration of Jews occurring, and there are also known cases of British immigration restrictions being successfully implemented. The Exodus ship in 1947 carried 4,500 Jewish refugees, and sailed to Palestine from southern France despite British restrictions on Jewish immigration. The British intercepted the ship and forced it to proceed to Haifa port and then back to France. Those aboard were forcibly returned to DP camps in Germany, and unable to start a new life in Palestine.

Lazar Kleinmann wrote to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Team 182 after he was settled in Manchester. Team 182 was responsible for overseeing Kloster Indersdorf, a home for displaced children. Before it closed on 30 June 1949, Kloster Indersdorf housed over 300 young Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs).

Making Britain Home

Personal Stories: Kitty Hart-Moxon

“I remember reading Kitty Hart's book ‘I am Alive’ when I was about eight years old. Having now seen this exhibition I must have been 9. It had a profound effect and I will never forget it.
      Message left on our Thoughts Wall

Kitty was born in Bielsko, Poland. Following the German invasion in 1939, she and her family fled to Lublin, but within weeks the Nazis occupied the city and established the Lublin Ghetto. For the next six years, Kitty and her mother survived slave labour, over two years in Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp – where Kitty witnessed the relentless killing that took place – and a two-week death march in sub-zero temperature. Kitty was liberated from Salzwedel Concentration Camp in Germany on 14 April 1945. Kitty and her mother were the only survivors of their family. In 1946, Kitty and her mother received permits to settle in the UK were their only remaining relatives had been living. They found this a hard period of readjustment. Kitty recollects that on arrival her “Uncle was waiting at Dover. The moment we got into the car he staggered us by staying firmly: ‘Before we go off to Birmingham there’s one thing I must make quite clear. On no account are you to talk about any of the things that have happened to you. Not in my house. I don’t want my girls upset. And I don’t want to know.’”

However, from the time of liberation Kitty felt it was her duty, to speak out about her experiences and warn of the consequences of intolerance, racism and hatred. In 1951 Kitty published I am Alive, thought to be the first written testimony to be published by a survivor living in Britain. A note from Kitty’s granddaughter on our exhibition’s Thoughts Wall read “I was very excited to my grandma’s first edition of I am Alive. Not seen it before. Good luck to all involved on spreading more great work.”

In 1979 Kitty appeared in Yorkshire TVs documentary Return to Auschwitz, where her testimony was able to reach a wider audience than ever before. Both, her publication and the documentary, were pivotal in shaping Britain’s understanding of survivors experiences and ensuring that the voices of survivors were heard around the country.

Remembering the Holocaust in Britain

“Wonderful to be connecting youth with elders to learn about the Holocaust. I live in Canada – Newfoundland, and my godmother who is from Vienna was a Kindertransport child and grateful to Britain, is now telling her story to high school students about the loss of her family to the Holocaust. The most powerful way to teach and effect change."
             Message left on our Thoughts Wall

In 2010 the British Government formally honoured 27 British citizens for their actions in helping Jews and others escape persecution during the Second World War. The British Heroes of the Holocaust Award was designed to officially acknowledge the sacrifices that these individuals had made. A further four individuals were honoured in 2013.

This award reminds us that there were people in Britain who refused to stand by as the Nazis tried to murder the Jews of Europe including, the driving-force of the Czech Kindertransport, Sir Nicholas Winton. It also highlights Britain’s evolving relationship with its own history – with time survivors started speaking out, interest in the Holocaust and what had happened grew, and the actions of British people during that period were acknowledged. 

Whilst we remember the people who made sacrifices to save those who were persecuted by the Nazis and their collaborators, the sad truth is that history shows us that rescuers were a minority in Britain and across Europe. Visitor Aadi Shashivot expressed the impact of the exhibition for him, “I am a Indian boy 10 years old I was surprised that something like this could actually happen but then still sadly things like this still happen.”

 

Visitor Voice, Thought and Responses to the Exhibiton

A key aim of the exhibition was to provide the space to give visitors an opportunity to reflect. Visitor voice, thought and responses towards the exhibition, Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust are embedded within this online exhibition, and can be further seen as a Storify article.

It is interesting to note the connection and relevance of Britain's past to our current political, economic and social crisis, in particlar reference to the current refugee crisis. One of our current blog writers, Elizabeth Fraser published an acocunt of her visit to the exhibiton entitled, Exhibition Review: Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain And The Holocaust.

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