This post was written by Dr Clare George, Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert-Miller Trust Archivist at the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Institute of Modern Language Studies. Dr Clare George will be leading three walking tours, “On the Trail of Refugees in 1930s Bloomsbury“, as part of the Being Human festival.

In this post Clare George, Miller Archivist at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, looks into the archives at how German-speaking refugees from Nazi Europe were forced to migrate to new and often unwelcoming worlds. The Institute’s archives of German exile document some of the challenges the refugees faced as they tried to establish new lives in the years that followed emigration.

From the papers and other possessions that the refugees brought with them, we see traces of some of the limited paths to the world outside Germany for the Jewish community.  Austrian actor Martin Miller’s last few months inside the Reich were spent working for the Jüdische Kulturbund theatre in Berlin, the only remaining Jewish cultural organisation in Germany. On a playbill he brought with him to the UK in March 1939, occupying half the front page, is an advert for the travel agency ‘Palestine & Orient Lloyd’, offering the possibility of passage to Palestine, North and South and Central America, Africa and Australia. The agency assisted thousands of Jews with emigration from Nazi Germany, but for most people such options remained out of reach.

Jüdischer Kulturbund playbill, 1939, Miller 6/2/1/1 (copyright unknown)

Even those who found refuge in countries closer to home, like the UK, would often have had a sense of entering a new world. Britain was a distant and unknown country for many refugees, quite remote from the social and cultural world from which they had come. The sense of alienation and difference many felt on arrival would have intensified as they experienced overwhelming changes in their personal circumstances: the loss of status, financial security, social networks and even the means of communicating and expressing themselves.

Trudi Ascher, born in Berlin in 1899 came to the UK in 1939 as a domestic servant. In her short memoir written in 1965, she recalled how on arrival at her first placement, she ‘had tears in my eyes and thought of my dear father. If he had seen my new home (the kitchen) he was have been very disappointed’. She described the moment of realising her old life was over, when she saw another refugee on her knees scrubbing the floor. ‘I felt sorry for her, and for myself, for from then on I had to go into a household as a cook and perhaps I would also have to do the scrubbing like the woman’.

Ascher with another refugee domestic servant, Edith Wildorf, c. 1944, EXS.2.WIL (Copyright of Rosemary J. Park)

For many refugees, the first and most enduring difficulty to overcome in the new world was language. Like other refugees who registered with the support organisations at Bloomsbury House, Helene Bondy was issued with guidance on how to adapt to life in Britain by the German Jewish Aid Committee. At the top of their list was that advice that refugees should learn English as soon as possible and avoid speaking in German in public at all costs. Such instructions were not always easy to follow, but for the avoidance of conflict with the authorities, they were highly pertinent. Helene’s son Paul Bondy recorded in a letter in July 1941 that he had been taken in to Saville Row Police Station for questioning and accused of making pro-German and anti-British remarks, simply for speaking in German in a café with another refugee whose English was poor.

‘While you are in England: Helpful information and guidance for every refugee’, by the German Jewish Aid Committee, 1940, PCB temp/1h (Copyright of the Board of Deputies of British Jews)

Even for those who were well-travelled and spoke English well, moving between worlds was not easy or smooth. Viennese exile artist Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag and her husband Josef Berger left their family and friends in Austria first for Palestine in 1934, where he had an architectural commission. With little prospect of finding further work there, Berger-Hamerschlag left for the UK ahead of her husband in December 1935 to find them a place to live in London. Her letter written on board MS-Banaderos of her 11-day journey from Palestine to Dieppe across the rough waters of the Mediterranean Sea suggests a dreamy enchantment with the African coast on one side and the European coast on the other, as she imagined the lives they might live were they to settle there. Her initial enthusiasm for the UK was challenged, however, by the reality of the following years of poverty, separation from friends and the internment of her husband in 1940. Even after the war, like many other UK exiles, Berger-Hamerschlag was never able to re-establish the successful career she had had in Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Ink illustration from a letter from Josef Berger in Palestine to Margarete Berger Hamerschlag in London, 1936, MBH 2/3 (Copyright of UoL)

For a small number of refugees, emigrating to start a new life was a more planned decision. According to his former colleague at the newspaper of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, journalist Robert Lucas decided in 1934 that since there was little hope of finding in Austrofascist Austria, he would ‘go to England, to try to make a new life’ (RLU 11/21). Lucas was lucky in having steady employment as a journalist even in the early years of his new life in the UK, and joined the BBC’s German Service in 1938. It may have only been on his first post-war return to Vienna that he became aware how ‘normal’ the new world of the UK had become to him:

I was in Vienna in 1946. It was a disturbing experience. The city was then still in pain, the people were hungry. It was a nerve-wracking to walk through the streets, which had become so foreign to me and yet were still somehow familiar and were filled with the ghosts of so many dead. (Letter to Gustav, 1949, translated from the German by CG, RLU 10/2)

The refugee experiences considered in this blog are based on archival material donated to the IMLR and managed by Senate House Library on behalf of the Institute. The archivist is grateful to members of the Institute’s Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, whose work has helped with interpreting and contextualising some of this material. Further information about the archive can be found here: